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November 6, 2018

Meet Alumnus Brian Dunn: The Brains Behind the Beer

As the sheer number of Colorado craft breweries at Denver’s annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF) makes clear, the state has become a mecca for microbrewers.

But Denver wasn’t always so beer-friendly. Back in 1994, before there was a tasting room on every block, University of Denver alumnus Brian Dunn founded Great Divide Brewing Co., making him one of the elder statesmen in the American craft beer scene.

Other craft breweries existed in Denver in the early ’90s — Wynkoop, Breckenridge, and Rock Bottom chief among them — but Great Divide was the first to forgo the brewpub model and focus exclusively on brewing beer that could be sold in liquor stores and local restaurants.

“In the early years it was pretty hard,” says Brian, who came up with the concept for Great Divide while studying for his master’s degree in Environmental Policy and Management at University College. “I worked for a long time without getting paid, but even when there was no money, we were still paying [our employees], buying ingredients, buying glass, because you didn’t have a choice. But it’s my passion, it’s what I wanted to do, and damn it, I was going to make it go.”

Brian’s route to craft beer was a bit circuitous — he grew up in Vermont, earned a degree in agriculture and soil sciences from Colorado State University, then got a job with a Fort Collins-based company that develops farms in Third World and developing countries.

“We built 40 center-pivot irrigation systems in the desert of Algeria, then I worked in Portugal trying to get a strawberry project going, then I worked on the sales and marketing side of a company that took fruits and vegetables grown in South America and shipped them to North America and Europe,” he says. When it came time to open his brewery, “I knew how to write a business plan, I knew how to buy large amounts of equipment, to get projects going in a fairly tough environment, and I knew how to sell it.”

He also knew how to develop ideas in collaboration with others, a skill he honed in his classes at the University of Denver.

“All of a sudden you’re working with three people, and you have to come up with a presentation, which I never had to do as an undergraduate,” he says. “That’s a lot of real world. That’s like work: Let’s figure this project out and convince a bigger group why this makes sense. That’s real life. That was really cool.”

This story was adapted from Greg Glasgow’s article “University College graduate is the brains behind one of Denver’s oldest craft breweries.”

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