In a moment of hesitation before signing a second mortgage on their house to fund a startup brewery, Upslope Brewing founder Matt Cutter’s wife, Lara, told him, “You better make this thing fly.”
That was in 2008. Seven years after that unsettling day at the bank, “fly” has come to grossly understate the success of Upslope Brewing. After expanding to a second taproom in the East Boulder Flatiron Park in 2013, Upslope has soared. From its humble Boulder beginnings, Upslope beer can now be purchased in Colorado, Texas, Arizona and Wyoming. In 2013 Upslope surpassed the triumphant mark of producing 15,000 annual barrels, a seven-year goal that was achieved in six. Upslope stickers are commonplace among car windows, water bottles and ski lifts.
And to supplement its delicately crafted beer, Upslope has successfully brewed a philanthropic business model through organizing community fundraisers, partnering with non-profits and promoting environmental stewardship.
In 2007, Cutter went down to his cellar and literally dusted off a craft beer business plan that he wrote in 1996 for an entrepreneurship class at Front Range Community College. After a few tweaks to the plan and a serendipitous connection with Dany Pages, who was leaving behind his South American brewery for a Colorado girl, Upslope Brewing was born.
In the competitive world of craft brewing, however, existence is not the only necessary ingredient for success. The next few years proved to be an upslope battle.
Upslope was founded in early 2008 — sandwiched between a worldwide hops shortage in 2007 and the economic recession in late 2008. Distribution officially began just before Thanksgiving 2008 with only one style of beer: Upslope Pale Ale. The small Lee Hill taproom in North Boulder was producing only five cans per minute — not even enough to fill a six-pack.
In February 2009, Cutter was looking at only $3,000 left in the Upslope bank account. Any check that came back to him was immediately deposited to ensure that the account didn’t dip below zero. Cutter made loan pitches to banks and each time came out emptyhanded. Still feeling the weight of the recession, banks were not ready to loan money to a small Boulder brewery that was barely afloat in the already volatile craft-beer industry.
Just to keep Upslope alive, Cutter and his wife had to take more money out of their original mortgage. And on top of everything, Cutter was still working full time as a project manager for a technology company and raising two kids ages 10 and 11.
“There are a thousand reasons at any given moment in the first three years that somebody can go out of business,” says Cutter. But at every new mountain to climb and after every night of lost sleep, Cutter’s choice to push forward was always a simple one; he says, “Failure was not an option.”
In September 2009, the momentum began to shift when for the first time a bank approached Cutter. Finally with some money to work with, Cutter purchased additional fermenting tanks and a new canning assembly unit. Production increased and the community began to take notice.
“Breweries, historically, have always been intertwined within the community that they’re located in. I think it was that way 100, 120 years ago,” says Cutter, adding that somewhere along the way things “got away from that a little bit.”
Cutter is seeking to re-inspire the union between brewery and community — what he refers to as a “healing.” That task began with assembling a staff that shares the same vision. After spending more than 10 years as a project manager, Cutter treasures the power of unified and dedicated coworkers. The only picture that hangs in Cutter’s office is a group picture of the entire Upslope staff smiling in the golden light of a Colorado sunrise.
“Not only does [Cutter] make awesome beer, but he actually cares,” says Upslope bartender Laura Greaney. And it soon becomes clear that Cutter’s care extends far beyond the taproom walls and deep into the community that Upslope calls home.
After the floods of 2013, Upslope organized a fundraiser at their Lee Hill taproom for the devastated North Boulder Crest View Elementary. Upslope donated more than $8,000 to Crest View, an amount that just a few years before would have maxed out the company bank account. On the first Wednesday of every month, the Flatiron Park taproom hosts a “Pints for the People” night, donating one dollar of every pint to a local organization. The February “Pints for the People” event will donate each dollar to Community Cycles.
Even during the unstable early days, Cutter ensured that Upslope stuck to its philanthropic principles. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Upslope donated half of all Friday night taproom sales to the Red Cross. Upslope has also partnered with “There With Care,” a non-profit that assists families with children facing critical illness, as well as Trout Unlimited.
“It’s intrinsic to who we are,” says a reflective Cutter.
The partnership with Trout Unlimited is perhaps Upslope’s most mutually beneficial. By donating 1 percent of all craft-lager sales to the organization, Upslope is working to ensure the protection of the very rivers that are the source of the water in its beer.
The Trout Unlimited partnership also adds to Upslope’s appeal as a beer for an outdoor lifestyle. From the start, Upslope beer has been sold in cans instead of bottles. After some initial skepticism resulting from the canned beer quality stereotype, adventuregoers have since discovered the ease in which cans of Upslope beer can be lugged around in backpacks, coolers, fishing vests and even suitcases. The restroom of the Lee Hill taproom is filled with pictures of Upslope beer being enjoyed among backcountry trails and the backstreets of foreign countries.
“Colorado gets it,” says Cutter, referring to the portability of the can.
As for the years ahead, Cutter — a member of an entrepreneurs’ group referred to as the Insomniacs, which hosts monthly 7 a.m. meetings to discuss challenges entrepreneurs are facing — has no plans of slowing production. Three new fermenters will soon arrive at the Flatiron Park facility and will increase production capacity to 35,000 annual barrels. The Flatiron Park facility has the space available to brew 50,000 barrels — space that Cutter will surely not let go to waste.
Early on, when Cutter was just beginning to tweak that 11-year-old business plan, his 10-year-old son, Gabe, asked him what he was working on. Cutter explained that it was a business plan for a brewery, but that he wasn’t sure if anything would ever come of it. To which Gabe replied, “But you have to do it… It’s your dream!”
Cutter’s wife has hung up a plaque that reads, “What would you do if you knew that you couldn’t fail?” Upslope has been an answer to that question, he says, and he couldn’t be happier that he chose to pursue his dream in the very place that he calls home — Boulder, adding, “There couldn’t have been a better place anywhere on the planet.”