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For the Freshest Hops, You Gotta Hop on The Plane

For the Freshest Hops, You Gotta Hop on The Plane

There are beers made with fresh hops, and then there are beers made with FRESH hops. This is a tale about the latter. It’s also about the brewery owners who fly their own planes to get the freshest of the freshest, plus the good they do with some of the profits from their beer that could benefit us all.

Pilots Turned Brewery Owners

FlyteCo Founders | Photo Courtesy of Malvitz Photography

“Ever since I was little, I have been huge into aviation,” says Eric Serani, co-founder of Denver’s FlyteCo Brewing. “My grandfather had a couple planes. He was big into homebuilding planes in his house with his friends through an organization called the Experimental Aircraft Association.”

When Serani was three, he took his first plane ride in his grandfather’s 1946 Aeronca Champion, a single-engine plane that seats two. On his 16th birthday, he took his first solo flight in that same plane.

“I kept going from there. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away before my 17th birthday, which is when you can get your private pilot’s license,” says Serani. “His group of friends at the local Experimental Aircraft Association chapter stepped in and gave me a scholarship so that I could fly airplanes that had more instruments and get my private pilot’s license.”

Serani is “extremely grateful” for what his grandfather’s friends did for him, and that gratitude informs much of what he and his partners at FlyteCo do now. 

While attending University of Colorado as an aerospace engineering student, Serani met the first of his two FlyteCo partners, Jason Slingsby. He and Slingsby started brewing beer together when Serani’s brother-in-law gave him a home brewing kit for his 21st birthday. Slingsby, who was studying chemical engineering and also came from a family of pilots, helped him make beer that at first was “probably not the greatest.”

Slingsby continued to improve his brewing skills, wanting to create a perfectly balanced beer. Over the years, even after they graduated from college, Serani would build him contraptions—like temperature-controlled fermentation chambers—to help him along. Slingsby is now the head brewer for FlyteCo.

Eventually, Serani bought a home in Denver and moved next to Morgan O’Sullivan, who would complete the trio that launched FlyteCo. Through a series of large neighborhood barbecues where Slingsby would brew the beer and O’Sullivan would invite local chefs to do the cooking, a brewery idea began to form. 

In March 2019, Serani, Slingsby, and O’Sullivan, who all happen to share a passion for the unlikely combination of homebrewing and aviation, opened FlyteCo in Denver. 

From Vine to Kettle 

FlyteCo Beer | Photo Courtesy of Dustin Holstein

Supply chain-wise, Denver is a convenient place to open a brewery. 

“We’re centrally located in the country and we can get pretty much any ingredient, any hops, from anywhere,” says Serani. Denver’s vibrant beer culture there means that FlyteCo can get many of its needs from the same local homebrew store Serani and Slinsby used when they were homebrewers, or from a massive local brewers supply group. 

Unsurprisingly, it’s also not difficult for FlyteCo to source hops. Hops can come from all over. They’re dried into pellets. The dried pellets travel well and are useful long after they’re dried.

Fresh hops, when refrigerated for transportation, can be 3- or 4-days-old by the time they make it to a brewery. But to get super fresh hops—which have the most floral aroma—a brewery needs to grow its own, be located next to a hops farm, or do it the way FlyteCo does: Hop in a plane and take flight to collect just-picked hops, bringing them back to the brewery within hours of their harvest. 

And so the origin of what’s now known as the “hop flight” started the year the brewery opened.

“My friend and mentor Ryan Evans, who founded Bruz Beers, texted me when he was camping at a hop farm up in Paonia, Colorado,” says Serani. 

“Do you want to try to fly your plane out here and pick up some fresh hops and brew a fresh hop beer?” Serani recalls Evans texting. The answer, of course, was “Yes.”

About two weeks before harvest, the FlyteCo team created a recipe for the beer and a flight plan. When the plane took off to collect the hops, brewing began at the brewery. When the plane landed with the just-cut hops, they went straight into the kettle. 

Overall, the trip was about 3 hours to and from Denver. 

“It’s about the shortest time possible from vine to brew kettle,” says Serani. 

The hop varieties change yearly depending on which hop farm they fly to. FlyteCo has used both High Wire Hops in Paonia and Billy Goat Hop Farm in Montrose. But the beer’s name stays the same— Hop is My Co-Pilot—and it’s always crafted in a West Coast IPA style that Serani describes as a “light, easy drinking, highly aromatic beer.”

Supporting Future Pilots

Stripes to Bars + FlyteCo Team | Photo Credit: Stripes to Bars

The trio of partners has had much success with FlyteCo, and they want to pay it forward in a specific way. 

Ten percent of all profits go toward various scholarship and youth engagement organizations with a focus on helping youth learn to fly. 

“There’s a massive pilot shortage that is looming,” says Serani. “The aviation industry is growing and there are a lot of people from the baby boomer generation that are going to be forced into retirement in the next few years. In order to keep the whole global supply chain and travel network up, we’re going to have to train an insane number of pilots.” 

In 2022, after the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the airline industry, Boeing’s long-term forecast saw a demand for “2.1 million new aviation personnel over the next 20 years to safely support the recovery in commercial air travel and meet rising long-term growth.” 602,000 of those personnel will need to be pilots. 

FlyteCo can’t offer scholarships to all 602,000 pilots that are needed, but it can bring attention to the issue with its brand.

“We’re trying to do a small part with helping some people get a leg up with getting into the industry,” says Serani. “It’s a very expensive investment to make on yourself.”

The company donates partial scholarships, working with organizations such as the Experimental Aircraft Association (the one that helped Serani after his grandfather died), and Stripes to Bars, a scholarship fund that helps vets transitioning out of the military get a start in aviation. Some commercial pilots, who were already in the process of getting their licenses, have also been helped along the way by FlyteCo’s scholarships. 

With the upcoming opening this August of a second FlyteCo Brewing location, FlyteCo Tower, in Denver’s historic, now defunct Stapleton International Airport, the company will draw even more attention to the need for pilots and funding for pilot training. The space will have bowling lanes, mini golf, an arcade, and a full food and bar menu with happy hour. And, 10 percent of all those new profits will help educate the pilots we’ll all be relying on in the not-so-distant future.