By Eric Peterson | Sep 05, 2018
Managing restaurants and liquor stores before opening a brewery in Denver's southern suburbs, Bell had a boilerplate retort to "How's it going, Jason?"
"Living the dream," he says. "It was my standard response when somebody asked me how I was doing."
When it came time to start a brewery, Bell's last name was taken, so he used his catchphrase as his brewery's brand.
He got into homebrewing in 2006. "My wife suggested I pick up a hobby," he says. "All I did was work." She thought he might take up bicycling or golf, but he started homebrewing. The hobby took on a life of its own when Bell welded together a five-barrel system in the garage at their home in the Chicago area.
His background with restaurants and liquor stores intersected with his mechanical inclination. "It let me do a lot of things I enjoyed. There was the flavor aspect, the cooking aspect, the science aspect, and the engineering aspect of working with my hands building things."
"Everything fit," says Bell. "That's when I decided this is what I want to do."
He honed his craft for more than a decade in Chicago. "I had a pretty good focus group to try it out on," says Bell. Friends he'd met working at Binny's Beverage Depot were often beer connoisseurs, who he'd tell, "I want you to pick it apart. I want to make it better."
In late 2012, Bell and his family packed up a truck and moved to Highlands Ranch to open Living The Dream. He'd visited Colorado on vacations since he was a kid. "This is where I wanted to live," he says. "We just packed up and did it."
After the move, it took Bell about a year of research to fine-tune the business plan and find a location on the south side of metro Denver. "The demographics of the area scream [for a craft brewery]," says Bell.
He started with a since-departed business partner, Carrie Knose (now of HighSide Brewing in Frisco) and a group of investors. The light industrial location has a Littleton address, but it is technically unincorporated Douglas County just west of Highlands Ranch. That meant the brewery had to deal with officials who hadn't interfaced with the industry before. "We had to fight a few fights," says Bell.
The taproom "drives the bus when you start," he adds, noting that its popularity has defied his greatest expectations. "We opened at 2 p.m. on a Saturday," says Bell. "At 2:30, we had 35 people in line for beer and it just never stopped."
That meant he quickly had trouble keeping up with demand. "In eight months, I was maxed," says Bell. "The taproom blew up more than I thought it could."
Living The Dream started in 2014 with a seven-barrel brewhouse with 49 barrels of fermentation. The brewery limped through 2015, then added another 120 barrels of fermentation tanks in 2016, when it started canning its beers with Mobile Canning initially and now Craft Canning.
The year-round catalog of cans includes Empty Trophy Case IPA, Ice Climber Double IPA, Schüss Bomber Lager, No Filter Wheat, and Powder Run Vanilla Cream Ale. Limited releases are bottled in-house.
After brewing 1,800 barrels in 2017, Living The Dream will hit about 2,000 barrels in 2018, says Bell. The brewery self-distributes cans and kegs to more than 100 accounts on the Front Range.
The team of Tim Nolan and Jerod Scott have worked with Bell in the brewhouse since opening day in 2014. "They just continue to get better and better," says Bell. "We've always had people who care and that's important."
Living The Dream occupies half of a cavernous industrial structure, encompassing 11,000 square feet with several outdoor areas and a retail shop. Cruisers and ski-lodge ephemera hangs from the rafters above the wooden tables. "We have a lot of space," says Bell. "It's a barn."
So now that Bell is living his dream with a bustling brewery in Colorado, is "living the dream" still his pat answer for "How's it going, Jason?"
He laughs. It is, but now maybe it's not quite as sarcastic. "We're a 10-year overnight sensation," he says. "That said, I wouldn't go back."
Bell motions to the growing crowd in the taproom at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday: "That has a fulfillment that's hard to quantify."
Favorite beers: "From a business standpoint, Powder Run Vanilla Cream Ale," says Bell. "From a personal standpoint, Mt. Falcon Summer Ale."
He's also fond of the brewery's barrel-aged offerings, and has leveraged contacts in the wine and liquor worlds to get some interesting barrels. He highlights a recent bottled special release: Two Barrel Tom Imperial Wit, with citrus, coriander, and lemongrass, aged in "totally unique" barrels from Ransom that previously held pinot noir followed by gin. "It drinks like a cocktail," he says.
"I love IPAs like everybody, but for me it's most fulfilling when we make a German lager or an Oktoberfest," says Bell. "I want to be like the original. We get as close as we think we can. Those beers are harder. They tend to be not complex. It's all about subtleties."
Beyond Living The Dream's inventory, he's a fan of Outer Range in Frisco, Locavore in Littleton, Avery in Boulder, and still drinks a fair amount of imports from the likes of Wychwood and Weltenburger.
Challenges: "For us, the biggest challenge has been maintaining and trying to improve quality with growth," says Bell.
Mobile canning makes it hard to be responsive to sales. It often requires a month of lead time. That's proved problematic with beers in high demand, like Powder Run Vanilla Cream Ale. "I'm going to run out again," he says. "I can't keep it in stock."
Opportunities: "I think the opportunities are huge," says Bell. He plans to grow his distribution footprint in Colorado and bring on an outside distributor.
The lager and cream ale are two of the brewery's top sellers, and that's emblematic of the broader market. "I think there's a beer middle class that's growing. People who want a good beer. They want something better." "That's where we focus, but we want to be able to play and participating with hazy IPAs, barrel-aging, and other extreme and creative beers."
Living The Dream is also working on a photo-driven rebranding effort, with plans for new can designs from Daniel Erickson, an employee who works in the taproom and handles the brewery's social media. A pilot design with "almost doubled our Crowler sales," says Bell.
Needs: "Money and time," says Bell. "That's always what I say."
Living The Dream is brewing at about 85 percent capacity in terms of equipment and 100 percent in terms of brewers, so he's looking at another expansion. "We need to grow," says Bell. "We're at the point in time where we're going to make some moves."
On his shopping list: a 30-barrel brewhouse, several 30- and 60-barrel fermenters, and an Alpha Brewing canning line.
Automation is another need. Bell says the entire operation is manual, so he's looking to invest in automating equipment and processes. "To hit the next level, we're going to get better equipment," he says. "We've grown a lot with no economies of scale."
Along with that, there's a need for either more space or a rethinking of the existing layout. "We'll figure it out in the next couple of months," says Bell, noting that Living The Dream's original five-year lease is just about up. He'd prefer to stay put, because he needs to stay close to his existing customers and there's little industrial space in the vicinity.
The expansion will likely involve some sort of capital infusion. "I don't really have bank loans," says Bell. "I'm still exploring that." He says he needs to get his investors' buy-in on any financing decisions. "We're talking seven figures, so you have to be careful."