The Labbe brothers have had to adjust in unique ways in order to operate their 2-year-old craft brewery near the headwaters of the Arkansas River.
At 10,156 feet, Periodic Brewing in Leadville is the highest-elevation brewery in North America and the altitude presents challenges other breweries are able to avoid.
“It’s actually reduced pressure that is the number one problem for doing anything at altitude,” President of Periodic Brewing Chris Labbe said. “And so we have some challenges at boiling, where the hops extraction – what’s called the isomerization of the hops to produce the bitterness – can be affected.”
To compensate, Periodic, which has set up shop inside of a church from the 1870s, adds about 20 percent more hops during the brewing process. The Labbe brothers may also boil their batches a little longer.
The lack of atmospheric pressure above 10,000 feet also makes brewing beer more dangerous.
“Turns out that one part of the boil where you have this big exaggerated, almost explosion – it’s called the protein break, people call it the hot break or boil over – is more violent here,” Labbe said. “And we have to be very, very careful because that’s the step of the process where brewers often get hurt or worse in this industry.”
Labbe says you really have to understand the science of the CO2, to make sure you're serving more than just foam. Carbonation tends to leave beer quicker with the high-altitude pressure loss.
“It’s just like if you open a soda up here – you better drink it in 10, 15 minutes or you got a flat Coke – same with the beer,” Labbe said. “What we tend to do is slightly over-carbonate up here just to give it a little bit of head room, against dropping below that experience that the customer wants.
In addition to the challenges of producing craft beer at a much higher elevation, Periodic Brewing is also trying to overcome its location.
“You’re not gonna make money here in Leadville,” Labbe said. “You don’t move up here because you wanna get rich. And we’re still figuring out how to make this even work. We haven’t made any money yet in the first two and a-half years. Negative is what that means.”
Leadville is a seasonal town. Tourist traffic is pretty reliable between Memorial Day and Labor Day. And for a few weeks in the summer, the population of Lake County more than doubles for Boom Days, an old Western mining festival, the Leadville Trail 100 bicycle race and the Leadville Trail 100 run. The rest of the year can be a struggle for many businesses.
“But it’s okay,” Labbe said. “We’re here because we love this town. And our long-term vision – our five-year-plus plan – is to build a production factory here in town, for the brand to be strong enough that we can create professional employment opportunities for the people of Leadville.”
A few months ago, Periodic expanded to the Front Range by purchasing a brewing site and tap room in Northglenn. The new location is expected to eventually have ten times the production capacity of the brew house in Leadville.
Labbe and his younger brother Evan own and operate Periodic Brewing with their wives. Their dad Greg is the Mayor of Leadville.
The Labbe family has had a home in town for about 30 years.