Cellar West‘s north Boulder headquarters sits in an industrial park near a homeless shelter and behind the city’s only strip club. Unlike lower-proof beers, the latter does not likely complement Cellar West customers, who come from near and far for the fledgling brewery’s oak-aged funky farmhouse ales.
Zach Nichols, 29, founded the handcrafted brewery 18 months ago and baked his native Wisconsin aesthetic into both the beer and his tap house’s ambience. Like the farmers and cheese-producers in Wisconsin, Cellar West has a handcrafted ethic.
The funky farmhouse ales, as Zach calls his beer, aging in situ nearby ferments with Brettanomyces yeast, a wild, rapacious yeast that, as Zach says, “rips” when it comes in contact with sugar. “It’s a monster.”
The result is an earthy, musty, fruity, flavorful, if a bit unpredictable, beer. The wild card yeast is a “driving force behind everything we do.” In the beer-making process, yeast converts sugars into alcohol. Often hops are added to shape flavor.
Brettanomyces is flavor chief at Cellar West. It puts the funk in Cellar West.
Conditioned at ambient room temperature, fermented in bottle, the beers have a distinct relationship to time and place — the seasons, temperature, humidity. Many breweries tightly control these features and typically cure in big steel tanks. This is one of the strengths (and weaknesses) of a boutique, artisanal operation — everything’s handcrafted, unique.
He labors over the small-batch beer, adding weight to its story which rings truer in smaller batches, he says. The fastest timeline from start to finish is five to six months.
“Everything we do is by hand,” Zach says. Including each beer’s hand-drawn logo.
Cellar West Wisconsin Fantastic decor. Photo: Paul Hagey, BLDRfly.
As part of our interview with craft beer legend Charlie Papazian, we asked about remarkable local Boulder breweries we shouldn’t miss. Cellar West was on the short list.
Until it fails
Zach’s brewer journey started as a college student slinging cases into a Madison, Wisconsin, beer store’s cooler shoot in the late aughts. A broken case every now and then meant free beer for the lackeys. At first craft beer taste, Zach’s eyes popped open.
He fell in love with craft beer, became a homebrewer, then eventually became main brewer at a local brewery.
His then-girlfriend, now-wife was at CU, so he moved out in 2012. He met a couple of Boulder Beer brewers, Mike and Chris. The three founded Sanitas Brewery (keep your eyes peeled for the BLDRfly profile).
Zach did graphic design and sales and marketing at Sanitas, but felt a keen itch to get back to brewing with a farmhouse vision.
The operation is bootstrapped, friends and family. Not much margin.
Zach feels called to do his handcrafted brewery. “Gotta do it until it fails,” he says.
More of Cellar West’s Wisconsin farmhouse flare. Photos: Paul Hagey, BLDRfly.
Approximately three-quarters of Cellar West’s business comes from tap house sales. The balance from local distribution: fine Boulder restaurants such as The Kitchen, Frasca and Emerson and a few area liquor stores.
He gets emails and calls frequently for product, but often can’t deliver because inventory stays low.
Ultimately, Zach would love to make make 99 percent sales in-house, capitalizing on the fully-rounded experience he can create around the beer. It’s true — the Wisconsin fantastic farmhouse vibe at Cellar West’s tap house pairs perfectly with the brew, in important part of the rich Cellar West experience.
He’s planning on leaning into the brewery’s boutique vibe, luring his customers to cultivate a deeper relationship with it.
This comes at a higher cost, all the way around. It’s more labor-intensive to produce and costlier to buy (22-ounce bottles go for $10 or $11). Zach’s betting that upside — beer rooted in time and place — will be worth it.
“I have High Life in my fridge,” Zach says, but Cellar West beer is not that, more like wine or champagne.
Zach’s running out of space. In the single space, oak barrels and boxes of bottle-fermenting beer backdrop the taproom.
Cellar West is leaving its 1,200-square-foot north Boulder home soon. The new spot in Lafayette, at 778 W. Baseline Road, near where Zach and his wife live, is more than double its current size at about 2,700 square feet.
Zach tried hard to stay in Boulder. When he started out, he partly wanted to prove that a small business like his could make it here. But with the scarcity of available buildings properly zoned for a production brewery, Zach had to look east.
In some ways it’s a blessing for him (not for Boulder residents who love their handcrafted, local businesses) — he is a bike ride from the new location, which is expected to open this November, when the north Boulder location will shut down.
The new spot will be even funkier farmhouse than its existing one. It will have couches, be chill, laid back, cozy and inviting. He’s taking his bowling alley floor bartop, of course.
Zach plans to remain boutique, to always brew by hand, to grow from 10 to 15 employees he pays fairly.
“It feels like we’re on the path,” he says.
Cellar West will do less than 100 barrels this year, but Zach projects it will do 250 barrels in the first year at the new location.
The brewery is also branching out. It just got its first steel tank and is experimenting with crisp, easy-drinking lagers. Because lager production is less costly and shorter, Cellar West is making an effort to create a less-premium product accessible to more people, more frequently.
This will supplement its booming ale production.
Editor’s Note: Boulder’s only strip club is now the Nitro Club, with residence on the Pearl Street Mall.