By Eric Peterson | Jun 04, 2017
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Bristol grew up in Fort Collins and studied mechanical engineering at Colorado State University. His first job out of college took him to Florida, where he met his wife, Amanda. "We started homebrewing for fun," he says. "We never thought about doing it for a living."
But that soon changed. "I started building my own equipment. I fell in love with the process, the romance, and the history," says Bristol. As he watched New Belgium and Odell grow in his hometown in the early 1990s, he adds, "That's when the lightbulb came on."
After seeking advice from New Belgium's Jeff Lebesch and Odell's Doug Odell, Bristol wrote a business plan and started scouting cities. Three made the final cut: Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, Boise, Idaho, and Colorado Springs. "Colorado won out," he says, and Bristol Brewing Company became the Springs’ first brewery in 1994. "Of course, now there are 30 breweries."
But Bristol Brewing set a high bar for those that followed. After starting on the city's north side, it moved to South Tejon Street in 1998. "We started small," says Bristol. "We had about eight downtown restaurants that were willing to give us a shot initially. . . . Then we had good demand and started having a lot of requests for bottles."
The brewery began bottling its wares in the late 1990s, first by hand then using a used Italian bottling line from a shuttered Breckenridge Brewery location in Buffalo, New York. "We waited until we established the brand," says Bristol.
Upon moving to Tejon Street, Bristol Brewing opened one of the state's first tasting rooms at a production facility. "It had all of the charm of a dentist's waiting room," jokes Bristol. "As far as I know, it was the first one in Colorado."
Once again, it proved prescient. When Ska Brewing's founders visited, Bristol says, "I remember Dave Thibodeau saying, 'Are you sure you can do this?'" Two decades later, it's the industry norm and the business model for countless upstarts in Colorado.
Bristol Brewing called the Tejon location -- adjacent to standout eatery The Blue Star -- for 15 years. Needing more room for production, Bristol explored building a new brewery, but targeted the nearby Ivywild Elementary School after it closed in 2009.
Bristol and Blue Star owner Joseph Coleman partnered to acquire the historic (1916) school and converted it into a multi-tenant space that now houses Bristol Brewing and its pub, Axe and the Oak Distillery's tasting room, and other bars and restaurants. "We wanted to stay close to our roots," says Bristol. "It's cool to see."
"The overall project was this concept of reuse and repurposing," he adds. Besides the school itself, Ivywild features doors that formerly hung at the elephant house at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and a chandelier that once decorated The Broadmoor.
The brewhouse also got a $1 million-plus upgrade with the move. "We were able to install a system that was a dream for me," says Bristol. He touts the German-made BrauKon system and its impact on energy, materials, and labor costs. "We've gone above and beyond with heat recovery."
The 15,000-square-foot facility at Ivywild was built for the long haul. Bristol estimates a maximum annual capacity of about 30,000 barrels, more than double current production. "We planned it for growth," he says. "We can expand pretty easily."
Bristol Brewing now bottles five year-round beers and several seasonal varieties. "Laughing Lab is our flagship and has been since day one," says Bristol. The Scottish-style ale accounts for about half of the brewery's sales.
Expect canned Laughing Lab in the near future. "We're working on getting the beer into cans," says Bristol, noting that he's working with Great Divide in Denver to provide contract canning. "This gives us a good opportunity."
Production hit 13,000 barrels in 2016 as revenue growth outpaced a modest increase in volume. Bristol forecasts a 6 to 8 percent production jump in 2017. "We've tried to keep it pretty conservative," says Bristol.
That means the focus is squarely on Colorado, self-distributing in the southern half of the state and working with Breakthru Beverage elsewhere. "We don't want to ship out of Colorado," says Bristol. "We have no plans to. We're not in the arms race."
Favorite beers: "I tend to drink our seasonals," says Bristol, noting he's been enjoying Bristol's Maibock in recent months. Beyond the taps at Ivywild, he points to Odell, Ommegang, River North, and Allagash as favored breweries.
Challenges: Navigating craft brewing in the face of Colorado's phase-in of higher-strength beer at grocery stores, brewery acquisitions, and consolidation of distributors. "It's important to maintain what we do and keep out team focused," says Bristol. "There's so much uncertainty in the market you can't control. But you can control quality, consistency, and customer service."
He adds, "I always try to plan for the future, but not bank on it."
Opportunities: Bristol sees room to grow on the Front Range. "Our beers are worthy to stand up against any Colorado beer," he says.
He also sees potential for plenty of growth at Ivywild. "We still have a lot of opportunities on-site at our pub," he adds. "We're three years in on that, but we've done a lot of work to get the systems in place and the people in place to execute."
Needs: "Same as everybody," says Bristol. "Quality people, access to market, and access to capital."