Jonathan Ingram's picture

Todd Usry of Breckenridge Brewery

Todd Usry is one of the new faces of craft beer, even though he’s been working at Breckenridge Brewery since 1990 when he started as a delivery truck driver for what was then a 3,000-barrel brewpub in one of Colorado’s ski towns.

As the recently named president at Breckenridge, Usry is committed to maintaining the quality and innovation that helped the brewery become one of the top brands in its beer-crazy home state and on the national scene. And, oh yes, he’ll be working in The High End division of Anheuser-Busch InBev.

It’s the recent acquisition by the world’s largest brewery that has reshaped Usry’s role in the brewing world. He’s still committed to flavorful and authentic beer, but many people who support craft beer think ownership by a mega brewer is anathema to the mission. There is the fear that mega brewers will try to muscle out independent regional operations as they did midway into the 20th Century, when America was turned into a light lager desert.

That lagering of the beer universe ultimately created the craft beer counter-revolution led by independent brewers who fought for two decades to gain a foothold against the big brewers. Working his way up to brewmaster and then brewery director at the new $36-million Breckenridge farmhouse-style brewery in Littleton, Colorado by “hard work, initiative and luck,” Usry was a front line soldier in the revolution.

Then came the offer from AB-InBev and The High End division, which already operated formerly independent brands such as Elysian in Washington, 10-Barrel in Oregon and Goose Island in Chicago. In a classic case of how the craft mission suddenly gets turned upside down, Usry was outvoted by partners who wanted to sell.

The Breckenridge crew circa 1993. Usry (in center, seated) started working for the brewery in 1990 as a delivery truck driver. 

Having combined two Denver-based brewpub operations in 2010 to create Breckenridge-Wynkoop LLC, owners Ed Cerkovnik and Lee Driscoll decided to sell their interest in the production brewing business to concentrate on the restaurants.

Other shareholders were involved, but essentially Usry was outvoted. Having just spent the better part of two years building a new, state-of-the-art destination brewery on the banks of the Platte River south of Denver, Usry was angered by his partners’ decision to sell. Then the strongest offer came from The High End.

“I had mixed emotions for sure, especially when I learned we were sitting down with Anheuser Busch’s High End team,” said Usry. “I’ve been fiercely craft my entire career – a quarter of a century – you can imagine my first, initial thoughts. After meeting with those guys several times I absolutely became a believer in what they’re trying to do. What they’re trying to do is not take over the craft world. That’s not their ambition. They’re trying to participate in it. I think it’s a smart play on their part.”

The easy conclusion is that Usry, who became president as a result of a deal conservatively estimated to be worth $100 million, sold out. But he sees it as an opportunity to sustain the commitment to the employees at Breckenridge and to bring more flavorful beer to the marketplace.

“The most important thing to me is my people, as clichéd as that might sound,” he said. “I’m incredibly proud of the people here. I’ve got people who have been here 24 years and I’ve got several people who have been here over 15 years. We’re extremely close. We go through all the highs and lows of life together. I’m really proud of the beers we make, I’m really proud of the creative steps we’ve made with our beers over the last five to seven years with all the new entries and all the barrel-aging stuff we’ve done. I’m real proud of all of that, but what I’m most proud of is my co-workers and the team of people here. When The High End was here, I know they noticed that and they told me they noticed. That probably is the best compliment I can get.”