Updated: August 28, 2013 at 12:56 pm
A huge, beautiful new brewery- with no beer?
At one point this summer, Colorado Springs' largest brewery nearly reached that point.
"It was hard on the bar staff, because we're a brewery, and somebody comes in and we have two beers on tap," said Mike Bristol, founder of Bristol Brewing Co. "Fortunately, our regular customers, they're very patient with us."
In fact, customers' powerful thirst and desire to see the brewery's new location in the former Ivywild Elementary School after a May "soft opening" was a big reason brewers were sweating it, as the move halted brewing for two weeks and slowed operations for longer.
All is well again at Ivywild, which held a grand opening Aug. 16, a celebration of urban renewal, learning, local food, art and, of course, beer. Along with the brewery, there is a deli, bakery, coffee shop and cocktail bar, food market, gift shop, offices, a community center and art school.
I sat down with Bristol on the morning of the grand opening to talk about the long, strange trip, one that began 19 years ago in an industrial park, when the home brewer decided to try his hand at selling beer.
"Something bigger than just the brewery"
When Bristol, then a 29-year-old former district manager for a car company, moved from Florida to set up a brewery on Forge Road, there were three other small breweries in Colorado Springs and 35 in Colorado.
"In '94, craft brewing wasn't what it is today. Not that we were the first, but we were certainly in that range, where you would walk into a bar and the bar manager would say, 'Wait a minute. Are you brewing this at home?,'" he said. "No, it's a real brewery. It's just small."
His wife, Amanda, told The Gazette at the time, "We would like to see this industry grow to a point where every town had several breweries, just like it was before Prohibition."
Remarkable prescience, considering the beer landscape in Colorado today, with more than 220 and more opening every day.
Bristol quickly outgrew its location and moved to South Tejon Street in 1998. Its staples- for instance, Laughing Lab, Mass Transit and Red Rocket - were soon available in stores throughout much of the state, though 70 percent is sold in southern Colorado. The craft beer industry continued to explode, and to meet demand, Bristol decided in 2007 the brewery needed to expand again.
"We kind of came to the crossroads of well, do we want to take this route that a lot of craft brewers have done? You buy a big piece of land somewhere on the outskirts of town, in some industrial area, and you build a big metal building and you put in a massive system and you crank out a lot of beer?" he said.
"And that's great and it works for a lot of people but we always felt like we wanted to be part of something else, part of something bigger than just the brewery. We felt like that was more consistent with our community roots and how we view things."
When Colorado Springs School District 11 closed Ivywild in 2009 for declining enrollment, he had his answer.
Braving the setbacks
The Germans, who were helping the brewery set up its new equipment, wanted to watch a soccer match, so Bristol went to check the television in the old brewery to see if it was on.
Then the ground gave way beneath a crane and a massive grain silo crashed through the roof of the old building.
"I had to come over here and say, 'OK, guys, I think you're going to have to go to McCabe's (Tavern) to watch the game,'" he recalled with a chuckle.
It's the calm attitude that kept him going through the $5 million project, originally projected to be completed in February. He attributes the delay to a million little unexpected things: changes in design, adverse weather, and the myriad of other things that can cause delays with a 97-year-old building.
When they discovered the brick behind the wall of what would become the tap room, Bristol said, "We got in there and started ripping stuff out. We said, 'OK, we've got to figure out away to do it.'"
After the new, heavily automated brewery was up-and-running, it was still a month before brewers felt they had it "dialed in," Bristol said.
But now that it's running, Bristol is amazed at the efficiency. The brewery uses 25 percent less barley and grain, and it has the capacity to produce four times as much as before, though with the fermenters now in place, production will be 50 percent greater than it was.
Said Bristol, "I'm kind of hoping we don't have to move again."
Better and more of it
Bristol finally gave himself a day off recently.
Actually, four days. His first time off since March.
"I do work a lot of hours, but I do love it. I'm passionate about what we do. Sure, it's frustrating some days, but, overall, I wouldn't have it any other way," he said.
And the work goes on. There are sculptures, turf and gardens for the exterior. The barrel room downstairs needs to be built, with a bar serving barrel-aged beers during special events.
The brewery has started brewing seasonals again, releasing its Wit and Cheyenne Ca?n Ale on opening weekend. The Red Baron Octoberfest will be out soon. Bristol looks forward to aging the seasonal Winter Warlock in barrels.
And for the first time, food - aside from pretzels in a dog bowl - is available. It's limited pub fare for now, from the Meat Locker deli down the hall.
Despite the extra capacity, he has no plans to try to sell beyond Colorado. In fact, he said he hasn't changed his distribution footprint in 15 years.
"I'd love to see us continue to grow in Colorado and get more people turned onto us outside of Colorado Springs and we're certainly making strides there," Bristol said.
So what does the future hold, as the brewery looks at turning 20?
"In ten years, we're largely doing the same thing we're doing now. We're just doing more of it.
"We're definitely set up for the long term. I expect my kids to be running this brew house some day, if they so choose."