Brewery Showcase | LUKI Brewery
“We were just another set of yahoos trying to make it happen,” Jeff Smith, owner and brewer at LUKI Brewery in Arvada, Colorado says. “There are so many delusions of grandeur, so I respect the professional collective apathy at yet another ‘homebrewer going pro’ story.”
In 2018, Smith quit his job to focus on the brewery full-time, unaware (as we all were) of the pandemic that would soon ravage the industry. When his family cut the ribbon on LUKI (a combination of his daughters’ names) in July of 2020, Smith’s “delusions of grandeur” manifested into a wild new reality: A fun, circus-themed brewery on the west side of Arvada.
Send in the Clowns (Actually, Please Don’t)
There’s an inherent terror in the term “circus-themed,” but visiting the brewery eases any anxiety about seeing clowns or any of the nightmare-inducing things that horror movies and TV shows depict. Smith himself does not like clowns.
“I’m not scared of them,” he clarifies. “I just get uneasy if I suddenly get their attention. I always do, no matter what I do…eye contact or no eye contact. I just have that ‘let’s mess with this guy for comedic purposes’ face.”
The inspiration for the brewery’s circus theme, with its big-top-tent inspired bar and Ringling Bros. memorabilia, is family history. Great grandfather Richard Smith and great-grandmother Freida (a.k.a. Mademoiselle Chloe, elephant rider and snake charmer) were part of the Golden Age of Ringling Bros in a span that lasted over 20 years.
“Our family are performers at heart. My wife and I met in college; we were both part of the CU Marching Band. Our daughter was a Silhouette dancer, when Shadowlight Theater was still in Arvada. Both daughters are in Band and Choir. When your group is like this, and they’re functioning well, you quickly develop a camaraderie. This isn’t just performance arts, it extends in a lot of places…sports teams, military and even good coworkers. I look through the memorabilia we have, and what always comes through in these photos is that team bond. They were traveling, performing, and they were all in it together. One of my favorite pictures is a group of obvious performers, stagehands, etc. sitting in a circle together peeling potatoes. They were all helping, because everyone had to eat! It was a self-sustaining community group. It reminded us of our experiences in band and sports, and it’s something we wanted to push at the brewery. All breweries say ‘community,’ but we want to provide an avenue where the camaraderie could develop and take a bigger role. And we wanted to be an event-based brewery. With our family’s background, the circus theme felt like a no-brainer. As long as we didn’t make it cheesy.”
Though it’s been a while since anyone’s been to the circus, or any event really, Smith strives to bring the same sense of wonder and entertainment to what he’s doing with LUKI. As much as is humanly possibly at the moment, LUKI is an event-focused brewery. And the beers Smith likes to focus on the most are traditional styles with classic profiles.
The Main Act: The Beers of LUKI
“In the 12+ weeks we’ve been open, we’ve gotten a lot of appreciation for focusing on simpler styles, and that’s been really rewarding. I think that shows the maturity of the craft beer industry in Colorado,” Smith says about his tendency toward traditional styles. “I grew up with New Belgium and and Boulder Beer Co., and explored craft beer through Old Chicago’s World Beer Tour (which I finished when I was 30). There are a lot of us that have those same memories, but the world is currently hazy, sour, lactose and fruit. Sometimes I wonder if those got popular because traditional styles are harder to get right.”
But ever-committed to entertaining the crowd and giving the fans what they want, Smith is hardly a stranger to the experimental batch of beer. “I get asked constantly about sours. We have one hazy and it’s our biggest seller. Do I take up another tap for a slightly different version? It’s hard to say. You still have to read the room. The beer needs to be created by the community, not just what I want to drink. Going into this with a mindset of no distribution has helped a lot in being reactive to what people want. Committing 7BBL to a style you’re not trying to get into stores is much less stressful than 50BBL that you’re going to have canned.”
In the spirit of the election year, and in the spirit of “reading the room” as Smith puts it, LUKI recently conducted a poll to decide what their next beer creation would be. The goal of the event was to encourage people to vote, but also have patrons become very active participants in the decision-making process for what beers go on tap. The beer, “Democracy IPA,” was released on election day, so those who participated (and anyone else who wants a taste) can reap the fruits of their efforts.
