It's just gone 8am when I arrive at the small, out-of-town industrial estate in Fort Collins, Colorado that's home to the Horse and Dragon Brewing Company. When I enter the sizable warehouse that contains the brewery the air is already filled with the heady scent of wet grain. Head Brewer, or more accurately, sole brewer Linsey Cornish is in a state that she'll remain in for the entire brew day, a blur, fizzing with energy, always doing at least two jobs at once and never showing any sign of slowing down. She's already begun mashing in todays brew which will hopefully end up as a transatlantic fusion of a British ESB and an American IPA.
Tim and Carol Cochran spent a good few years planning Horse and Dragon which finally opened in May 2014. Fittingly, this also happened to be the year of the horse. How does a new brewery stand out in a town with as rich a craft brewing history as Fort Collins, that's home to the giants of New Belgium and Odell Brewing? Well their first masterstroke was in employing Cornish. She cut her teeth at Odell where she was a production brewer for over four years. The second was spending plenty of time planning to create a brewery that at only eight months old already feels like part of this Front Range town's fixtures and fittings. This is a brewery that appears to have hit the ground running, much the same as Cornish runs from task to task on the brewery floor.
As Linsey busies herself with monitoring the mash and grinding up coffee grounds for a cold brew infusion that will become an integral part of Sad Panda coffee stout, I try and make myself useful. I'm handed several large bags of palletized hops which I begin weighing out. First a few handfuls of dank Columbus pellets for bittering. I then open a bag of Northern Brewer, a hop that Linsey feels is underused by many brewers but a variety she's turned to when highly sought after Simcoe, Citra and Mosaic varieties are unavailable. Even in pellet form it has a heady, earthy aroma with notes of ripe mango and pineapple. I'm actually surprised that it gets overlooked in favour of other varieties. Then it's time to measure out some Chinook, Willamette and some fantastically pungent Cascade that immerses the room in rich grapefruit scented fog.
Much of brewing is about waiting and as our wort recirculates before being run into the twenty barrel kettle we retire to the tap room at the front of the building. Where the brewery itself is a cavernously large space I imagine many British startup brewers would kill for, the tap room is a cosy, low lit bar that's already a popular destination for locals. I imagine that it must've been a tough decision to leave a well established brewer like Odell but Cornish seems quite relaxed about her choice. Being able to brew her own recipes and stamp her own identity on Horse and Dragon's beers is clearly her main reasoning for this. She usually clocks up around 60 hours a week in the brewery. Currently She brews twice a week with the rest of the time spent ordering supplies, kegging and of course, doing lots of cleaning.
The influence of the training Cornish received at Odell is clear from my first taste of Picnic Rock Pale Ale. It has all of the clean flavours and pinpoint balance you'd expect from her former employers beers. There's a satisfying cereal malt flavour that's joined by juicy mango flesh and then lemon zest in the finish. However despite any similarities you may draw to Fort Collins' oldest craft brewery it ends there as, very importantly, Horse and Dragon's brews already have a clear identity of their own. The 25:200 IPL is my kind of beer, a huge pungent grapefruit aroma with a resinous, citrus bitterness on the palate and a morishly clean and dry finish. The Scottish Tradesman coconut porter takes me by surprise, I'm halfway through the glass of this indulgent dark beer that's mellowed by toasted coconut before I'm informed it sits at an ABV of 9.5%. It tastes around half of that, I'm seriously impressed.
I'm even more impressed to learn that some of this beer is sat inside a rum barrel that's not so inconspicuously tucked away at the back of the brewery. There's a desire for innovation here as well as consistency and in this part of the world, with such a rich brewing culture, there simply has to be. Sage Adweisse, a crisp and tart Berliner Weisse is further evidence of this, a new beer that's not quite dialled in but definitely a sign that things are going in the right direction.
The brew day carries on apace and it's time to add the hops to our now boiling wort. The pellets fizz and explode as they hit the surface of the water each releasing its characteristic aromas as it does. We retire back to the bar for pizza and Horse and Dragons highly accomplished IPA, arguably there's no better food pairing, especially on a brew day. Even at lunch Cornish is dashing back to check the boil every few minutes, summoning me when it's time for the next hop addition. Once the boil is finished and it's stood for a few minutes after the aroma hops have been added, it's time to run the beer into the fermenter. Here I witness Cornish pitch yeast in line with the wort as it leaves the heat exchanger which she does using a modified keg to contain her yeast. She tells me that this gets fermentation started quicker, I'd never seen this done before but I sure took her word for it.
As Linsey begins to clean down and I've helped dig the mash tun out to the best of my abilities the brew day draws to a close. The tap room is already filling up with locals enjoying a few beers and we're barely into the early afternoon, on a Monday too. You might not think it possible for a town the size of Fort Collins to sustain as many breweries as it currently does but somehow each manages to retain its own audience and, most importantly, a strong sense of identity. Somehow though, it feels to me that Horse and Dragon won't always be content with being just a local brewery and that they have bigger plans in store. Perhaps Cornish will one day have a whole team of brewers assisting her but I imagine that even then, she'll still be whizzing around the brewery, brimming with energy.
Horse and Dragon Brewing Company can be found at 124 Racquette Drive, Fort Collins, Colorado. The tap room is open from 12 until 6 daily, I strongly suggest you swing by. **EDIT** Originally I had incorrectly stated that Sage Adweisse was brewed with Sage, this is not true, Sage is in fact Linsay's lovely dog which this beer is named after.