Del Norte, Colorado
Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Founder and brewer John Bricker persevered to convert locals and tourists to craft beer in the heart of the San Luis Valley.
When Bricker decided to start the process of launching Three Barrel Brewing Company, he was nearly 50 years old. The former journalist and then insurance salesman felt the calling to satisfy a desire that had been growing since his discovery of homebrewing: a need to build something that would allow him to practice the craft on a larger scale.
"In 2003, I had a little 1,400-square-foot building in downtown Del Norte that used to be a medical supply company," Bricker recalls. "I had my insurance business in the front, but it had a drain in the floor of the garages, which were like little loading bays." He decided it would be a good place to make beer.
"There wasn't a lot of small-scale brewing equipment available at that time," Bricker continues. He bought some components from a dairy engineering company along with a 4-hectoliter copper system that had been collecting dust in a warehouse. "The guy said, 'I want to get rid of that. Make me an offer,'" Bricker says. "I made him the lowest offer I could that wouldn't be embarrassing, and he took it. At that point, I knew I was really in this."
Over the next 18 months, Bricker assembled his equipment and secured the necessary licenses to open his brewery. "I had to listen to a lot of discouragement from people," he adds. "I encountered plenty of scoffers and non-believers. But I had to deal with and overcome that."
Overcome it he did, brewing an average 100 barrels a year and distributing kegs to local restaurants in his Volkswagen van. But the road wasn't without difficulties. "There was a point where I thought, 'What am I doing here? This is crazy,'" Bricker says. "I kind of lost faith in myself. But then I took a little excursion to see a friend down in San Luis. I stopped for lunch at a little restaurant called Rosa Mystica, which is a reference to Mary, mother of Jesus. I noticed the lady had a statue of Mary in the restaurant, and I started talking to her about it."
As Bricker ate his sandwich, the proprietor explained that the statue was sent to her by an Italian tourist who had once visited her restaurant. She received it in the mail on the day she had intended to close up shop forever. She viewed the statue, from the Rosa Mystica shrine in Montichiari, Italy, as a sign that she should not give up.
"I felt like it was a sign for me to keep going, too," Bricker says. "I had been feeling sorry for myself, and thinking about all the reasons it couldn't work, but I forgot all of that as my spirit leapt up within me. I knew I could defy the odds. It was a defining moment I had to get to, and from there, I went on."
Soon after, his daughter and son-in-law, who had been living in Denver, decided to sell their property and move to Del Norte to work with Bricker at the brewery. "Since then, it has been a family operation," he says. "They helped me build it from one employee to 23 and we now have bigger building, all this fancy brewing equipment, and wood-fired pizzas. Our current tasting room holds about 65 people including the patio. And the back is about 3,000 square feet."
Bricker and his team produced nearly 1,000 barrels of beer in 2018 and don't intend to expand too much in the future. "We like brewing on our 15-barrel system," he says. "We could brew twice what we did last year but we'd have to run two shifts, like a day shift and a night shift. There are breweries that run 24 hours a day, but I think if you start doing that, you can quickly get burned out by doing it too much."
In addition to a well-rounded menu of artisan wood-fired fare, visitors to Three Barrel Brewing Company's taproom and restaurant can enjoy a selection of the brewery's handcrafted, hand-mashed, small-batch craft beers. Offerings range from the brewery's core beers Trashy Blonde, Bad Phil, Hop Trash, Burnt Toast, and Thursday Special to seasonals, sours, and collaborations.
Outside of Del Norte, craft beer lovers can find Three Barrel Brewing Company products in liquor stores in Alamosa, Creede, Florence, Fort Garland, Monte Vista, Pagosa Springs, Pueblo, Salida, and South Fork.
Bricker says new brews are often inspired by research into other industries and ways of doing things. "When the Germans decoct and step-mash, it's like 119, 128, 135, 145, and then 155 degrees Fahrenheit," he explains. "When I brewed yesterday, I did it backwards. I started at 170 degrees with unmalted grain, 70 percent unmalted wheat, and stepped it down to 128. It was a total experiment. I had done it once before with a half barrel and the beer was milky and turbid like a hazy IPA but with a bready, rounded flavor. We did a bigger batch yesterday, and I put all kinds of hops in at the end. We'll see what happens. It could be a success or a failure, but it was an idea that really got me excited."
Challenges: Navigating the Colorado beer market. "The market is pulling in certain directions, like beer at Walmart, beer at King Soopers," Bricker muses. "But it's pushing in other directions. It's kind of like being on choppy water sometimes. You're not quite sure which way you're being pushed or pulled. You can't please everybody, but we keep trying to do our best every day."
Opportunities: Introducing the brewery's fans to new and interesting ales and lagers. Last year, Bricker brewed Gotlands Brikke, a historic Gotlandsdrikke Viking Ale with Josh Cody from Colorado Malting Company. "It's an ancient Nordic style, a Beowulf beer," Bricker explains. "We harvested juniper berries and boughs, then brewed it in a sahti fashion. It turned out smoky, juniper-y and piney. I wasn't sure anyone would like or even understand it because it was very weird. But we've gotten very good reviews on it."
Needs: "Before I opened the brewery, I went on a journey with my son to Everest base camp and we spent a month in the Himalayas," Bricker says. "When we got back, after being at 21,000 feet for that long, we were very tired and sick. But the experience was only possible step by step. We couldn't even think ahead to the next moment because we had to try so hard to concentrate on the present moment. I have a picture in the bathroom of that experience to remind me that you can only go step by step. Don't look at the trends and what everybody else is doing. Take your own path one step at a time."