In the world of entrepreneurship, they say necessity is the mother of invention. This adage, however cheesy, certainly rings true for me as I reflect on the past 10 years of building Grouse Malt House. Arriving at this important milestone for Grouse has brought a tangle of emotions; gratitude, grief, pride, excitement.
Trying to sit down and write this post has been difficult. The past several months has been filled with congratulations for Grouse “making it” to 10 years. I am so proud of what Grouse has evolved into, the malt we make, and the delicious final products they help create. But pretending like the journey wasn’t fraught with hardship would be a mischaracterization.
To celebrate the grit and determination of the past ten years, I wanted to share some of the raw, untold stories of Grouse. My hope is that sharing our full story and the struggles that brought us to 2023 will inspire that perseverance in others.
Grouse started as an idea in 2009, a quest to help make a colleague a gluten-free beer she could enjoy. Quickly in this journey, I began home-malting and home-brewing (thanks to Dan McCue) with millet seeds that were a gift from a farmer I’d cold-called looking for a local gluten-free grain. Jean and the Hediger family are dry-land organic farmers who have been growing millet for years. Jean later offered one of her available greenhouses in Nunn, Colorado, as a startup spot for our first malting vessel.
I met Will Soles in 2012, and he witnessed and supported my vision for gluten-free malt. We joined forces to start getting Grouse off the ground almost immediately, and he was instrumental in helping to set up our initial processes and maneuvering through uncharted territory.
It wasn’t long after starting in that Nunn greenhouse we raised seed money and gained a mentor with Greg Thiesen and Slingshot Capital Partners. Will and I found ourselves dreaming bigger and standing in a grain elevator in Wellington, Colorado. Will saw its charm but I was skeptical, buried as the building was beneath years of neglect and trash. With Will’s vision, determination, and a good dose of elbow grease, we transformed that space into the malthouse you all know today.
Year one in Wellington was filled with challenges. Our malting equipment was dairy equipment that Will and I retrofitted to make a uni-malting system. There was zero automation, and the constant attention this malting method required meant that it was hard to make a consistent product. It was clear we needed to invest in better equipment but there was very little demand for our product at that time.
Early in 2014, one year in, Will and I were both exhausted. He was driving back and forth to Winter Park to continue his work as a volunteer firefighter. We were burning through money, fast. It was getting harder and harder to keep sight of the vision I had built at the beginning.
There was a day when it was all just too overwhelming; we decided to throw in the towel and escape to the mountains. I had to call a customer to tell him we were permanently closing and wouldn’t be able to fulfill his malt order. He said that he understood how hard it was, but that people were counting on me; that people were counting on Grouse. Could we please keep going?
I had so much fear and doubt at that point in time. But his plea pushed me to reconsider. Will believed in me. He said he would keep trying with me if that’s what I wanted. Grouse, and life, was something we were in together. He was my biggest cheerleader. So, we drove back to Wellington and leaned in. We literally lived at the malt house, pinched all the pennies, and doubled down on our goals.
2014 and 2015 saw us learning things the hard way. There was a lot of rejection in the early years, with very few breweries making gluten-free beer at the time. But the breweries we were working with were loyal, and really happy with our products and their quality. Slowly, we grew; we added new, better equipment and hired team members.
That was the next challenging thing to learn: how to manage people. I love to get my hands dirty and do the work myself. Somehow, running the business when it was small enough to do everything myself was, in many ways, easier. I was now having to push myself to grow from an entrepreneur to a manager. I had to learn, in real time, what it takes to build a team and help them grow. The skill set was completely different from any I’ve had before. The growth it brought me also brought a newfound respect for collaboration; it’s rewarding to see someone you’ve trained begin to surpass your abilities.
By 2016, more hands were needed to help the malthouse turn. Our team has seen a lot of incredible people, especially in those early years with William Soles, Rita Henley, Steven Carr, Alex Mackewich, and Jessica Johnstone.
In 2016 we had pushed through most of the major growing pains, and Grouse was finally showing real promise. Will and I had a baby boy, Alpen. Grouse was gaining momentum, and the market was welcoming the high-quality gluten-free beer being produced by our customers. Our operations were being refined and perfected, and customer feedback reflected that. There were still challenges; cash flow is a never-ending problem. I encouraged Will to get another job, so our entire household wasn’t dependent on Grouse.
While working at that new job, Will had a fatal accident. His death was devastating for me. He died two weeks before our best friends’ wedding, and a week before our son’s first birthday. It was a lifetime too soon.
Will’s community, our family, and friends supported and comforted Alpen and I in the weeks and months that followed. The Grouse team kept the malthouse and equipment running; they assured me they had everything under control, and that I should take the time I needed.
It was almost too hard to return to the building we had built together. Being at the malt house was a mix of torture and comfort. Will’s spirit was ingrained in everything; he had built so much of Grouse that there were memories everywhere.
As difficult as it was, I knew I had to keep going. Will and I had worked too hard to build this business. He set me up into my dream job, and I couldn’t just throw that away because it got hard again. I was devoted to Grouse with a new energy, and partially as a coping mechanism. Every waking hour revolved, in part, around Grouse.
I’ll never forget one night a while after Will passed when I got an alert at 2 AM that a mission-critical machine had gone offline. I woke Alpen up and told him that we had to go fix something at the malthouse. He rubbed his eyes and said, “Okay, mama. I’ll get my work pants on.” Just like his daddy, he was willing to help do whatever was needed to keep the business going.
Will’s death was a reality check that Grouse needed to continue without me if necessary. I started documenting and standardizing everything. It was a huge turning point for both Grouse, and for me. It allowed me to take a few steps back and begin to detangle my identity from the malthouse. Moreover, I had the desire to assure our customers that the existence of Grouse didn’t hinge on my existence.
Over the years we’ve seen a lot of turnover for the Grouse team. It is difficult, especially knowing that the majority of our current team did not know Will. But his spirit and work ethic continue to infuse everything we do.
For so long, I lived in a fight-or-flight mentality with Grouse. There was so much struggle and arduous work. But this 10-year anniversary has forced me to reflect on how far we’ve come and accept the journey for what it is. I no longer have the feeling of desperately needing to prove ourselves. We’ve done that. Grouse’s products, their consistency, and what our customers can create speak for themselves.
As we reflect on the last ten years, something I am extremely proud of is the relationships we’ve created and how our work at Grouse has rippled out from our local community and into the industry at large.
Working with local Colorado farmers, supporting family farms, and learning how important millet and buckwheat are in our region has been another important aspect of the work Grouse does. Millet and buckwheat are both drought resistant crops and have a huge potential as we navigate climate change.
Grouse has been fortunate to be part of a paradigm shift in the craft brewing industry, proving that you can create a great beer that just so happens to be gluten-free. Grouse has become an industry leader for quality gluten-free malts supported by exceptional customer service. We’re honored to have helped set the bar high for gluten-free beer; life is too short to drink bad beer.
For all the difficulty the past ten years have brought, I’m still looking to the future with high hopes. Grouse will always continue to support craft brewing, but we’re excited to explore new ways our products can be used. Our ongoing research and developing partnerships with customers are bringing our malts further into the food and beverage space. I believe the flavor and color our malts offer can drastically improve the taste and nutrition of gluten-free foods and the next 10 years will be full of collaboration in this sector. I feel excited about our new products and collaborations because it still aligns with Grouse’s mission that we set all those years ago: We believe all people should have access to high quality food and beverages regardless of an intolerance or allergy.
Thank you all for being a part of this journey. To our staff, farmers, customers, friends, family; I hope you know how important you are to Grouse Malt House and to me personally