Jeff Cornell was there the day in 2007 when AC Golden Brewing Company was formed.
Or, more accurately, declared.
Cornell was part of the pilot brewing team at the Coors brewery in Golden, Colo., when Pete Coors marched in and addressed the brewers: “You’re AC Golden Brewing Company now,” Coors told them.
“OK,” Cornell, now AC Golden's general manager, remembers thinking. “What’s that?”
“That” was a new brewery, an innovation lab that would use only Colorado ingredients, from the malt to the hops and, of course, water from Golden’s Clear Creek. A skunkworks within Coors given the leeway to experiment with bold beers and, if necessary, fail without eating millions of dollars, under the watchful eye of company veteran Glenn “Knipp” Knippenberg.
On the eve of its 15th anniversary, Cornell says AC Golden has done more than just allowing brewers to tinker. It pioneered the use of all-Colorado ingredients and kickstarted the state’s hop industry. It’s earned beer’s biggest awards, and honored the past with hits like Batch 19 and Barmen Pilsner. And it’s cementing a place in modern Colorado culture with a new outpost in Denver’s popular McGregor Square and a beer brewed for the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
With 15 years behind it, Cornell’s crew is looking ahead to the next 15. The brewery, whose beers are distributed only in Colorado, is thriving on the strength of its Colorado Native brand, led by its flagship Amber Lager, and its Day Pack and Trail Pack variety packs, which have propelled AC Golden to 36% volume growth since 2019 and 218% since 2017, according to IRI data.
That’s outpacing craft as a whole, which has grown 9% since 2019 and 17% since 2017, according to IRI. It’s also growing faster than craft in Colorado, which is up 22% since 2019, according to IRI, when the state revoked a law that limited grocery and convenience stores to selling beer with a maximum of 3.2% ABV.
Still, the brewery is competing against all the interests squeezing beer, which means it’ll keep innovating – but with purpose – Cornell says.
“We want to be very patient and study what’s going on in the market, so we’re coming forth with the right innovations at the right time,” he says. One example of that is AC Golden’s new Juicy IPA variety pack, answering the consumer demand for flavorful, citrusy IPAs.
And it includes taking advantage of physical locations like the AC Golden Tank Room at McGregor Square, the brewery’s first outpost to serve its beer outside of Golden. (The stand-alone retail concept is operated by Tom’s Watch Bar under a naming rights partnership with AC Golden.) Located near Coors Field, the popular area could do for AC Golden what Blue Moon’s RiNo taproom did for that brand, Cornell says.
“We want people to be really immersed in AC Golden and the Colorado Native brand, so they walk away understanding who we are,” he says. “Before the Tank Room, we had plenty of capabilities to be innovative, but no place to serve them.”
If that sounds less like the words of a renegade brewer and more like those of a wizened businessman, it’s true. Cornell’s been at AC Golden since Pete Coors laid down their charge. Perhaps surprising – or not – it’s not the beer that Cornell says makes the brewery special.
“What I love about AC Golden and what makes it unique is the people,” he says. “If anyone’s going to drop a ball, they can raise their hand and make sure it won’t get dropped. We support each other. We’re a tight little team.”
A statement that truly goes beyond beer.
Watch how AC Golden has grown over the last 15 years