By Elizabeth Hans McCrone
It’s no real surprise that Ben Parsons would be the chief instigator in a movement to change Colorado’s beverage distribution laws. Parsons is an unconventional winemaker any way you bottle it. Of course, if you were Ben Parson, you might not bottle it. You’d can it – or keg it.
Parsons is the founder of the Infinite Monkey Theorem (IMT), an urban Colorado winery that he founded in 2008 in a Quonset hut in downtown Denver. In addition to almost single-handedly advancing Colorado’s emerging wine industry, the Australian-trained winemaker is making headlines by trying to transform laws that currently prohibit repackaging out-of-state, bulk wine.
Parsons has been an innovator in unconventional wine packaging since 2011, when he first launched his company’s line of red, white and rosé wine – in a can.
“At the time, there was only one other winery, Francis Ford Coppola, in California doing it,” Parsons said recently. “I figured putting wine into a can would work here (in Colorado). We have a lot of outdoor activity; skiing, hiking … it’s a product you can pack in, pack out, that’s infinitely recyclable.”
To debut his product line, Parsons organized a huge party inside the historic Smuggler Mine in Aspen. Old, mining awl carts were lined with plastic, filled with ice and loaded up with cans of IMT’s Backalley Moscato for culinary and industry aficionados to sample. The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen later heralded the event as one of the year’s “best parties” – and Wine Spectator subsequently awarded Parson’s wine 86 out of 100 points.
“It was the highest scored can of wine ever,” quips Parsons.
Parsons quickly followed that success with the introduction of his team’s increasingly popular wine-on-tap program. Instead of delivering wine to consumers in bottles, the product comes in 5.16-gallon kegs and in refillable “growlers.”
Parsons extols the virtues of kegged wine in terms of its eco-friendly nature (“it’s a 700 bottle equivalent a week in Denver. How much more glass would be going into a recycling bin that we’d have to pay the cost for?”), its time saving technique (“how much time does it take to open a bottle of wine? There’s 660 ounces in a keg. That’s 132 five-ounce pours or 110 six-ounce pours”) and its quality (“we’re pushing wine through a mixed gas combination to preserve freshness – 75% nitrogen, 25% carbon dioxide. How many restaurants even care about that?”).
The concept has caught on. By Parson’s count, more than 80 different restaurants throughout Colorado, San Diego and Phoenix are now featuring wine in a keg, with more climbing up on the bandwagon every day.
“Keg wine now makes up 20% of our volume, up from seven percent in 2012,” Parsons reports. “Every distributor in Colorado is interested. When they’re jumping on board, you know it’s growing significantly.”
Expanding Production and the Boundaries of the Law
In order to accommodate his company’s expansion, Parsons moved his winery to a 29-thousand foot building in Denver’s River North District in June 2012. He not only bottles, kegs, cans and refills growlers of his own wine there; he also provides a keg production line service for other wineries and brands.
Which is where the state legislature comes in. At present, the repackaging of out-of-state wine into kegs or cans is prohibited. According to Parsons, wineries from other states must keg their wines at home, then ship those kegs to local distributors in Colorado. Once the wine is consumed, the empty keg has to go back to the state of origin for refill and the shipping process starts all over again.
Parsons has proposed legislation that would allow outside states to send wine over in lightweight bladders to be kegged in Colorado, and then sent directly to local distributors and retailers. Parsons, who calls this a more “eco-friendly, cost effective means of shipping bulk product,” is optimistic about the bill’s success.
“It passed the House of Representatives unanimously,” Parsons said. “Hopefully, there’s no opposition in the Senate and by the second week of April, it becomes law.”
Assuming the bill passes and Parsons will be able to operate his kegging line full-time, what’s next on tap for this innovative winemaker?
Apparently, it’s beer.
“We’ve applied for our brewing license,” Parsons notes cheerfully. “All of our wine barrels will now rotate into our beer program. It’s big on our radar for this year.”
Parsons, who acknowledges that Colorado has “an active audience of millennials,” says he’s written a business plan that cultivates a younger demographic – people between the ages of 21 to 38. He says 70% of his company’s clientele falls into that age group, which fits perfectly into both his brand and his overall mission about the beverage industry.
“There’s 280 different brewers in Colorado,” Parsons says. “They’ve got creative names and labels … these aren’t dudes smoking cigars and waxing intellectual about what they’re drinking. They’re having fun with it!”