Under the watchful gaze of a three-eyed loon, Cellar West's beers are largely biding their time in barrels.
It's not a real live loon, but the brewery's logo, painted on the taproom wall, and a nod to the home state of its founder, along with the cheese curds for sale at the bar. Nichols got his start in Wisconsin's craft brewing business before moving west in 2012 to co-found Sanitas Brewing with Chris Coyne and Michael Memsic. "I helped get [Sanitas] off the ground and had a lot of fun there," he says. "I realized I was ready to spread my wings a little bit and do something different."
Nichols left Sanitas in 2016. "I was more intrigued by the small, boutique-style beers and breweries," he says of the decision.
He also wanted to turn his focus from marketing and graphic design to brewing and barrel aging, as he had become Sanitas' de facto designer and came up with the brewery's owl logo. "I love graphic design, but I never expected it to be a full-time, 60-hour-a-week job," says Nichols. "I wanted to be more involved with the beer."
Nichols looked at locations in Wisconsin and Colorado, but quickly narrowed it down to Boulder County after discussing options with his wife. "We just realized this is where we want to be," he says.
He found a tucked-away industrial space on the north end of Boulder, complete with floor drains, and set up shop in early 2017. The 1,300-square-foot facility has room for barrels and fermentation tanks, but the brewing takes place at New Image Brewing in Arvada via daily rental agreements and the wort is then whisked in a tote to Boulder.
"We specialize in Belgian-style farmhouse ales," says Nichols. "People ask me all the time, 'What does that mean? . . . You've got to take it with a grain of salt. We're not in Belgium and we're not on a farm.'"
For Nichols, Belgian farmhouse traditions are a starting point for experimentation. "We threw everything at the wall," he says. "For better or worse, everything stuck."
The common thread? "Our beer is expressive, not aggressive."
Sold in the taproom and in half-liter bottles, the flagship is Westfield Saison, but there's also such variations on the theme as Tsuga American Farmhouse IPA, Garden Ghost Black Saison, and Long-Lost Oak-Aged White Ale. Cellar West has bottled about 25 beers to date, almost every beer it has produced. Make Hay, and oak-aged saison, won a silver medal at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival.
"We're very yeast-driven," he adds. Most Cellar West beers use the same house yeast blend of Belgian strains and local wild yeast. Brewing Science Institute in Woodland Park propagates it for the brewery.
Nichols is a big fan of natural bottle conditioning. "They have a different mouthfeel to them and a brighter character," he explains. "A lot of the magic with what we do happens in the barrels and the bottles."
Nichols adds, "Oak is a big part of what we do here." Most beers are aged four months to a year; Cellar West typically sources barrels from Rocky Mountain Barrel Company.
Cellar West's production was about 100 barrels in 2017, and the target for 2018 is 120. About 80 percent of Cellar West's sales come through the taproom, and about 20 percent comes through bottle and keg distribution to a few select accounts.
Favorite beers: Nichols says he gravitates to Westfield and "hoppy farmhouse ales" on his own taps. Beyond Cellar West, "My desert island beer is probably Sierra Nevada Pale Ale," he adds. "Jester King in Austin, Texas, is a big inspiration for us." He also points to Hill Farmstead in Vermont. "They're a great example [that] you don't need great equipment to brew great beer. They started brewing on dairy equipment."
Challenges: "The industry is changing so fast right now in Colorado, everything is a moving target," says Nichols. Saisons don't sell like IPAs, he notes, but that also means Cellar West isn't chasing trends. "A lot of people love our beer, but it doesn't fly off the shelf."
Nichols says consumer education represents a second hurdle. "There's such a feverish draw to craft beer right now, people are almost jumping past the education stage," he says. "There's almost this education piece us as producers need to take on.
Opportunities: "The market for saisons and farmhouse beers is not huge, but it's widespread," says Nichols. "We get emails every other week from a distributor in Seattle or wherever: 'Can you send a pallet?'"
Lower-alcohol beers are another opportunity for Cellar West. "We have started to play around with some lagers," he says. "People come here and have a couple funky brett beers, but what can we do to keep people here longer?"
Needs: "Square footage and a brewhouse," says Nichols. That means a move is in order. He has his sights set on a new spot in Lafayette with enough room to brew in-house and hopes to relocate the operation in late 2018. "We couldn't justify the prices in Boulder," he says.
Nichols has essentially self-financed Cellar West to date, but he is looking for outside funding at least part of the $150,000 he'll need to get a new facility up and running.