Horse & Dragon… It brings back so many good memories. I visited their brewery in Fort Collins, CO back in November and liked ALL of their beers. How often does that really happen? This is high-definition craft beer, folks. In short, I’m a fan!
I met briefly with owner Tim, who was kind enough to give me a quick tour of the brewery. And here we are, about two months later, virtually sitting down with Tim Cochran and his wife Carol to learn more about their craft. Ready?
Tell us about the team
Our team is made up of 8 full-time Horse & Dragon folks and an awesome set of 11 part-time tasting room staff who all have other jobs in their outside lives, but love craft beer in general and, we hope and think, H&D in particular, so are willing to work a few hours a week for us here.
Josh Evans is our Head Brewer and moved here from Oregon to take the job. He studied fermentation, food science & chemistry at OSU and then worked for a brewery in Oregon before joining us. We also have 2 other brewers, Rob and Doug. Luke, Jae, Scott and John are our sales/delivery people (not counting Tim and me, who occasionally run kegs as well of course), and Trina, one of our daughters, is our bookkeeper/graphic designer/tasting room coordinator/Jane-of-all-trades (our other daughter, Tatum, works part-time in the tasting room and has a full-time job as an event/marketing person at a great local business called Ginger & Baker).
We are very definitely a small and family-run business —if you’re not related by blood to us but you work here, you’re sucked into being part of the family, with all the dysfunction and joy that entails. That fits better for some folks than others — it’s not for everyone, which is one of the things we’ve learned in the last 5 years! But we sure do appreciate the folks who thrive in a small-business, family environment.
How did you guys get involved in craft beer?
Tim and I had our first craft beers back in the Dark Ages of the craft renaissance. We went to school at Stanford in Northern CA, and one night my senior year he introduced me to this new bar “where they make the beer right there. You can see the tanks and everything.” It was a novel concept to us at 21 and 22. The beer was so much more delicious than what we had been drinking (you know!). That was at the Tied House in Mountain View — which we visited again a few years ago and is still in business today.
We graduated and started moving many places around the world: Hong Kong, Guam, Taiwan, Vietnam, Wisconsin, Colombia. All along the way and on every vacation back to Colorado (where I grew up) and Oregon (where Tim grew up) we sampled craft beer. Colorado and Oregon in those years were really sparking the craft revolution, so there was always a plethora of new beers, breweries, and flavors to try. Tim started homebrewing during these years, and made some delicious beers and met some great folks through that. He has, however, never brewed a beer for H&D (yet!). When we decided to come back to the Front Range of Colorado to establish our long-dreamed-about brewery (22 years in the thinking), he took himself out of the business plan as our first brewer.
We had been to hundreds of craft breweries by then, many of which were started by homebrewers. While some of them hit it out of the park, quality-wise, on their first go, very many more really struggled with flavors, flaws, and scaling up recipes well when they first opened. We came back to a place where the consumer palate is highly educated, thanks to the pioneers of craft here, and we felt strongly that we should hire someone with commercial experience to set us off on the right foot. We’ve had 2 different Head Brewers and both were the result of a nation-wide search and many rounds of interviews. Although we’re very small, we 100% believe nothing else we want to do with the company can happen without really great beer, and we can’t mess with that. Our largest investments have been in our production equipment and our people. Hopefully everything else will flow from that! I think Tim thought he would learn from our brewers and become an assistant brewer himself on our 15-bbl system, but as anyone who’s started a small business already knows, the business side of it quickly becomes a monster to manage, and taking him off that side of the company just isn’t affordable for us (he’s got expertise there, and he’s “free”). One day, though, he’ll be back there getting in the brewers’ way and in 7th heaven.
When and how did Horse & Dragon get started?
As I mentioned, we talked about it for 22 years. We have always loved how craft beer tastes, but also how it brings people together, helps solve problems, and can be so effectively used to help support communities. We get many requests a week for donations and help from awesome local charities doing some hard work in our communities here. We donate about 3% of our top-line revenue, either in cash or in-kind, every year to non-profits, even while we are still trying to build to the point of being reliably profitable. Our 12 friends who invested in H&D with us have never complained about this priority, though we’ve yet to make much of a dent in paying back their investment. Our business plan was written and in the drawer and dusted off 3 times before we finally pulled the trigger. In 2012, when our youngest daughter was about to head off to college, Tim’s office was slated to move from Bogotá, Colombia to Miami. We went to look for a neighborhood to live in there and realized on that trip that we weren’t specifically concerned with schools or safety, which made us realize we kind of were free from immediate responsibility except to ourselves. This made us start talking on that trip about moving back to Colorado and really trying to make the brewery happen. In July of 2012 I moved back. Tim moved here in December. In January of 2013 we started working full-time on it (on the dining room table until July when we found the airplane hangar that’s now Horse & Dragon’s home). It took us until May of 2014 to open our doors with 6 beers on offer. Since then we’ve presented over 150 beers to NoCO craft fans.
How does the brewer go about creating recipes?
