Never Underestimate Napkin Doodles: The Story of Ska Brewing

Ska Brewing Co-Founder and President Dave Thibodeau outside The Office restaurant in Denver, Colorado

Ska Brewing President and coin flip-loser Dave Thibodeau

Durango, Colo.-based Ska Brewing opened up distribution in Minnesota this week, in partnership with Clear River Beverage. Ska’s first offerings to hit Minnesota will be True Blonde, a blonde ale; Modus Hoperandi, an “old man bitter” IPA; and Mexican Logger, which won bronze at the Great American Beer Festival in 2016 and silver the year before in the American-Style or International-Style Pilsener category.

Ska Brewing opened for business in 1995, but wheels crept into motion during the mid-1980s. When co-founder Dave Thibodeau told me the story, I knew there was no way I could tell it better. This first half is his account of Ska Brewing’s early days:

[Ska co-founder Bill Graham and I] were in high school, here in Colorado. This was the mid-80s. We were in my dad’s living room, and we came across a book on his bookshelf that just said BREW LOG or BREW BOOK. We were totally party kids, drinking a lot. It immediately grabbed our interest. We flipped it open and realized it was my dad’s home-brew log. He had been home-brewing from 1969 to 1980, so he might have quit home-brewing right when I might have noticed he was doing such a thing. We started flipping through it, and we were like ‘This is crazy!’ It was like a light bulb going on. We could make alcohol with stuff you buy at the grocery store.

They used to sell malt extract in the syrup form in the making section of the grocery store by my parents’ house. There were no home-brew shops yet. The first home-brew shop opened that first year in Colorado, so we got super into it and told my dad ‘Hey, do you want to brew with us?’ He got crazy excited, and that’s how we started brewing.

We always talked about [opening a brewery], but it seemed like a pipe dream. A silly notion. In 1995, we went to the bank, we went to the SBA, and everybody told us ‘No way.’ The comic book we drew on the back of a napkin didn’t suffice as a business plan … so we had to do it out of spite, just to spite the naysayers. Bill’s dad lent us $47,000, and we started the brewery.

We did a lot of running up and down the western slope of Colorado, all the farming towns. There were a lot of family-owned small dairy farms that had closed down, but they had stainless steel tanks just sitting there in the fields. We were buying them for a couple hundred dollars here, couple hundred dollars there. We knew a guy who refurbished stuff. We traded stuff and we bartered, and we eventually cobbled together a cool little brewery. It didn’t cost us much money at all, and that’s how we got started.

It took us most of 1995 [to produce the first batches], and our very first batch of beer we sold was in September. It was actually at the Telluride Brewers Festival (now called Telluride Blues and Brews). Our True Blonde was our first batch of beer. It took that whole year. We worked on a business plan, and the idea, but we didn’t have any resources – no Internet yet – so we had no resources. We were just making it up!

The first two kegs were horrible, but it was cool because all the brewers we met were like our age but working for somebody else. They were blown away that we had actually opened one ourselves, so we got all sorts of killer constructive criticism. It got a lot better in a hurry.

Rule Number One of Colorado posts: mountain pictures are always relevant.

Arlo Grammatica was one of the first employees on board at Ska Brewing, joining right around the turn of the century. His climb up the ladder took him through long days of packaging, kegging, driving delivery trucks, keg line-cleaning and working events – but his very first job was labeling bombers.

It was nothing like how they do it today.

“They were old stamps,” said Grammatica. “We had a sponge, and we’d stick them on. Everybody would get a free case of beer at the end of the day, but we burned out a lot of our friends. It was a nine-hour day!”

By this time, Thibodeau had lost a coin flip with Graham; and, just as Moist Von Lupvig was sentenced to a government job in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, Thibodeau was forced to be the company president after his untimely declaration of ‘Heads.’

They’ve all got side businesses to boot. Thibodeau and Graham also own Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, Colo.; and co-owner Matt Vincent owns Ska Fabricating, a canning line equipment manufacturer (one client for which is St. Louis Park’s own Steel Toe Brewing). With Vincent holding down Fabrication, and Graham overseeing the distillery, Thibodeau was tasked with the brewery.

“In all honesty,” Thibodeau said, “it probably would’ve evolved into this. We all have different strengths. It just took us a decade to figure that out. Matt is good at money, operations, and building shit; Bill is strong on the brewing side; I was more marketing, communications, sales. Over time, as we sort of filled in their roles, it just kind of left me running the show.”

While Ska Brewing’s distribution slowly grew to 10 states, it took an unexpected detour. To Sweden.

“It’s a crazy story,” said Grammatica. “I met [the owners of Stockholm-based Oliver Twist] in Boston one year, and we did the bus tour for Craft Beer Conference. We just hit it off … then, the next year in Chicago, they came to our party and we stayed out until 5 a.m. I was like ‘How do we sell beer in Sweden?’ They were like, ‘Just send us some samples. We can go from there.'”

Since the Swedish government decides what can be sold in their country, “from there” meant a rigorous process involving the government judging beers with a point system for market compatibility, and the tight deadlines we’ve all come to expect. Once in, Ska’s Modus Hoperandi became one of the country’s best-selling IPAs.

As an added benefit, Grammatica now visits the country regularly.

“We don’t just send beer out there, and hope it does well,” he said. “We committed. We’ve attended numerous things over there, and we support [the brand].”

Minnesota is the twelfth state in Ska’s distribution system, joining Missouri and Illinois to form their midwest foothold. On the distribution side, Ska Brewing will add to a Clear River roster that already includes such brands as Clown Shoes, Sixpoint, AleSmith, and Evil Twin Brewing. Canned goods can already be found in liquor store shelves, with launch events expected during June. More information can be found on Ska Brewing’s Facebook page or the Clear River Beverage website.

RELATED: Read my interview with FATE Brewing’s Jeff Griffith, and hear interviews with Matthew Heiser of Estes Park’s Rock Cut Brewing and Joe Shea of Left Hand Brewing on my Colorado vacation podcast!