More than 20 years ago, Colorado native Mike Bristol and his wife, Amanda, opened Bristol Brewing Company.
And despite the increasing demand for their beers (on draft and in six-packs) across the state, roughly 70 percent of the company’s business remains in Colorado Springs — and they plan to keep it that way.
“A lot of breweries that have any sort of size are selling out,” said the 52-year-old from Fort Collins. “They’re getting bought out and bringing in private equity firms, and we feel it’s important to be independent, family-owned and in the community. I think the craft brewing industry is a compelling reason to have regional breweries that aren’t spread all over the country, and I know that when I travel, I love to visit local breweries and drink local beer.”
Two years ago, the Bristols relocated their brewery to the repurposed 1916 Ivywild School because they wanted more space, but also “to also be a part of something bigger,” revitalizing the neighborhood, he said.
This week, Bristol shared with the Business Journal his thoughts on nearby redevelopment, what’s next for his business and reasons for only offering his award-winning brews such as Laughing Lab, Winter Warlock and Red Rocket in Colorado.
When did you open your brewery?
I started the brewery with my wife in 1994.
Backtracking a bit, I grew up in Fort Collins and received my degree in mechanical engineering at Colorado State University. My first job out of college was in the car business — I went to work for Nissan North America and got the job based on my degree, but it wasn’t a strict engineering job.
The closer I got to graduating I thought, ‘I don’t want to sit in a cubicle, designing a spring for the door handle on a car. I want to do something outside of the office.’
It was a great job and I did that for a little over five years. I was a field representative and the job moved me to Florida.
That’s when for fun, I started home brewing and fell in love with the process. I guess because of my background in engineering, I felt like I had to tweak everything and I read everything I could get my hands on.
Did you brew beer with your roommate?
My roommate didn’t brew with me, but certainly liked to drink the results. Fortunately, neither him nor I did much cooking, which was good because the kitchen was pretty much taken over by the home-brew lab.
In fact, what ended up being the Red Rocket pale ale — one of the two beers we launched — was a beer I did specifically for his wedding. He asked me to do it based on the stuff he had tasted. With minor modifications, that’s the beer Red Rocket was based on.
It was during that time I met my wife and we home-brewed together.
She was in the advertising business, a creative director for a small advertising agency in Jacksonville. As I started thinking about going into business, we really thought about it together. During that time, I would come home [most of my family is still in Fort Collins] and I saw New Belgium [Brewing Co.] start up and watched Odell [Brewing Co.] start up. That was really the first point where I thought, ‘Wow, you can really make a living doing this? We should consider it.’
What did you do next?
We put together a business plan. It was more to convince us [my wife and I] that it was worthwhile than convince anyone else — although we did need to raise money. But I viewed the business plan as a tool to say, ‘OK, does this really make sense for our own purposes?’
We raised money from private individuals and then launched. I was 29 and my wife was 28. We started at a little industrial park off of Garden of the Gods Road on Forge Road, where we only sold draft beer. You could only get our beer at a restaurant, bar or come to our space to get your growlers filled. It blew our minds that people wanted to come to our location, and made us think more about the concept of a tasting room, eventually moving to a building on South Tejon in 1998.
Why did you move your business into Ivywild?
I knew around 2001 that we were growing and were going to grow out of that space. So I started looking at options to try and get ahead and think about what we wanted to do. The model for most craft breweries when they got to that point was: They went out and bought a piece of property, somewhere on the outskirts of town in an industrial area, and built a big metal building, shipping beer all over the country.
And that just didn’t appeal to us. We felt strongly that we wanted to be part of the community because we were already ingrained in it and wanted to maintain that.
We also loved this area, with our brewery being across the street [South Tejon] and also wanted to be a part of something bigger.
Joe Coleman, my partner in the building, owns The Blue Star. We were already neighbors, owning a building together but having separate businesses. So we basically brought the same model to Ivywild.
“We’re fortunate that the Colorado consumer knows good beer.”
My wife and I own Bristol Brewing Company, and The Principal’s Office, bakery and café are Coleman’s enterprises. We’re partners in the building and work together on the kitchen. We also have a smaller, third partner, the architect, Jim Fennell.
This project was not just about selling beer, coffee and food. It was more about synergies, community and really having a gathering place for people. I think it was a natural evolution and great opportunity for us. I think it’s made a really positive impact not only on our business but I think people have a better sense of who we are and what we do.
A lot of energy and revitalization has been brought to this neighborhood; it was on the downward trend. So we’re excited to be a part of that.