Josh spends some serious time talking with Tim and with Luke, our lead sales person, who is also an avid homebrewer and craft beer drinker, about ideas and styles, but he also allows his mind to wander all over flavor in both his cooking at home and his thinking about beer. He worked with the cereal quality lab at OSU and talks with many of our suppliers, particularly maltsters, about their products and what’s on their horizons regularly. He created Disfrute!, a pineapple-ginger lager (the name, as a lot of folk’ll already know, is a command in Spanish to enjoy yourself) because he and his wife read about tepache and tried to make some at home. It’s a fermented beverage traditional to Mexico made of pineapple, ginger, chilis and cinnamon. Josh tried it and thought it would be good as a beer, but wanted to use a lager base and felt it would be overwhelmed by 4 strong flavors, so he pared it down to just the pineapple and ginger. I’m not a fan of fruit beers in general, but this one is quite amazing — hints of pineapple are cut short of being too-sweet because of the slightly peppery finish the ginger gives. When we’re asking for a firkin or pin for an account, I’ll often suggest something, but he’ll almost always think for a while and come up with something far more interesting.
This weekend, for example, we’re taking a lemon-lavender blonde ale — whose base beer already has hints of orange peel from the hop combo used — to a non-profit event at an account. I can’t wait to try it.
With every recipe, we strive to make beers you want to drink a second pint of and beers that go well with food. What this really means is, we want a great, strong, solid representation of the base style of beer, brewed well. Any additions to it we want be nuanced and not overwhelm the quality base beer. Beyond that, we’re all over the map. We have about 7 beers that we try to keep in stock for most of the year, a few seasonals that come back for a 2-4 month appearance, and then many one-off 15 barrel batches and a few pilot brews each year.
Brands that are most frequently available include Adventure On IPA, Almost Summer Blonde Ale, Picnic Rock Pale Ale, Whistle Blast Honey Brown Ale, Silver Lion Czech-style Plsner, and Sad Panda Coffee Stout. For those that have ever heard of us, Sad Panda is probably our best-known beer and is a lighter-bodied, year-round drinking stout with chocolate, vanilla, and coffee additions.
Although in my personal choice I lean toward our hoppy beers, one of my favorites for the way it represents what Horse & Dragon is trying to do is Fire Captain Irish Red Ale. We brew it every year for Feb – May releases, and we donate $1/pint sold in the tasting room to the Firefighter Community Compassion Fund. This is an organization started by a guy who’s become a good friend. He’s the Operations Manager of the Poudre Fire Authority (our local firefighters) and he noted that when firefighters respond to 9-1-1 calls they often find tough situations in our homes that they then pool their own money to address — like buying diapers for a child that doesn’t have them, or coats for kids who (it became apparent when they were evacuated) didn’t have them, or paying a woman’s electricity bill because they noticed her heat wasn’t on and asked why. He said once they went to pool money and didn’t have enough on them to give the immediate aid, and thought it would be good for each truck to carry a debit card for a communal fund that they could use for such situations. So he created a 501(c)3 to allow outsiders to donate to this fund (that really helps us all, so it’s like giving to yourself). They are amazing. Every now and then Vandy will send me a story about something they did, and once when I asked if I could post it on our social media, he said, “Absolutely not, please don’t.” They want no thanks and don’t even think they deserve any. (This type of action and attitude is what makes them heroic, and they truly think it’s just the way we should all be acting.) Anyway, that beer is delicious, people love it, and whether or not they know it, when they buy it at the tasting room it’s supporting them in return. We love the way craft beer can do that.
Any plans for the future at H&D?
For the future, we’re trying to grow to about 4000 barrels a year production. This year we brewed about 2800. If we can reach that production and sales level, we think we can support the company and our people for the longer term. Northern Colorado’s cost of living is going up dramatically (I know a lot of folks in CA have already lived this transition) and paying our people enough to afford to live here is not easy in a small manufacturing industry, particularly with a low-margin product, but it’s a top priority for us. We want to figure out how craft beer can survive here despite the pressures. Although at 4000 bbls we would still be a very small brewery and may seem like a modest goal, in this very crowded market it’s not an easy lift. Consumers have a bewildering array of choices. We’ll keep working hard to make beers and experiences worth their time and money, and hopefully that will pay off with us reaching our goals.
What do you think of the craft beer scene in Fort Collins/Colorado and its expansion over the past few years?
As a consumer, it’s great to be in a place where there is so much fantastic beer, and where there’s a fair amount of pressure on everyone producing it to make top-quality offerings. If you’re looking for a place to visit for a beercation, I’d say this is one of the very best. The weather is beautiful 95% of the time, the terrain in town is flat and easily bikeable even for the novice, and of the 20 breweries in town, the 2 breweries that bookend that scene are only 7 miles apart so you’ve a lot of choice in that 7 miles. If you love outdoor mountain sports, they’re just on the edge of town, so you can challenge yourself outside if you want to, or just meander through town sampling beer and eating great food.
As a producer, that pressure of having so many local breweries is also positive — it keeps you on your game and provides you with loads of collaborative opportunities and resources for learning and support. Whether or not there are enough consumers to keep us all in business for the medium term is a big question, though, and is on the periphery all the time (though rarely openly addressed). We all want everyone to succeed. We hope that can happen.
Why Horse & Dragon?
We spent about half of our adult lives in Asia, where the dragon is a huge symbol, and half in the US West, where the horse has done so much work. We think “Horse & Dragon” sounds like a British pub, and we’ve spent many happy hours in British-stye pubs around the world. And Tim was born in the year of the horse and I was born in the year of the dragon in the Chinese zodiac. So for us it fits on a lot of levels.