DU Alumni

University College graduate is the brains behind one of Denver’s oldest craft breweries

Great Divide founder Brian Dunn hoists a beer on the land in north Denver that will eventually house the company's second brewing facility. Photo courtesy of Great Divide Brewing Co.

Great Divide founder Brian Dunn hoists a beer on the land in north Denver that will eventually house the company’s second brewing facility. Photo courtesy of Great Divide Brewing Co.

As the sheer number of Colorado craft breweries at Denver’s annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF) makes clear, the state has become a mecca for microbrewers. More than 125 Colorado breweries — out of some 700 nationwide — are taking part in the 2014 GABF, which runs Oct. 2–4 at the Colorado Convention Center.

But Denver wasn’t always so beer-friendly. Back in 1994, before there was a tasting room on every block, University of Denver alumnus Brian Dunn founded Great Divide Brewing Co., making him one of the elder statesmen in the American craft beer scene.

Other craft breweries existed in Denver in the early ’90s — Wynkoop, Breckenridge and Rock Bottom chief among them — but Great Divide was the first to forgo the brewpub model and focus exclusively on brewing beer that could be sold in liquor stores and local restaurants.

“In the early years it was pretty hard,” says Dunn (MEPM ’92) , who came up with the concept for Great Divide while studying for his master’s degree in environmental policy and management at the University of Denver’s University College. “I worked for a long time without getting paid, but even when there was no money, we were still paying [our employees], buying ingredients, buying glass, because you didn’t have a choice. But it’s my passion, it’s what I wanted to do, and damn it, I was going to make it go.”

Dunn also helped pave the way for Denver’s smaller breweries of today, which don’t have to work nearly as hard to convince restaurants and consumers that craft beer is worth drinking.

“I do think it’s easier [for new breweries] now than before — we had to work pretty hard to get good restaurants to carry our beer,” Dunn says. “A lot of the older breweries were beating their heads against the wall getting their beer in these places, doing beer dinners and presentations to the staff — it was all about education. Now, every new restaurant that opens has great beer on tap.”

Great Divide has seen the fruits of the craft-beer explosion as well; the brewery now distributes in 18 states, has received five World Beer Cup awards, was rated 12th in Ratebeer.com’s 2013 “Best Brewers in the World,” and was rated seventh in Beer Advocate’s 2010 “All-Time Top Brewers.” The Denver Business Journal put Great Divide seventh on its 2013–14 list of Colorado Craft Brewers, which ranks breweries by number of barrels produced.

Great Divide also is a longtime presence at the GABF, at which craft brewers from around the country come to share their product, commune with beer lovers and fellow brewers, and enter their brews into competition. Over the years, Great Divide has taken home 18 GABF medals.

“I love it,” Dunn says of the festival. “There are 55,000 people who are madly crazy about beer. We go there and we pour beer, and people care about beer, and they want to talk to you about making beer, they want to come in here and see the place — it’s awesome.”

Dunn’s route to craft beer was a bit circuitous — he grew up in Vermont, earned a degree in agriculture and soil sciences from Colorado State University, then got a job with a Fort Collins-based company that develops farms in Third World and developing countries.

“We built 40 center-pivot irrigation systems in the desert of Algeria, then I worked in Portugal trying to get a strawberry project going, then I worked on the sales and marketing side of a company that took fruits and vegetables grown in South America and shipped them to North America and Europe,” he says. When it came time to open his brewery, “I knew how to write a business plan, I knew how to buy large amounts of equipment, to get projects going in a fairly tough environment, and I knew how to sell it.”

He also knew how to develop ideas in collaboration with others, a skill he honed in his classes at the University of Denver.

“All of a sudden you’re working with three people, and you have to come up with a presentation, which I never had to do as an undergraduate,” he says. “That’s a lot of real world. That’s like work: Let’s figure this project out and convince a bigger group why this makes sense. That’s real life. That was really cool.”




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