In February 1997, Freddy Bensch founded SweetWater Brewing with his Boulder, Colo., high-school buddy, Kevin McNerney. Fast-forward 14 years, one important move from Fulton Industrial to Ansley Park, and myriad national awards, and Bensch, whose official brewery title is Big Kahuna, finds himself at the helm of what the Brewers Association last year named the 27th largest craft brewery in the country, according to sales volume. (To put this distinction in perspective: There are more than 1,700 craft breweries nationwide.) Creative Loafing sat down with Bensch a couple weeks in advance of SweetWater's rather epic forthcoming expansion to talk about how he got here and what's next.
Describe your first beer experience.
Jesus, I guess I should've read up on this. [laughs] I'll tell you what we used to do out in California where we grew up: St. Ides forties. The sticker on the bottle said, "This beer contains the highest alcohol of any beer on this shelf." As a 16-year-old, of course that resonated. With our fake ID and all, we proceeded to buy as many as we could fit on our bikes, and we drank 'em all. Let me tell you, I didn't feel the same for two weeks.
You've spent a lot of time sitting at this bar in your tasting room. Thinking back, do any notable people who you've shared this room with come to mind?
You never know who's going to walk in the door. I could talk to you or someone who's driven up from Miami. Blondie read a fucking four-hour poem in here one time. We brought her in for Michael Goot's [former SweetWater "Beer Pimp," current owner of Ormsby's] birthday party, and she wrote and read a poem. It was never-ending.
As a part of SweetWater's expansion and renovation, you're increasing your barreling capacity by five times: 100,000 to 500,000 barrels. That's a pretty staggering figure.
When it's all said and done, we'll go from being able to do what we're doing now to double that, with the propensity to take it further. Out of the gate, we're not gonna go that big. Theoretically, on paper, you could do it, but right now, we wanna focus on quality of beer. We have this saying, "Local beer for local folks." The further you push your beer out, the worse it is for the environment, the higher the opportunity it has to go out of date, the less people know about who we are.
You mention the environment, and the forthcoming solar array on the rooftop is part of the renovation, but do you think craft brewers in general are doing enough to lessen their impact on the world around them?
It is mind-blowing the ways you can actually participate in that area. In our industry, you have ample ways to participate in that. I think the low-tier, easy-hanging fruit? I think we are. Our community is very oriented in that fashion. But once you knock off the low-hanging fruit, I think it becomes more difficult in that you have large, monetary things. Across the board, it gets spendier. But as an industry, yes, I think we're very much about it.