Melvin Brewing Co. Goes Off the Grid

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Melvin Brewing Co. co-founder Jeremy Tofte is an unconventional guy. He lives in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, which he drives to beer festivals across the country. The van has everything he needs: his mountain bike, snowboards, surfboards, TV and a PlayStation.

“I’ve been on the road for about two years now,” Tofte told Brewbound last week. “Now I can be on the road in style and comfort.”

Tofte’s version of mobile-home living started a couple of years ago. Rents in his home of Jackson, Wyoming, were skyrocketing. Meanwhile, Tofte found himself on the road promoting Melvin Brewing, which he co-founded with Kirk McHale in 2009, more than at home.

“It just came down to economics,” Tofte said. “It didn’t make sense to pay crazy money to live in Jackson since I’m on road so much, and I’d be living there part-time.”

For a year, Tofte lived in an old patrol bus. Then he upgraded to the sprinter van.

“It’s so much nicer to have your own house wherever you go,” he said. “Maybe someday Jackson will be affordable.”

Tofte wasn’t alone in struggling with living in Wyoming. Last year, despite opening a new 30-barrel in Alpine, Wyoming, Melvin struggled to find brewers willing to take the job.

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“It’s not that easy to get people to move to the middle of nowhere,” Tofte said. “It takes a special person to move to Alpine, Wyoming, to make amazing beer.”

The challenge of attracting brewers ended up affecting Melvin’s ability to produce. Last year, the brewery — named 2015’s Small Brewer of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival — produced just under 8,500 barrels of beer, Tofte told Brewbound.

“We would have done more, but we just couldn’t find enough brewers right away,” he said.

But now, Tofte thinks he’s found the right people. Dave Chichura, a veteran brewer with stints at Oskar Blues and Bell’s, answered the call to lead the Alpine production brewery. Meanwhile, co-founder Kirk McHale is holding down Melvin’s 3-barrel system in Jackson. And Tofte credited Andrea Baillo, the company’s quality assurance and lab manager, with helping the company scale up its 3-barrel batches to 30-barrel batches while keeping Melvin’s beer consistent.

“She tests every single batch from beginning to end,” Tofte said. “She’s got our back and she’s going to make sure every beer meets our expectations.”

With the team in place, Melvin has been able to ramp up production — there’s an expected 15,000 barrels coming out of its breweries this year, and up to 20,000 next, the result of installing six new 240-barrel fermentation tanks at its Alpine facility, a project that is expected to be completed later this year.

“We just want to grow smart and not start pushing into markets that we are not ready for and that aren’t ready for us Tofte said.

Melvin’s growth plan will be driven by the recent hire of a new national sales director, Ted Whitney, who previously served as a sales director for Avery Brewing and 21st Amendment. Tofte said Whitney’s decade or so of experience should help Melvin grow in a smart way.

Melvin will build its distribution footprint slowly, Tofte said. In the next couple of years, the plan is to conquer California, starting in craft beer haven San Diego as well as Los Angeles and eventually moving toward the middle of the state.

As for the East Coast, Tofte has already held meetings with distributors, but East Coast sales in New York and Boston likely will not occur until 2019.

“At least we have it on the radar now,” he said, “so that when we do do it, we do it right.”

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Tofte in ninja mode

Those are lofty goals for someone crisscrossing the coasts in a van. But Melvin Brewing has learned from its Portland, Oregon, distribution expansion on how to grow slowly, even if the Beervana launch went a little too well, Tofte told Brewbound.

“If we hadn’t opened Portland, everything would be chill and we’d be making beer at an easy pace,” he said. “That took us to the next stratosphere.”

So Melvin will build deeper roots in the territories that already carry the brewery’s beer: Wyoming, Portland, Denver and Seattle. Digging deeper into Washington state, Melvin Brewing is opening a 7-barrel brewpub in Tofte’s hometown of Bellingham, a city of about 82,000 people, in mid-April.

“They have some of the best mountain biking in the country there,” Tofte said. “So why not put a brewery there?”

Although Melvin is known for IPAs, Tofte said he expects the brewpub will offer something completely different to drinkers: Swedish beers.

“Everyone expects us to make IPAs,” Tofte said. “We already got those on lockdown. I’m so excited. There are no hops in these. There’s none. And they’ll like it.”

Sales of Melvin’s flagship IPAs — Melvin IPA and 2×4 Double IPA, which won gold medals at the 2012 Great American Beer Fest and 2014 World Beer Cup — were “just gangbusters” last year, Tofte said.

“We just couldn’t make enough of them all last summer,” Tofte said. “It was out of control.”

Melvin won’t stray from its IPA ethos this year. The brewery will debut four different imperial IPAs during Melvin’s multi-city 2×4 Day celebration on February 4 — a party with a spokesman this year, lumber-toting 1980s pro wrestling star “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan.

The company’s growth belies a strict adherence to maintaining demand: The four beers in its prestigious RIIPA (Rotation Imperial IPAs) Series — Imperial IPA, Drunken Master Imperial IPA, Citradamus Imperial IPA and Lambda Triple IPA — will be available on draft and in cans throughout the year. However, no two beers will be served within the same state at the same time, with the exception of 2×4 Day, Tofte said.

“We slayed it every single time,” Tofte said. “We haven’t made a bad beer.”