Brewer bites into dog treat business

A local home brewer is using his leftovers to make dog treats. Photo by Burl Rolett.

A local home brewer is using his leftovers to make dog treats. Photo by Burl Rolett.

The home brew business is going to the dogs – at least if one Denver entrepreneur has his way.

Terry Runion launched pet treat company Little Big Dawg Brewery, baking the byproduct from his home brews into dog treats.

“I started thinking, well one of my passions is dogs, and I’ve become passionate about beer, so why not combine the two?” Runion said.

He started the business last year with a $4,500 investment from the sale of a 1958 Ford Fairlane. And if he can get the treats to take off, he wants to eventually build a brewery for humans, too.

Terry Runion

Terry Runion

Runion, who works full-time in IT at National Jewish Health, sells the treats in two local pet spas. Spas and groomers are the company’s “sweet spot,” Runion said, and Little Big Dawg is focusing on getting their treats in more dog pampering spots before branching out to other pet care outlets.

The treats sell for about $7 at Wash Park Pet Spa and Spawology in Lakewood. So far Runion is selling four flavors of dog treats in brands inspired by his own pups Roxy and Rico, the miniature pinscher Runion called a little dog who thinks he’s a big dog.

Runion said pet spas have been a good place to start because larger pet retail shops come with a lot of competition in the dog treat aisle. The company advertises online, but he said online sales are tough because dog treats are an impulse buy, not a product consumers think to order online.

Little Big Dawg uses spent grains left over from Runion’s line of home-brewed beer, which so far includes a saison, a golden ale and a black rye IPA. The brewing process draws the starches out of the grains, leaving a protein-rich brewing byproduct that brewers around the country are finding new uses for.

Larger beer makers often sell the grain to farms for animal feed. The Associated Press reported that a Virginia brewery is using it to make bread and the Alaskan Brewing Co. burns it for fuel. Runion’s favorite Denver-area pizza place, Dad and Dude’s Breweria, uses spent grain in its pizza dough.

Little Big Dawg packages its dog treats at Runion’s home kitchen. The grains replace the wheat Runion said is often used as filler in dog food.

Runion is no stranger to the dog-eat-dog world of startups.

He launched an online comic strip 15 years ago while living in Phoenix and has since started and shuttered an embroidery company, a photography business and a mobile arcade that packed eight Xbox systems into a Hummer.little big dawg logo

But Runion said Little Big Dawg has gotten off to a faster start than any of his previous startups and picked up its first accounts a week after launching in August. Runion said that while dogs don’t care what’s in their treats, the packaging will draw human buyers to the brand.

He also said owners want a dog treat without the wheat that his beer grains replace.

“We’ve actually talked to pet stores and pet supply companies, and they are adamantly against wheat,” he said. “The problem you run into is a lot of big companies use a lot of that.”

Little Big Dawg’s treats do not contain any alcohol. The company also makes sure the product is free of other brewing products that could hurt dogs. For example, the same batch of hops that makes a beer drinker squint and purse his lips could be toxic to a four-legged friend.

So far Little Big Dawg has four flavors of dog treats with another two on the way.

Runion hopes to take the product to farmers markets next year and is looking into buying tricycles with freezers on them to peddle frosted treats for dogs and frozen treats to their owners.

Eventually Runion wants a brewery of his own – of the human variety.

“I would love to get this thing going, not only as an income source for the kids and myself, but to finance a brewery.” Runion said. “That was the whole concept – Little Big Dawg will be a small brewery and be one of the little dogs in a big dog world.”

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