Elevating the Industry’s Finest

How Elite Brands Has Built and Supported a World-Class Portfolio of Brands

Written by: Lesli Gegen

Colorado is choosy. Over the last 40 plus years, the state has developed a reputation for being one of the world’s primary craft beer destinations. Since then, the state has also risen to sixth place in number of actively operating d­istilleries and winemaking has begun to thrive on the state’s Western Slope. All this to say, choosy in a good way. Colorado loves craft. And, Elite Brands has been delivering craft to the good folks of Colorado for more than 20 years, having celebrated its 20th anniversary this past February.

It’s no secret that distributors have been a necessary part of that process in Colorado since 1933. At the end of Prohibition, the state enacted what’s known as the three-tier system, which keeps the production, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages legally separate. As part of this, distributors have been a crucial part of Colorado’s alcohol industry for the past 90 years, ensuring that beer, wine and spirits are delivered to retail locations across the state from producers around the world. However, even though distributors are mandated by legislation in the state, when Elite Brands was founded in 2003, it set out to be the distributor that people worked with because they wanted to, not because they had to.

And wanted to, they have. Over the years, many brands have found their way to Elite Brands. Although their reasons for seeking out a distribution partner always differ, the sentiment about the company has remained the same.

One of the first brands that signed on to work with the newly founded Elite Brands was Michael Pozzan Winery out of Napa, California, a medium-sized, family-owned winery. Over the years they’ve grown from doing 1,000 cases per year to 125,000 cases, but their philosophy has remained the same, to create affordable wines that can be enjoyed by many. Later this year, they’ll release their first estate bottle of Cabernet from a vineyard in Calistoga, a product they hope they’ll be able to distribute down the line as they are able to increase production.

Speaking about his first introduction to Elite Brands’ founder Terry Cekola, Michael Pozzan said, “I met Terry at a Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America conference in Florida. At the time, we were a relatively young company and didn’t have distribution in Colorado, but she made a real impression on me. She was young, a go getter and hungry for the business. That’s who we wanted to partner with as we were looking towards the next stage of growth.”

Nic Jumel, Elite Brands portfolio director, with Michael Pozzan, on a trip to California in 2015.

Nearly ten years later, Telluride Brewing came onto the scene. Founders Tommy Thacher and Chris Fish met a local bar in Telluride and shared a dream of opening their own brewery. In their first year, their beer won gold medals in both the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival, and they’ve been unstoppable ever since. This year, they’re adding a 30-barrel brewhouse, which will allow them to continue to focus on increasing their capacity and helping with efficiencies.

Leadership from Telluride Brewing Co. and Elite Brands at an annual “meeting” on the mountain in Telluride.

In 2012, shortly after opening, Telluride Brewing Company tapped Elite Brands to help them work towards their goal of becoming a production brewery once they had established themselves locally. Once Tommy started looking at distribution partners, they found that Elite Brands came the most highly recommended. “Elite Brands has a great craft beer portfolio. What really appealed to us was their attention to craft, their knowledge of craft and their dedication to craft,” Tommy shared. The model has been so successful for the brewery that they looked to replicate it when they took their distribution to Arizona, the first time Telluride Brewing Company beers made their way outside of Colorado.

Right on the heels of its 20th anniversary, Elite Brands welcomed Peach Street Distillers to the family, who has the bragging rights for the oldest independently owned distiller’s license in the state of Colorado. Located on the Western Slope of Colorado in Palisade, it’s always been important for the team to maintain a close tie to the local agriculture community in distilling their spirits. In fact, the corn for their bourbon is grown right around the corner from the distillery. And, since they have the benefit of an 18-year history, they’re able to pull spirits out of their rickhouse that showcase both age and complexity, such as a 12 year peated single malt that they’ll be releasing for the holidays.

