It all started in the Air Force.
The Air Force Academy, to be exact. That's where Eric Wallace and Dick Doore, the founders of Left Hand Brewing company originally met. Their stint in the military took them across the globe, giving them ample opportunity to taste the best and brightest brews from the Czech Republic to Japan and everywhere in between. But, even as they gained this global perspective, it was a stop in Scandinavia that really made the difference.
That's where Wallace had his first Sam Adams. This was the 80s, so the U.S. wasn't exactly known for craft beer and this experience was an eye-opener. So when Wallace came back to the states, he started looking into what American craft brewers were up to. At the same time, Doore got his first home brew kit as a Christmas gift from his sister. When he came back home he started teaching Eric to make beer. The job market wasn't spectacular, so as they were hunting for gainful employment all day, they buried themselves in barley and hops at night, learning what makes for good beer – getting, in the words of their neighbors, “pretty good at it.”
Eventually, they came to the conclusion that they might as well make it their job. So in 1993, the pair founded the Indian Peaks Brewing Company – which later became Left Hand after they discovered that a competing brewery was using the Indian Peaks name. The pair quickly settled on a converted slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in Longmont, CO, just outside of Boulder. The place came with floors conveniently sloped for drainage, though the liquids flowing to the drains these days are a little different than the originals. Over the years the facility has expanded quite a bit. The original building now hosts the tasting room, and the brewery now spans several buildings across 25,000 square feet and 2.1 acres.
With the first batches of beer rolling out of the place in 1994, Vice President of Operations Chris Lennert says the company philisophy quickly became “Do The Right Thing.”
“We're not about growth for growth's sake or money for money's sake,” said Lennert. “It's about what we do. Do the right thing is our litmus test to filter all our decisions and everything we do. It's the culture of the business and part of who we are.”
The company appears to take that creed seriously as well, with at least one percent of net profit going to charity every year, a green committee driving the brewery to make environmentally friendly improvements like a photovoltaic power system, and, best of all, making tasty craft beer.
“Lately the American craft beer scene has gone bigger and bolder,” said Lennert. “It sounds cliché, but we believe in subtlety, balance and drinkability. We appreciate a beer you can just drink. It doesn't matter if a beer is a barleywine, a stout, an IPA – we want people to be able to drink them whenever they want and to say 'You know what? I've never had a bad beer from those guys.'”
While the company does have IPAs and stouts, none of them feature the in your face style so popular right now. They tend to be beers meant to be enjoyed. With few exceptions, they're carefully crafted examples of their kind – pilsners, pale ales and porters that are well-made and all the tastier for it. In fact, the brewery’s top two bottles are its milk stout, a creamy stout with milk sugars added, and Sawtooth, an American-style ESB. Both are easy drinking and well-executed examples of their breed – exactly what Left Hand claims to be all about.
The approach seems to be working, too. Since the company divested itself of a second beer brand and its in-house Colorado craft brewing distributorship, it has experienced 5 years of double digit growth. Left Hand shipped 25,000 barrels in 2010 and is on track this year to ship more than 40,000. For reference, one barrel is equal to two kegs. That's a whole lot of beer.
But why rely on other drinkers' opinions? Here are a few Left Hand beers to look for, and taste, in local bars and liquor stores.
Left Hand Milk Stout – A slightly sweet stout that pours as creamy as anything that's ever come out of a brewery, Milk Stout is mellow, with a nice rich flavor reminiscent of chocolate milk, but with a satisfying bitter tang. Heavy malts add some interest and smoky coffee-like aromas make this beer a nice fit for brunch or an early baseball game. Even better, according to Lennert it's available on tap with a nitrogen pour much like Guinness at some bars – well worth seeking out.
Left Hand Sawtooth Ale – Left Hand calls this a “sessionable ale” for its easy drinking characteristics and low ABV. But regardless of the descriptor, it's a beer to reach for after mowing the lawn. Clean and crisp, with a glowing coppery gold body and a bright white head, Sawtooth is mild and uber-drinkable, with solid balance and a nice subtle cinnamon and brown sugar tang to it. It's tailor-made to be hanging out in the fridge waiting for a sunny day, home improvement project, hamburgers on the grill, or any other excuse man can find to crack open a beer.
Left Hand Good Juju – A seasonal spiced ale, Good Juju breaks out some subtle ginger for spring, spiking what is otherwise a fairly mild and biscuity beer. The flavors in the golden brew combine for an almost candied ginger taste. There's a lot of restraint here, so those looking for over the top ginger spice are going to be disappointed. But if you want a gentle kick, Lennert says the bottle is the ultimate pairing with spicy Thai food or sushi, and we're inclined to agree.
Left Hand Polestar Pilsner – Pilsners are tough beers. They're light, crisp and clean, with absolutely nothing to hide behind. If you screw them up, it's painfully obvious. And since these beers are squarely in Left Hand's wheelhouse, it's not surprising they nailed it pretty solidly. A clear straw yellow in the glass with a stark white head sitting on top, the soft bubbles give off a grassy aroma that's quite inviting. The beer is ultra refreshing – not something well-suited for the depths of winter, but once warm weather hits this stuff will be worth its weight in gold. Even better, it has a surprising peppery kick at the tail end of every swallow that clears out the lemon and banana notes and makes room for the next swallow/bottle. Given how easy it is to gulp this stuff down it's a good thing it only weighs in at 5.5% ABV.