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Beer with character

For 20 years, Ska Brewing Co. has made their brews stand apart

Dave Thibodeau admits he wasn’t a model student in high school. He liked to party.

So did his friend Bill Graham.

And after Thibodeau, at age 17, stumbled across his dad’s Brew Book, the duo teamed up to brew their own beer, using Thibodeau’s patriarchal recipes, which dated to 1969.

“It was like a light bulb went off for us,” Thibodeau said. “We were just trying to make alcohol. We didn’t know what good beer was.”

Then, on the second Saturday in September 1995, with a decade of home-brew experience, Thibodeau and Graham joined forces with Matt Vincent to establish Ska Brewing Co. in Durango. And keeping with their roots, the company will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a party, no less, on Saturday.

Reflecting on 20 years

Looking back at the past 20 years in business, Thibodeau said he was surprised that he and his co-founders survived.

“We were all pretty young when we started,” he said. “Unlike today, we didn’t have any mentors that were brewing. We had no idea what we were doing.”

Thibodeau credited the longevity, in part, to family support. Today, the company’s recipes for its flagship, award-winning Pinstripe Red Ale and its back-to-back Great American Gold Medal winner True Blond Ale were home-brew derivatives made in collaboration with Thibodeau’s father.

Still, running a business in Durango comes with challenges, particularly in distribution. But this challenge also became an opportunity for the company.

“We just decided to do it ourselves, and it’s worked out really well for us,” he said.

The company started off delivering its own product to bars and restaurants in Durango and Telluride.

Then Ska started distributing craft beers for a company on the Front Range. Ska still delivers many craft beers from other breweries locally.

Over the years, Ska’s distribution of its own product has also expanded, and Ska beer can now be found in 10 states, Sweden and the United Kingdom, Thibodeau said.

The company produces about 33,000 barrels of beer a year, he said. Each barrel is equivalent to about 31 gallons.

The community has also been part of the company’s success, he said

“Twenty years is a huge milestone,” said Thibodeau. “Southwest Colorado has been amazing to us. It’s allowed us to live our dreams.”

Kevin Heiner, a Durango resident, has been patronizing Ska Brewing’s taproom on Girard Street in Bodo Park since it opened almost a decade ago. He noted Ska has continually donated to Animas River Days and created the currently on-tap Heavy Metal EPA to help out those hurt financially by the Gold King Mine accident. This kind of involvement is important in Durango, he said.

“People take pride and notice that,” Heiner said.

Looking forward

While Thibodeau doesn’t know what the next 20 years will hold for the company, he expects to focus on growth that will allow Ska to stay in Durango.

The company is currently expanding its ability to experiment with new recipes in a new brewery they are setting up on the second floor of Ska’s current building. Thibodeau hopes to have the brewery running by the end of the year.

The new brewery will produce about seven barrels of each type of beer, and the experimental drinks will be available only in Durango.

“It gives us a lot of flexibility. We totally plan to take advantage of that,” he said.

Right now, the smallest quantity the company can produce is about 30 barrels, which is the equivalent of 60 kegs, said Kristen Muraro, Ska’s marketing manager.

Celebrating success

This year’s sold-out anniversary party will feature The Denver Vintage Reggae Society, the Mad Caddies and Reel Big Fish. Proceeds from the event, which can add up to $5,000, will be donated to La Plata Open Space Conservancy, an environmental conservation nonprofit.

Those who won’t be attending can still celebrate by indulging in the new anniversary beer, the Monumentale. Its a sour beer made in aged bourbon barrels and blended with cherries. Thibodeau describes it as being tart rather than truly sour.

The beer will be on tap for the first time Friday at Ska, and it will also be available in local stores.

Durango Herald staff writer Jonathan Romeo contributed to this story.

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