Ska Brewing Bets on Hard Seltzer, Low-Calorie IPA in 2020; Plans to Open ‘Brewstillery’ in March

After posting a 6% decline in volume in 2019, Durango, Colorado-based Ska Brewing has refreshed its packaging and launched a hard seltzer line, with plans to to release a low-calorie IPA and open a brewery and distillery in Boulder, in an effort to find new avenues to grow the business.

Ska co-founder and president Dave Thibodeau shared details of the new projects with Brewbound.

New Products & Packaging

In late December, Ska launched its own hard seltzer line, “The Hard Seltzer,” in 12-packs of three flavors: blood orange, hibiscus lime and black raspberry. So far, The Hard Seltzer’s sales are on par with Ska’s flagship IPA, Modus Hoperandi.

“I feel really good about that because we released a clear sparkling light beverage right in the middle of winter, and I’m optimistic that those sales will continue to climb as soon as the weather warms up,” Thibodeau said. “Nationally, it doesn’t seem like the seasonality is actually slowing down seltzer sales, but I think in Colorado it’ll pick up in the summer. There’s just no doubt about it.”

Adding hard seltzer, a gluten-free and so-called better-for-you product, to the menu at Ska’s Durango taproom has driven incremental sales to consumers who don’t drink beer, Thibodeau added. He estimated that 75% of Ska’s seltzer-drinking guests are new customers.

Hard seltzer isn’t the only trend Ska is capitalizing on. In March, the company will release 100-calorie, 4% ABV IPA called Aggro Lite, which is named after reggae band The Aggrolites, who played Ska’s anniversary party last year, Thibodeau said.

Meanwhile, cans with art reflecting Ska’s brand refresh began rolling out to retailers this week. The new packaging for Ska’s core lineup lacks the comic book characters that were once a hallmark of the brand. However, the new design retains Ska’s bright colors and black-and-white checkerboard stripe.

“I always thought our labels were pretty cool, and they all told their own story, but really there’s not a consistent look on the shelf,” Thibodeau said. “It doesn’t provide any kind of a billboard if you have multiple brands on a shelf.”

The addition of a new labeling machine will also enable Ska to brew small batches to meet market demands. For example, Ska is developing a sour beer brewed with rhubarb for the Minnesota market, where the company’s sour ale Pink Vapor Stew is among the company’s best-selling offerings.

“Now, we have the ability to specialize,” Thibodeau said.

New Facility

The impending March opening of Ska Street, the company’s combined production and retail facility for Ska Brewing and its sister company, Peach Street Distillers, in Boulder marks a pivot in strategy for the nearly 25-year-old craft brewery.

The company’s volumes declined nearly 6%, to 29,000 barrels, in 2019, according to Thibodeau.

Ska’s production volume had remained fairly steady between 30,000 barrels and 34,000 barrels from 2014 to 2018, according to trade group the Brewers Association.

“We’ve seen this coming,” Thibodeau explained. “We’ve been slowing down for a couple years, and we knew we had to have a different strategy, so this is really the first step moving toward a little bit different model. But it’s really cool because we incorporate the distillery all in one space.

“Both businesses already exist, so we have a bit of a handle on what we’re doing and it takes a lot of the guesswork out,” he added.

Ska Street will occupy a space formerly held by Fate Brewing, which closed in May 2019 after filing for bankruptcy.

The addition of a new facility in Boulder was both personal and professional for Thibodeau and co-founder Bill Graham. Both grew up in the Boulder area, which is also Ska’s biggest market outside of Durango. However, the company didn’t have a brick-and-mortar presence in the city..

“People that live in the small town of Durango get to try all these beers we experiment with, but no one in the Front Range ever sees them,” Thibodeau said. “We’ll be able to replicate that up there, and that’s really what that system is all about.”

The Boulder facility will have a 10-barrel brewhouse that Thibodeau expects to produce up to 1,000 barrels in its first year.

Ska has hired Damon Scott as the new facility’s head “brewstiller.” In addition to brewing beer for Ska, Scott will distill spirits for Peach Tree.

Scott joined Ska after serving as technical brewing projects coordinator for the BA, which is also headquartered in Boulder. A general manager and assistant general manager are also on board and an executive chef will follow soon.

“We have the key people in place and in the next two weeks we’ll be hiring another 60-ish people for the front of the house and the back of the house,” Thibodeau said.

The taproom will feature 30 taps, which Thibodeau expects to fill with Ska flagships, Boulder-made offerings, cider, collaboration brews and beers from the new brewery’s neighbors.

“A couple of breweries have already reached out that want to do ‘Welcome to Boulder’ collaborations, so we’ll hopefully have those on tap right out of the gate,” Thibodeau said.

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