Tallgrass Brewing Co. owner Jeff Gill talks retiring Velvet Rooster, Ethos, Halcyon and 16-Bit while introducing new beers in 2016

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Tallgrass Brewing Co. is in the midst of major changes. Earlier this year, the largest brewery in the state of Kansas moved into its next phase, with a $7.5 million, 60,000-square-foot production facility as well as the opening of the Tallgrass Tap House in downtown Manhattan.

But with growth comes hard decisions. So there’s good news — and, unfortunately, bad. 

First, the bad news: Five Tallgrass beers are being retired — Ethos IPA, Velvet Rooster Belgian-Style Tripel, 16-Bit Double Pale Ale, Halcyon Unfiltered Wheat and Ginger Peach Saison — as of February 2016.

“We love Ethos,” Tallgrass owner Jeff Gill tells The Pitch. “We love Velvet Rooster. We love 16-Bit — in fact, 16-Bit is our go-to beer around here for brewers when we’re out having beers or hanging out at the brewery. But you know, the sales of them and how the brands fit with where we want to take the brewery into the future — they just didn’t seem to make as much sense as beers such as 8-Bit or Buffalo Sweat or Vanilla Bean Buffalo Sweat or Zombie Monkie.

“With the challenges of today’s craft-beer world, shelf space is at a premium, and that’s not going away anytime soon,” Gill continues. “In fact, it’s going to get more intense. So we’re a little unusual, like we were five years ago with [moving from] bottles to cans, in that we’re taking our lineup from 10 brands that are in 16-ounce cans down to eight. We’re sharpening our blade a little more out there. Those beers have had their day. Let’s move forward.”

The decision to retire Velvet Rooster wasn’t a popular one in the Gill home. His wife was none too pleased with the Rooster’s demise. (And for the record, she isn’t the only one disappointed; Velvet Rooster is my go-to Tallgrass beer.)

“She was pretty disappointed when she heard it,” Gill says. “How many stages of grief are there?”

Of course, the bottom line is the major decider. And Velvet Rooster may have unfortunately been the victim of the success of Buffalo Sweat and 8-Bit.

“We really damaged that brand when we couldn’t make it anymore back in August 2014 and we took it off the shelves for about five months,” Gill says. Then, Tallgrass was still in its old facility. The limited capacity there deemed that the top two priorities for the Manhattan brewery had to be 8-Bit and Buffalo Sweat. “That really hurt it in a lot of markets that we sell it, and it lost a lot of momentum, unfortunately, as it was gaining a lot of momentum. It just doesn’t make sense to carry that beer any longer. It makes more sense to tap into more of the creation where a lot of these ideas come from.”

And Tallgrass needs to ride the beers that are selling, such as Buffalo Sweat and 8-Bit.

“Between those two brands, those are about 60 percent of our business; we couldn’t risk that,” Gill says, recalling the 2014 decision to suspend production of Velvet Rooster. “Velvet Rooster, being a tripel, is not an easy beer to make, and it takes quite a bit of time in the fermentation cycle and the brewing process. We decided that that one is one that needs to go. I will probably always remember that brand, if we never come out with the beer again, as maybe one that got away because the sales for it the same month that we made that decision really started to spike in the Chicago market. And then we had to not make it anymore. It was tough as a business owner to see that occur, but our hands were kind of tied then. The reason we weren’t prepared for that was Buffalo Sweat had grown so darnn much in 2014, it was really surging and exceeding our expectations, and well over-ordered for what we were able to produce. So we were in triage mode at that point.”

And though this is a retirement, Gill says he’s open to brewing Velvet Rooster in the future. 

“I’m not going to say that’s off the table or anything like that,” Gill says. “I could definitely see us doing that, but for now, we have no plans to bring it back.”

While Velvet Rooster, Ethos and Halcyon may no longer live on liquor-store shelves, the beers may find a second life in Tallgrass’s Manhattan Tap House, which operates with a 10-barrel system.

“We’re actually already doing a Cranberry Halcyon that we’re looking at releasing down there, and that’s going to be a lot of fun,” Gill says. “They’re going to brew for sure Halcyon down there at the Tap House, and I think Velvet Rooster would be a great beer to make down there. Of course, everybody likes good IPAs, so why not make Ethos down there? That’s definitely a creative outlet for us, and a way to do some beers that are favorites of people and bring them back.”

Now the good news: Tallgrass is adding three new beers to its 16-ounce can lineup. Those beers are Top Rope IPA (6 percent ABV, 52 IBUs), Songbird Saison (4.8 percent ABV, 30 IBUs) and Half-Pipe Tart Pale Ale (5 percent ABV, 30 IBUs). Top Rope and Songbird, both year-round releases, will debut in February while Half-Pipe will hit in March as a March-to-July seasonal.

“I’m really excited about all of these,” Gill says. 

Top Rope, a big, hoppy IPA, is an ode to 1980s and ’90s pro wrestling, even quoting Hulk Hogan’s signature line — “Let me tell you something, brother.” Gill says he definitely wants Tallgrass to continue offering Belgian-style beers, hence Songbird. 

Also on the way, four new beers in the Explorer Series line of specialty brews. Joining the lineup for the first part of 2016 (in four-packs of 12-ounce cans) will be:

  • The Grizz imperial IPA (9.5 percent ABV), available from January through March.
  • Sweet Tooth, a salted caramel Belgian dark strong ale (9.2 percent ABV), available from February through March.
  • Biere de Mars (7 percent ABV), available from March through April. “Not a lot of that beer style is out there,” Gill says. “This is our interpretation of that. We were playing around with that and just fell in love with it and wanted to share it with folks.”
  • Raspberry Jam Berliner weisse (4.3 percent), available in April through July. “It’s our Berliner weisse that we’ve made at the Tap House before, but with the raspberry syrup in it,” Gill says. “It’s a nice little magical combination of sweet and fruity and tart.”

Look for four more Explorer Series beers in the second half of 2016, including the return of Big Ricc Russian imperial stout. 

“That was a real favorite of people,” Gill says. Other previously released Explorer Series beers may end up being one-offs. 

And as Tallgrass moves into 2016, look for the regional brewery’s distribution territory to grow with the addition of Colorado, New Mexico, Indiana, Louisiana and maybe Texas.

Until then, better stock up on Velvet Rooster, Ethos, Halcyon and 16-Bit.

See also: Mother’s, Free State, Tallgrass — new brews call for road-tripping

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