Will you ever distribute outside of Colorado?
Right now we have no plans to go out of Colorado.
Between liquor stores, restaurants and bars, I would bet our beer is sold between 600 to 700 places in Colorado Springs and outlying areas. We also distribute down the Front Range.
But Colorado Springs is our biggest market and we like it that way. We love the concept of only being available in Colorado. It’s easier to maintain control of the product, the margins are better the closer you are to home, and from an environmental perspective, not shipping beer all the way across the country is nicer and easier.
I think a lot of people don’t realize the biggest negative impact is in the distribution process. It’s not during production — it’s getting the beer to those markets. If you’re filling up semis and sending them to 25 other states, you have to account for that.
If we did decide down the road to sell out-of-state, it would be a border state such as New Mexico.
What is your next business goal?
We’re always continuing to build out our team. We have a lot of people who are young, enthusiastic and talented. We’re focused on getting them the experience they need to run the place without Amanda and me here all of the time. We want them to understand the core values of the company, why we do the things we do and then let them push it harder. It’s not because we’re looking to get out of the business, but as we get bigger it’s more challenging.
What are your thoughts on the Guadagnolis’ redevelopment in the neighborhood?
I think it has the potential to really be cool. There are a lot of residential spaces in their plans, such as townhouses and apartments. I think it will be beneficial in the sense that already we’re starting to see younger people move into the area because houses are still affordable and hopefully they [the Guadagnolis] will offer some of that. I don’t think people want to live out in the suburbs as much as they used to.
What has been your secret to success?
I think a lot of times in business, you need to catch a couple of breaks and then know when you’ve caught one and know what to do with it. We were fortunate in a couple areas. I think our timing when we started our brewery was good. However, we didn’t know it at the time. But we took advantage of it, and had to let people know what we were about.
The industry has changed dramatically, with quite a few breweries now in Colorado Springs. It’s completely different than it used to be. We still feel strongly about what we do and the fact we’ve been around for a long time. Maybe some people might consider it a disadvantage because we’re not the new thing, but I don’t view it that way.
The beer market is competitive and has evolved across the state. You have to do everything right [marketing, product and finances]. Before, you could probably get away for a little while with having great beer and poor marketing or customer service — but not now.
We’re fortunate that the Colorado consumer knows good beer. They’re not very patient with mediocre. I think that’s what’s going to define a lot of these new breweries. People say, how many breweries can operate? I think as many breweries making quality beer can operate.
What has been one of the biggest challenges in your industry?
Consistency is probably the most difficult part of the whole process.
I joke that almost anybody can make a good beer once, but what’s really hard is to make a good beer every time. It takes a certain mindset and the brewery has to be designed for that. The equipment has to be capable, and the people working have to understand the importance of that. It’s still a challenge even after 22 years.
You have to pay attention to detail every step of the process. Sometimes it’s tempting to say, ‘We’re so busy and selling so much beer that even if one didn’t come out quite right, let’s sell it anyway because we don’t have anything else to sell.’ You can’t do that. If it doesn’t meet our standards, it’s not going to get sold and we’re going to be out of stock until it gets back.
Those are difficult things that cost a lot of money, but they don’t cost nearly as much as your reputation. So we’re always trying to fine tune. We invested $24,000 in lab equipment just this year to monitor the oxygen that was in all of our packaged products because it’s an important issue. If you don’t have the right equipment and don’t care about the oxygen you pick up in the process — the beer will taste like crap. Even if it started out great, it tastes like crap by the time it gets to the customers.
We had other ways of monitoring it before, but this is in real time and we can do it as the bottles come off and immediately check the oxygen level.
We also installed an entire new brewhouse when we moved into the school, spending $1 million, so that it was able to be efficient and as consistent as possible.
What is your favorite beer you brew?
It changes throughout the year. Come wintertime I might be drinking a lot of Winter Warlock, or at home I have Yellow Kite in my fridge during the summer. A lot of it has to do with the situation and weather.
One beer that is pretty dear to our hearts is the Red Rocket Pale Ale because it’s great for a lot of different occasions.
What are you most proud of with your business?
The quality of the product, you can never forget that.
We’re also really proud of our involvement in the community. When we started the brewery, we wanted to be ‘the local brewery.’ We picked Colorado Springs partly due to the size of the market. We felt like it was a size that could support what we wanted to do, but was not so big we couldn’t be a part of the community.
We have a commitment to Colorado Springs and we’re not going anywhere.