LUKI also recently released Grammy’s Pumpkin Pie, a spiced Brown Ale that has similar notes of a traditional Pumpkin Ale, but without the oft-overpowering cloves. It’s a family recipe (somewhere down the line, someone hated cloves) and it’s been a success so far at the brewery. It pairs well with crisp fall evenings.
I had the opportunity to sample a few other of LUKI’s brews, including Firewalker IPA. If you’re a hop-head, the instinct might be to try the 77 IBU “Monkey Business,” or the New England IPA “Spinning Hazy” (their best seller). But the star of the show may very well be Firewalker IPA — a Red IPA. Smith has essentially taken an Amber Ale and paired it with an aggressively hopped IPA, which creates a beautiful hybrid.
Firewalker pours an opaque, deep amber color with a prominent head. There’s a slight citrus aroma in the nose. The beer overall is fairly light on the palate, but all of the elements of a classically well-done beer are present: Roasted, malty undertones, cereal grain and a pleasant twinge of hoppy bitterness.
The brewery also very recently came out with their “217” Blood Orange Imperial IPA, so stop by and try a flight; Smith is always pushing the boundaries and trying new things — entertaining the crowd while sticking to his traditional roots.
The Show Must Go On
Starting a new brewery is like a tightrope walk, with no balance bar or safety net, and a bunch of people are rocking it back and forth while you walk across. All of this was true before the pandemic. While there have been obvious challenges this year for Smith and LUKI, he optimistically points out that “our pre-COVID sales were $0. So from our perspective, we’re doing great! Coming up with new marketing ideas is what keeps me excited and motivated — coming up with new and inventive ways to engage and entertain people. We absolutely don’t want to do the same ol’ bingo and trivia nights. We want stupid human tricks night.”
For now though, events are difficult things to navigate. Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, Smith is able to draw some interesting parallels between 1920 and 2020 as the current COVID-19 situation continues to unfold.
“The good (?) part of the 3-4 years spent planning is we had to pivot and adjust so much, that pivoting is just a part of the operation now. We’re in such a ‘make-it-up-as you-go’ mentality that we haven’t made any long-term plans… well, other than the lease. I’m constantly reading the trade pubs, and mornings are pretty typical for me to go down a google rabbit hole exploring new technologies and ideas for brewing and marketing. COVID has changed things forever. The Roaring ’20s may have been a party, but so much changed and adapted to make it what it was. I feel we’re exactly there again. Technology is being developed to make things easier, and it’s not going away when there’s suddenly a vaccine. I like what some breweries have done with Facebook Live concerts, and other similar events. We have to watch the engagement success and embrace these technologies. Tomorrow’s beer drinker is sitting in hybrid classes right now, half in person and half through Zoom. It sounds bad, but they are being conditioned that this is the new normal. Will it really ever go 100% back to the way it was? Doubtful. So what are we, as a brewery, going to do to capitalize on that same level of passive engagement? That’s what we’re challenging ourselves to figure out. We don’t have answers yet, and we’ll probably never have the perfect solution. Barnum had to switch things up constantly, reading his audience and figuring out on-the-fly what the public wanted. This is no different. ‘Modern Problems Require Modern Solutions’ as the Dave Chapelle meme goes.”
So far, Smith and Company’s ability to pivot effectively seems to have paid off as LUKI recently filled all of their taps with beer to meet the demand of their thirsty guests.
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Through the release of our sour and the visit from Dan Daru and Fox 31, it was a great day. But we hit another milestone today. Our taps are full. This may not mean much, but on July 3 when we opened we only had four beers on tap, and still the neighborhood supported us. On behalf of the entire LUKI crew, THANK YOU for being there as we grew this menu for you. This is also a shout-out to those who made the “I’ll have a glass of Coming Soon” joke. Lots of fun releases still planned, including the return of Left (Un)red. See you soon!
When All Else Fails, Join the Circus
As of the writing of this article, LUKI is still open for both in-person and to-go beverage enjoyment (heated seating available outside, socially distanced seating, masks required to enter, etc.) so get in while you can and pick up some crowlers to go or warm up outside on the patio with one of the firepit tables and a pint or two.
You can check out their beer menu in advance at their website, and be sure to check in on Jeff’s blog every so often as his ramblings and rantings are pretty damn enjoyable — almost as much as the beer he’s so meticulously created over the past several years.
Feature Image courtesy of LUKI Brewery