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A beer sits on the bar at Tumbleweed Brewing and Wine Co. on Main Street in Yuma on Feb. 13, 2019. Vicki Bushner and her husband, Trent, a Yuma County Commissioner, remodeled a grocery store to develop the city's first brewery. (Austin Humphreys, Special to The Colorado Sun)

IDAHO SPRINGS — Imagine a day when you can order any beer and decide how much alcohol to include in the glass.

If you want one beer, keep it moderate. If you plan to drink for longer, make it lower or even move to nonalcoholic. All on demand in any style with similar quality.

The idea is revolutionary, and the day it could become reality is much closer than you think. In fact, the first taste of the concept is pouring now from the taps at Tommyknocker Brewery in Idaho Springs.

The longtime, high-country brewer is now offering three styles of beer in two different versions. Right now, each is served at both 5% alcohol by volume and 1% or less, making it essentially nonalcoholic. One day, consumers could decide the alcohol level themselves.

“That’s the future — alcohol by choice,” says Steve Indrehus, the Tommyknocker operations director.

Steve Indrehus, the operations director at Tommyknocker Brewery in Idaho Springs, shows off the packets that connect to the NexDraft system from Sustainable Beverage Technologies. One bag is a high-density beer and the other is neutral alcohol that combine with carbonated water when pouring a beer. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The vision is becoming reality through the brewery’s new partnership with Sustainable Beverage Technologies, a Wheat Ridge-based company with a patented method of brewing that removes the alcohol and a draft system that allows the server to decide how much alcohol to add to the glass when it’s poured.

The push to create full-flavored nonalcoholic, or low-alcohol, beers reflects a broader industry push to reach consumers who want alternatives to boozy and bold craft beers. It comes as beer sales stagnate and brewers look to diversify and reach broader audiences.

In Tommyknocker’s case, it’s also a sign of how legacy Colorado brewers are trying to reinvent themselves. The 25-year-old brewery, a popular stop for mountain adventurers off Interstate 70, also just debuted a new soda line, and now it’s exploring hard seltzers.

“Innovation is the key to this industry, and Tommyknocker being a heritage brewery, we struggled to stay relevant with all the new breweries popping up,” Indrehus explains.

MORE: To appeal to calorie-counting drinkers, Colorado’s craft brewers are taking new approaches

The industry sees potential for beer in a bag

Tommyknocker is one of a handful of breweries nationwide, including New Belgium and Crazy Mountain, that are collaborating with Sustainable Beverage Technologies, but it’s one of the only ones in Colorado serving “alcohol by choice” beers — the term coined by the company. Two other draft systems just debuted at bars in Arvada and Golden.

The consumer experience is just one part of what SBT is reinventing in the beer world. The company is essentially trying to upend the entire beer market down to the keg, which founder Patrick Tatera wants to make obsolete.

He started with Pat’s Backcountry Beverages, a beer-making system for hikers and travelers that includes a carbonator and beer concentrate kit. But he’s evolved the company to reinvent how beer is produced, packaged, shipped and dispensed. “The much bigger opportunity to make a meaningful impact is the broader market at large,” Tatera says.

When it comes to making beer, SBT starts with the same four ingredients as every brewer — water, malt, hops and yeast. But from there, the method shifts to what the company calls continuous fermentation that brews a high-density beer that is magnitudes stronger than the average brew. And, in the process, the alcohol is removed.

Sustainable Beverage Technologies, a Wheat Ridge-based company, makes Neologik beer for serving on its NexDraft system, which combines high-density beer, alcohol and carbonated water when a glass is poured. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

In the case of Tommyknocker, SBT is cloning the brewer’s recipes on its own system, or making a new beer under its label Neologik Brewing. The beer is then packaged in a bag and distributed with a packet of neutral-flavored alcohol. Both are combined with carbonated water as the beer is poured, all of it controlled by a digital tuner that regulates the amount of alcohol to what the brewery sets.

“It’s the exact same beer, same exact batch, but just by the way it is dispensed, the brewer can offer that beer at a variety of ABVs,” Tatera explains.

The two-packet system means brewers aren’t paying to ship a keg that is mostly water, and it’s more shelf-stable, meaning it stays fresher longer. Both qualities are important for Tommyknocker, which ships beer to its other location in Helsinki, Finland.

“I think this could revolutionize the beer world,” Indrehus says. “Some people, it scares in the beer world, and some people, say it’s great.”

A look inside the beer case at Tommyknocker Brewery in Idaho Springs. The brewery was founded in 1994. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The challenge is replicating the flavor of traditional beer

But first, the trick is making the final product taste like a traditional beer. The SBT version tastes like beer, but it’s not as good as the original edition.

SBT is making two new versions of Tommyknocker’s best-selling beer, Blood Orange IPA, and both taste different from the original made at the brewery. The packet beer is sweeter, less crisp and not as bright in terms of citrus flavor. 

A nonalcoholic beer will always taste different because of how the alcohol changes the flavor perception. Indrehus says it is much more flavorful than traditional low-alcohol beers, but there’s room to improve. “It’s really encouraging first run,” he says. “And they will match the beers going down the line. For the first try, it’s really successful.”

Best Colorado beer survey: A look at the favorite beers and breweries in 2019 and ones to watch in the next year

The other hurdle is educating the consumers. It’s a challenge to explain how it works and what’s different, so Tommyknocker is not doing much to promoting the 5% and 1% versions of its beer from the SBT draft system. 

But it gets noticed by consumers who are looking to have more than one beer before and need a lower-octane brew. “We just have it here,” Indrehus says, “and for some people, it just catches their attention.”

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.