The Peach Street Distillers Team at the distillery in Palisade, Colorado. Photos courtesy: Peach Street Distillers

While Peach Street Distillers has been in some form of distribution since 2006, they only joined forces with Elite Brands in early 2023. “We certainly evaluated a number of distributors in Colorado when looking for a new partner,” said Dustin LeMoine, director of sales at Peach Street Distillers. “We’re a small brand that is hyperlocal, focused on knowing who we buy our ingredients from and whom we share our finished spirits with. It was important to us to work with a distributor who fit that ethos.”

Elite Brands is proud of how they have helped, and will continue to help, these brands grow over the years, alongside the many others in their portfolio.

“Working with Elite Brands and the culture that Terry has built has been a great fit for us,” said Dante Pozzan, director of sales and marketing at Michael Pozzan Winery. “Elite Brands works with a lot of small- and medium-sized companies and they’re experts at building brands. Early on, we were in a lot of retail locations, but Elite Brands really pushed us to get into restaurants and that’s been a great avenue to expose us to new customers, both in Denver as well as the greater Midwest.”

Dante Pozzan of Michael Pozzan Winery with account managers from Elite Brands on an educational trip to California to visit the winery.

Growth strategies are also highly personalized for Elite Brands’ suppliers. When Telluride Brewing Company first began distributing outside of nearby Durango and Montrose, they didn’t have the capacity to do a full, statewide launch. After initially launching in Boulder, Elite Brands was very happy to stay the course until the brewery was able to increase their capacity and move into Denver. “Elite Brands worked with us until we could effectively launch the full state,” said Tommy. “There was no pressure. It always felt like Elite Brands was in it for the long haul and thinking about how we could make it a successful partnership that worked for both sides.”

New to the Elite Brands family, Dustin at Peach Street Distillers is excited about the possibilities. “When I’ve visited customers with the Elite Brands team, it’s been nice to see the excitement around some of the more obscure spirits that we make like the smoked ryes and pear gins of the world,” he shared. “It takes a dedicated sales team to even know that those things are in the portfolio. The excitement that Elite Brands has been able to generate for that part of our portfolio has been incredible.”

Elite Brands President & Owner, Terry Cekola, with Telluride Breiwng Co. co-founders, Tommy and Fish.

 Alongside the growth of these brands, there’s no doubt that the beer, wine and spirits industries have all been evolving. “There are 4,000 bonded wineries in California now,” said Michael Pozzan. “There’s more competition out there since we started, but we have kept the same business model, which is to make the best possible wine that we can, to keep relationships up with our distributors and to be priced right.”

The industry has changed similarly for craft beer, which has seen the number of craft breweries in Colorado go from 190 to close to 600 since Telluride Brewing Company was founded, leading to a substantial increase in competition. When speaking about how he’s adapting, Tommy said “like any brand, you have to stay true to your course. We’re going to stick to the styles that [co-founder Chris Fish and I] both like to drink and want our name associated with. It’s a big passion and labor of love for us. We want to be proud of anything we put out in the market.”

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, spirits have also seen the boom. With over 100 distillers in the Colorado Distillers Guild currently, Peach Street Distillers has been faced with major change since they acquired that first independently owned distiller’s license in the state of Colorado. Sharing how Elite Brands is able to help brands navigate the increasing competition, Dustin shared that “in order to be competitive in Denver or Boulder, it’s awfully nice to have a distributor that’s well-respected, has that local touch, knows the independent market and can bring you in the door and really show off the hard work your team has been putting into crafting the product.”

At the end of the day, the team at Elite Brands is proud to have built a business that has helped sustain their suppliers’ businesses by representing their brands proudly. In turn, they’ve created a portfolio of brands that feels more like family.

“We have viewed Elite Brands as family since day one. They’ve had our back and we’ve had theirs, and we’ve been able to grow to where we are now because of this partnership,” said Tommy.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Michael. “Business is business and sometimes you have to do business with people that you’re not necessarily crazy about,” he shared. “But it’s been a pleasure working with Elite Brands over the years and I wish we had more distributors like them.”