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Best of 2009: Inside joke 

Laughing Lab is synonymous with the Springs — and that's just the way Bristol plans to keep it

Local Microbrewed Beer

Laughing Lab, Bristol Brewing Company (1647 S. Tejon St., 633-2555, bristolbrewing.com)

It's a sunny Wednesday afternoon in September, and the smell of roasting pumpkins hangs in the air outside Bristol Brewing Company.

Josh Osterhoudt, the brewery's general manager, smiles as he explains that's a byproduct of producing 102 kegs of pumpkin ale, one of four "community" beers Bristol brews each year. In this case, all the profits benefit Venetucci Farm, known for its long tradition of giving free pumpkins to local children.

"On Monday, the brewery went to pick pumpkins [at Venetucci], and today we're roasting," he says, adding that they're using grills borrowed from Front Range Barbeque and labor from off-duty employees and other volunteers.

The cooperation necessary to make the beer is less an inconvenience than a cause for celebration, and Osterhoudt describes the occasion as a "kind of a harvest festival." It illustrates, he says, Bristol's focus on being a community brewery, above all else: "We just want to take care of Colorado Springs."

'Like a barbershop'

That's actually a bit surprising to hear, given Bristol's exploding popularity. The company is utterly dominating the local microbrew market — Laughing Lab, Beehive and Mass Transit ales took first-, second- and third-place honors, respectively in this year's Best Of Local Microbrewed Beer voting — and geographic expansion would seem beyond plausible.

Laughing Lab, in particular, has bigger things written all over it. At the prestigious Great American Beer Festival, the deep red brew has earned eight Top 3 finishes in the Scottish Ale category since 1996, including outright wins in 2000 and 2006.

But Osterhoudt points out that in the successful European model of beer production, many breweries aim just to serve single communities, "like a barbershop." Drawing an even more contemporary parallel, owner Mike Bristol describes his business model as sort of a beer equivalent to the local-food movement.

"There is no reason you can't have a world-class beer brewed in every city," Bristol says. "We don't have any desire to be the biggest player."

Bristol opened up shop in 1994, and he moved the brewery to its current location at 1647 S. Tejon St. in 1998. At that point, the brewery produced around 2,000 barrels of beer a year. Production increased to 5,900 barrels in 2003, and should reach about 7,200 barrels this year.

Most of that growth, however, has been local: 80 percent of the beer Bristol produces is delivered using a single truck to liquor stores, bars and restaurants in and near El Paso County. Bristol already has seen a 38 percent increase in local beer sales this year, and the owner envisions that trend continuing.

"There's a lot more beer to sell in Colorado Springs," he says.

Fermentation and focus

Bristol's current success is undoubtedly tied to special brews like the Venetucci Pumpkin Ale; Osterhoudt says last year's batch sold out in about 48 hours. But it certainly isn't all about the beer.

For one thing, Osterhoudt says, the company makes it a point to join — and often provide the refreshment for — community events like fairs and forums. In 2008 alone, Bristol participated in 128 such events.

It also looks to make the most of the resources it has, with a strategy emphasizing efficiency and local connections. Much has been made of the brewery sending all its spent grains to Venetucci to enrich the farm's soils and serve as feed. But within the brewery itself, sustainability and re-use are buzzwords.

Sitting in the tasting room, drinking Edge City Pilsner from a plastic cup marked with his name, Osterhoudt talks about other breweries with which he's familiar. Some, he says, invest a bundle of money in expanding their operations, "then they have to sell in other states to support that growth." Bristol, on the other hand, still has space within its current 10,000 square feet to allow growth for the next couple years, likely by adding a ninth fermenting vessel.

As Osterhoudt sees it, "We're satisfied. If we grow, it's fine."

The tasting room itself is a testament to the brewery's sharp focus on quality. Osterhoudt points out that the only game inside is table shuffleboard, which can easily be played one-handed, so players don't have to set down their beers.

Mike Bristol seems intent on keeping that focus. Sure, he'd like the brewery to reach more drinkers within Colorado — microbrews still make a tiny fraction of the total market, meaning there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of potential new customers in state. But he foresees diminishing returns both in profit and quality if he starts sending his creations over state lines.

"We just don't like shipping it all over the country," he says. "Beer is a perishable product, like bread."

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