Do you think we’re in a brewery boom today? Check back to the early 1990s when a massive explosion in craft brewing hit the Front Range. One of those brewers, Mike Bristol, was selling cars in Florida when he decided to move back to the Centennial State—he was raised in Fort Collins—and open a brewery in Colorado Springs. That was 18 years ago, and his Bristol Brewing Company has produced the winningest beer at the Great American Beer Festival (Laughing Lab). We sat down to chat with Bristol as he launched the newest editions to the brewery’s Belgian-style Ale series (read reviews here and here) to talk fickle yeast, science fair projects, and Adirondack chairs.
Bonus: The company has outgrown its current space—it had to rip off part of the roof to install the newest tanks—and is moving to a nearby elementary school building that was built in 1916. The renovation is underway and the master plans include a multi-use facility with a bakery, coffee bar, and more. (The old gymnasium’s stage will be used for a community space and music venue.)
Name: Mike Bristol, Bristol Brewing Company
Experience: More than 18 years (started as a home brewer)
5280: How did you get started in the brewing business?
Mike Bristol: I just started to home-brew. My degree is in mechanical engineering. …I actually never worked as an engineer. I went in the car business and worked as a district manager for Nissan. …My first job was in Florida. I joke that I really couldn't find any good beer there so I started brewing.
5280: Why shift from home batches to owning a business?
MB: I come from a family of entrepreneurs. For whatever reason, my parents and grandparents always had something going. I grew up in a lumberyard, of all places. I always figured I'd do something on my own anyway. I really fell in love with the brewing part of it. You start out as a hobby and then you start fabricating your own equipment and reading everything you can get your hands on. Luckily, my roommate was a beer drinker and neither one of us were much for cooking, so the whole kitchen was just a science fair project. We could cook in between the brewing stuff.
5280: Why land in Colorado Springs?
MB: We chose Colorado Springs just because Fort Collins was already very busy. Denver was too big. We didn't feel like our concept would work in Denver because it's very difficult to be the local brewery in such a big market. It could be done, but it would take huge amounts of money. And I still contend that Denver doesn't have a local brewery. I think the local brewery in Denver is in Fort Collins. I think its New Belgium. … You've got great breweries in Denver, but I don't necessarily see that one brewery that is the Denver brewery, and I think that most people down here will clearly see us as that. I mean, that's for everyone to decide, not for us, but that's what we're shooting for.
5280: Did you think Bristol would get this big?
MB: We never set out to be a national brand. It wasn't our goal. It never has been, and still isn't. We don't ship anything out of Colorado. Seventy-five percent of our business is still in southern Colorado.
5280: Do you have a favorite ingredient?
MB: I'm sort of a purist when it comes to brewing. …I really do come back to just the malt, and the hops, and the yeast.
5280: Why keep it simple?
MB: I think a lot of chefs feel the same way about cooking. …It comes down to really good ingredients and simple stuff.
5280: You’ve focused on your flagship beers, like Laughing Lab, but every once in awhile you’ll try something different, like your Belgian-style Ale series. Why?
MB: It actually goes back to a trip I took to Belgium. Man, it's been probably six or eight years ago. I like Belgian style beers anyway, and while I was there, I fell. I toured some breweries and we came back and we did—I have to admit—a half-ass attempt at some Belgian styles. Some of them were pretty good, but they were like, “Eh, that's not exactly it.”
5280: What was wrong?
MB: A lot of craft brewers do this, so I don't feel bad. … What they do is say, “Oh, these Belgian beers are really cool. We'll get a yeast in from Belgium, and we'll just brew like we normally do, but with that yeast.” And it doesn't work. Those yeasts are so nuanced. Each yeast has it's own personality. … You've got to pick one and play with it, and talk to other people that have used it, and come up with something.
5280: Is there anything you won’t try?
MB: I like cherries and I like beer, but I don't see the reason to put them together.
5280: Where’s your favorite place to drink in Colorado outside of the brewery?
MB: Quite frankly, I have four Adirondack chairs out behind my house. There's a creek down below and a bunch of trees, and that's just about as good as anywhere else.
5280: Do you have a favorite non-Bristol beer?
MB: Lefthand’s Pilsner is one of them, if I had to pick a couple beers. People find it strange when I say a pilsner. As a brewer, to me, that's almost like a litmus test. That's one of the hardest beers, in my mind, to make.
5280: Be honest: Is this really a job?
MB: I used to argue with people who say, “You've got the best job in the world.” And I’d say, “No, it's a lot of work. It's not as great as you think.” Over the years, I started thinking: “It is a lot of work, but you're right. It is the best job in the world. Yeah, it really is.” I can't complain.