August 31, 2014 Updated: September 1, 2014 at 9:03 am
Twenty years ago, only the bravest gamblers might have wagered on Mike and Amanda Bristol making a go of their brewing business.
There were plenty of strikes against them.
The couple started the business with inadequate cash. They bought too few kegs. And, with little background in brewing other than Mike Bristol's home-brewing hobby, they didn't understand the seasonality of the industry.
But through the years, they made savvy business decisions that included several relocations and a partnership in a thriving restored school building, and Bristol Brewing Co. emerged from the cramped, nondescript warehouse where it launched two decades ago to become the largest microbrewery in southern Colorado.
Today, it has 50 employees and ranked 13th in output last year among more than 200 breweries statewide, according to the Boulder-based Brewers Association.
"Bristol Brewing is a leader in the industry and the company has stood the test of time; its beers have been well-received by beer drinkers. They have focused on measured growth while ensuring that quality remains consistent," said Paul Gatza, the association's director.
From cash crunch to bottling line
Mike Bristol, a Fort Collins native, and his wife were living in Florida, where he worked as a district manager for Nissan. They moved to Colorado Springs in 1994, and Mike Bristol - weary of the travel his job at Nissan required - longed to put down roots by going into the beer business full-time after noting the early success of many of Colorado's small breweries.
He met with Fort Collins microbrewery owner Doug Odell and began raising money among family and co-workers for his brewery, which he and Amanda hoped to open in an older building, one with some character, on the outskirts of downtown Colorado Springs.
But after an unsuccessful six-month search for space near the city's core, they settled for a warehouse on Forge Road, off Garden of the Gods Road.
Their original business plan called for brewing 1,500 barrels of beer a year and eventually doubling their capacity in a few years.
Things were rocky at the beginning. They launched the business with inadequate financial resources, and bought only 70 kegs - not enough to adequately serve some of their earliest customers, Mike Bristol said.
The couple ended up borrowing $5,000 from a friend early in the company's history to pay for supplies as the brewery grew, then eventually turned to local banks when they needed to buy costly equipment.
"The first year or two was really tight," Mike Bristol said. "There were times when we had no money in the bank and I woke up thinking that I need to find a way to make it through that cash crunch."
The brewery started expanding capacity in its third year, and quickly ran out of space at the Forge Road location. Once again, the Bristols began a search for an older building on the outskirts of downtown.
At the same time, Joe Coleman was looking for a new location to expand his Blue Star restaurant, an early Bristol Brewing customer. He approached Mike Bristol about sharing a building near the south end of Tejon Street.
The Tejon Street location allowed Bristol Brewing to open a tasting room, which helped build awareness of the company and its beers in a way that hadn't been possible at the Forge Road location. The new space also had enough room for a bottling line, so the then 4-year-old brewery could broaden its distribution beyond draft taps in bars to six-packs in liquor stores.
"It was hard for customers to find us on Forge Road. The new location really changed things so people could spend time there and better understand our brands," said Amanda Bristol, a former advertising executive who developed the company's brands and marketing.
Ivywild location fulfilled a goal
Eight years later, the Bristols were on the hunt again for a new location to expand the brewery. They hadn't made much progress, but in early 2009, Colorado Springs School District 11 announced plans to close Ivywild School south of downtown.
"I wasn't thinking about the brewery moving into the school, but I thought we needed to get something into that location. It was Joe (Coleman) who said we should move the brewery there, but how could you move a brewery into a former school?" Mike Bristol said.
Bristol and Coleman joined with architect Jim Fennell to acquire and remodel the building. The $4 million project weathered a political fight between Mayor Steve Bach and the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority, construction delays and cost overruns, but the remodeled historic building opened last year.
"Now we finally have our old building with character," Mike Bristol said.
More successes than failures
Not everything Bristol Brewing takes on has become an overnight success. The company has a Tap Room at the Colorado Springs Airport, where passenger traffic has declined, and it has not performed "as good as we would like," Mike Bristol said. The restaurant carries the Bristol brand and products but is operated by the airport's concessionaire, SSP America, a relationship the brewery will continue after renewing its long-term contract with the company.
Construction delays at Ivywild also created a few headaches for the Bristols. Instead of moving in as planned in February, which is one of their slowest months, they moved just as the summer tourism season was starting. With bigger-than-expected crowds flocking to its new location, Bristol Brewing ran low on many of its beers for both its Tap Room and some of its outside accounts in the weeks after the move.
Still, the Bristols have had more successes than failures.
"We never envisioned Bristol Brewing becoming this," Mike Bristol said. "Our goal was to be able to make a living doing this and raise our kids here. We didn't think that far ahead."
A year after moving into the former school, Bristol Brewing plans to expand again by spending $500,000 on equipment that will make its brewing process more efficient and expand capacity from nearly 15,000 barrels a year to nearly 19,000.
Don't expect them to grow so big, though, that they're selling their beer nationwide.
"We wanted to keep growth in our region, so we remain tied to who and what the brewery is, which is all about the community. It would feel odd to be selling our beer in Michigan because what do we know about Michigan?" Amanda Bristol said.
Staying local has been a key strategy for Bristol, which has linked its beers to several charitable causes, including the Venetucci Farm and North Cheyenne Cañon Park. Limiting its distribution to Colorado also has made it easier to maintain quality, which helped Bristol Brewing win 13 medals at the Great American Beer Festival, including nine for its flagship Laughing Lab Scottish Ale that was named for their first dog.
"We really want to keep doing what we have been - making the best beer possible and being involved in the community while continuing to grow our brand. This facility with more equipment could produce up to 30,000 barrels a year and we don't have any plans to move beyond that," Mike Bristol said.
Bristol Brewing was the city's second microbrewery, and now it has many more competitors than when it opened. But Amanda Bristol said that more breweries build awareness of the craft-brewing industry and create new potential customers.
"We are supporters of new breweries because we were in the same place 20 years ago that those breweries are today," she said. "Breweries contribute to a vibrant community. They help educate people and build the craft brand. Let's do it together."
Contact Wayne Heilman: 636-0234