Head brewer Chris Davison's beer obsession blends old-world traditions with bold experimentation at Wolf's Ridge Brewing, Alive's 2017 Brewer of the Year
For Chris Davison, there's no such thing as a passing interest. “If I'm into something, I can't not obsess about it,” Davison said recently, seated at the bar at Wolf's Ridge Brewing, Alive's 2017 Brewer of the Year. “I'm someone who, from a young age, has always had collections. … I still have all my old ‘Star Wars,' ‘Jurassic Park' and ‘Alien' toys.”
About 10 years ago, Davison's brother introduced him to the world of beer. He started with imports, and from there branched into the then-nascent but rapidly growing craft-beer scene. Once Davison discovered online beer reviews, the obsession took hold. “I was the prototypical beer geek that now people cringe at. I used to be at the bar with a notepad,” he said. “At my height, I was probably reviewing a new beer every single night for a year. I logged like 2,000 reviews online.”
Over time, Davison's interest in beer led to home brewing, and soon he was sending applications to breweries across the country, determined to ditch his UPS job. But nobody was hiring someone with zero experience at a commercial brewery, so in 2012, Davison applied to an MBA program at Colorado State University so he could be close to Colorado's thriving beer scene. He was accepted and set to move when Columbus Brewing Company called, offering him an entry-level position.
Davison switched to an online master's program and started as a keg washer at CBC, then worked his way up the chain. In 2014, when Wolf's Ridge owners Alan and Bob Szuter put out a call for a brewer, Davison applied.
“I was brewing IPA six days a week [at CBC], and it was really boring. There was no horizon where I would eventually make my own recipes there,” Davison said. “The job posting at Wolf's Ridge said there was room for brewer input and recipe creation. That was appealing to me.”
Davison was named head brewer, and since then Wolf's Ridge has gone from brewing 390 barrels a year at its Downtown location to 1,900 barrels last year; in 2017, Davison estimates Wolf's Ridge will make around 3,000 barrels. But more important to Davison than the amount of beer poured at its restaurant, taproom and in bars throughout the city — not to mention the bottled beer it now distributes — is the integrity of Wolf's Ridge beer.
“I've been described as a purist. I like to do things the right way. I really like to obsess over a recipe and research the history of things. It's a matter of principle that a certain style needs to be done a certain way. It's offensive, almost, when shortcuts are taken,” said Davison, whose first recipe at Wolf's Ridge was an imperial pumpkin ale. “If you're going to brew a pumpkin ale, in my opinion, it needs to have pumpkin in it. Some breweries just use the spice profile, and the cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger is enough for people to think there's pumpkin in there. … But even if you don't necessarily taste [the pumpkin], it's contributing something to the beer.”
That philosophy carries over to every Wolf's Ridge recipe, all of which Davison designed. “The cream ale was a preexisting beer when I came here,” Davison said. “The original wasn't bad, but a real cream ale has corn in it, and there was no corn in it originally. Historically, corn was used to lighten the body of the beer. So I did a lot of research on what made a real cream ale, and now it's like 40 percent corn in that beer.”
Clear Sky Daybreak — a variation of the Clear Sky Cream Ale and brewed with vanilla beans and coffee — is now the brewer's best seller. “Between Daybreak and Clear Sky, we're brewing twice as much cream ale as IPA, which is insane. It's really unusual. Typically an IPA is the best-selling beer.”
Davison's creative process is a delicious collision of old and new. He's an obsessive traditionalist who also loves to push boundaries. Recently, he experimented with an imperial cream ale he named All the Breakfast, which uses coconut, coffee, cacao nibs and cinnamon. (“It's been a huge hit. People are demanding bottles of it now,” he said.)
“One of the best compliments I get regularly is that the beer is drinkable,” Davison said. “Even though we do a lot of weird, experimental stuff, it all starts with a point of history and tradition. All of our German beers are 100 percent German grain, German hops, German yeast. You can say the same about our English beers. There's a certain sense of place in all of our beers.”
Columbus' increasingly adventurous and thirsty craft-beer connoisseurs gravitate to the Wolf's Ridge taproom, which opened in 2015. “When they were building the taproom, we were trying to decide how many taps to put in there,” Davison said. “We have 12 [at the main bar], so [the owners] said, ‘Should we just do the same and we can always add more later?' I said, ‘No, I think we can fit 20 on that wall, so let's put 20 in.' They're like, ‘How are you going to create 20 beers?' I said, ‘I don't know. I'll figure it out. But I want 20 taps.'”
It was a challenge at first. “I'd be down there till 10 or 11 at night and coming in at 6 a.m. because I had an open tap handle and I didn't want it to be empty the next day,” Davison said, though over time he and his staff streamlined the process. “Customers know that if they come once a week, the draft list will be different and there will be something new to try.”
These days, Davison's biggest challenge is the brewing capacity at a 100-year-old building with low basement ceilings. “We've filled it almost to the brim. I'm sure at some point we'll need to expand outside of this building,” said Davison, who recently managed to squeeze in a new section dedicated to sour beers.
Davison is currently designing the first Wolf's Ridge Gose, which is brewed with coriander and salt. Of course, he obsessively researched how much salt to use in his recipe so that the end result is clean and restrained.
“I hate meeting brewers who aren't passionate about what they do,” he said. “If it's just a job to you, then your beer is never going to be that great.”