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The Challenges Producers Face at 9,600 Feet

Breckenridge, Colorado, which sits at 9,600 feet above sea level, is one of America’s most elevated cities. While hangovers are nothing short of crippling at such altitude, the area is home to a thriving liquor industry that boasts award-winning breweries, distilleries and wineries.

Because of their elevation, producers must navigate challenges that range from fermentation to barrel-aging. They experiment, adjust and reflect the Wild West-like ingenuity found in the city.

While their experiences differ based on the poison they’ve picked, Continental Divide Winery, Breckenridge Distillery and Breckenridge Brewery share a dedication to their craft and a passion to make it work up on the mountain.

Overhead imageof 8 people with various red wines in front of them on a table, and placemats for writing notes
Wine Blending Class at Continental Divide Winery / Photo by Mark Bellncula

In nearby Fairplay (elevation: 10,361 feet), California-based winemakers Jeffrey and Ana Maltzman joined forces with Colorado-based winemakers Kent Hutchison and Angela Bryan to open Continental Divide Winery.

The couples produce wine made with both California and Colorado grapes. Their bottlings educate consumers about the effect of terroir on the final product. But while farming at altitude is not uncommon, to make the wine up there sets them apart.

“Most wineries worry about keeping deer out, but we’re the only winery I know with a bear problem,” says Jeffrey.

Left image of exterior with sign and snowboards, right of interior from the bar, many people millling about
Continental Divide’s Tasting Room / Photo by Jeffrey Maltzman

Fairplay’s thin air contains less oxygen, which dramatically impacts yeast activity. Exposure to oxygen during the first few days of fermentation helps yeast to consume more sugar and produce alcohol. Limiting that exposure can slow down fermentation. But with a little tinkering, Maltzman and his team found ways to turn it into a benefit.

“The natural lack of oxygen can make fermentation more difficult,” he says. “You have to monitor it much more closely, you have to give the yeast a lot more nutrients. But once you learn how to manage, you end up with a beautiful long, slow, gentle fermentation that results in a really graceful, elegant wine.”

They’ve even implemented an innovative closed-cell system that enhances the ability to tightly control oxygenation throughout the process.

“Essentially, instead of open-top bins or tanks, we ferment the wines and cellar them in giant bags that let us bleed off all free oxygen beyond what micro-oxygenation we might want,” says Jeffery. “We feel it gives us a competitive advantage.”

Overhead photo of buildings covered in snow, evergreen forest and mountains behind
Breckenridge Distillery in winter / Photo by Alex Neuschaefer

Breckenridge Distillery CEO and founder Bryan Nolt, a physician and self-described whiskey nerd, founded one of the world’s highest-altitude distillery in 2008. An avid fly-fisher, Nolt was drawn to the area’s pristine waters.

“You wouldn’t be able to find this water source anywhere else,” he says. “Snow melts off the Continental Divide and picks up dense minerality through the mountain. This mouthfeel is unlike any other, due to its high [total dissolved solid] counts, low iron and lack of sulfur.”

Breckenridge’s water is ideal for whiskey. But, according to Head Distiller Hans Stafsholt, those minerals can also create complications.

“It can adversely affect the appearance,” says Stafsholt. “The calcium carbonate will precipitate and appear as sediment, so we use reverse osmosis filtration for proofing which essentially cleans the water.”

Filtration is just one factor that Nolt had to account for when he built his distillery. He began to plan his equipment and recipes in California, and the transition from sea level to the mountains brought unanticipated growing pains.

“We had to adapt all our processes, which slowed us down, but was fascinating,” says Nolt. “All your [distilling processes] happen at much different temperatures, the yeast behave differently, but the biggest issue has to do with [the] steam used to heat the mash and power the still. It comes from a boiler or steam plant, and the engineers who design these things often fail to account for the impact that altitude has on steam energy. It turns out your steam production gets reduced by about 75%.”

After he adjusted his setup, Nolt had to construct an effective rackhouse. In warmer and damper climates, large alcohol molecules evaporate significantly when distillate is stored in oak barrels, while smaller water molecules can evaporate and condense. This reduces the overall proof. In Colorado, the cold and dry air causes water to evaporate first, which increases potency and intensifies flavor.

“You can’t stack your barrels in a barn like you would in most places,” he says. “You need complete climate control. But no matter how much you try, you will get concentration of alcohol in-barrel.”

Challenging as it may be, it’s also responsible for some of the crowd-pleasing flavors that put Breckenridge’s whiskey on the map.

“We see fascinating flavors come through in our older barrels that have experienced some of these harsh conditions, such as our Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey, which has a prominent flavor of butterscotch candy,” says Stafsholt.

Three backlit beers in front of a window overlooking snow-covered buildings
Photo courtesy of Breckenridge Brewery

Breckenridge Brewery opened its Main Street pub in 1990. While it’s since built a larger production facility in Littleton, the original mountaintop location, now focused on small-batch and experimental releases, continues under Jimmy Walker, the head brewer.

The pub is a town fixture, filled with tourists and locals who enjoy fruited sours, hazy IPAs and high-octane stouts in view of the stainless-steel fermentation system, one that operates a little differently than it would at sea level.

“The major difference up here is that our water boils at 198°F, instead of 212°F,” says Walker. Boiling points are related to air pressure, something that decreases at altitude. “There are a lot of benefits from a hot, vigorous boil, like killing off flavors that might otherwise develop. We don’t want them in our beer, so we boil longer.”

Boiling not only eliminates unwanted elements before fermentation, it also extracts bitterness from alpha acids in hops through isomerization. As the boiling point drops, so does its effectiveness.

Man adjusting mash in a steel tank with a shovel
Photo courtesy of Breckenridge Brewery

For every 1,000 feet in elevation, a brewer needs 5% more hops to achieve the same bitterness, which means an IPA brewed in Breckenridge requires 48% more hops than an identical one brewed in Seattle.

It’s a tricky balance. Not only are hops expensive, but too much can make beer overly bitter, especially in a prolonged boil. The recent New England IPA craze, which represents a shift from piney brews dependent on early hop additions to a more juicy, fresh and aromatic style, works in Walker’s favor.

“The trend these days is to get more hop flavor and aroma, and to do that, you have to add more hops,” he says. “By having a cooler boil, we have an advantage because we can add more hops at the end, not extracting as much bitterness and getting more aroma and flavor.”

Be it beer, wine or whiskey, cooking up alcohol atop one of the country’s highest peaks requires creativity, resourcefulness and adaptability. These mountain dwellers are well-versed in making lemonade out of proverbial lemons. The challenges just add to the fun.