Laughing Lab Scottish Ale has won more medals at the Great American Beer Festival than any other Colorado beer. But when the inspiration for the name passed away in 2010 — Camden, a 16-year-old yellow Labrador retriever — it wasn't all the acquired hardware that drew dozens to the couple's neighborhood brewery in support.
They came because, as cliché as it sounds, a real community has built up around the cramped tap room in Bristol Brewing Company, a place as inspirational to the yogic- and cycling-minded as it is to the dude who just likes craft.
"I was brewing some beer with a friend last night and the brew supply store forgot to send us the bittering hops so what did I do?" asks a November 2012 Facebook post from Ryan O'Harra. "I went down to Bristol Brewing Company and asked one of their bad ass brewers if I could have a cup of bittering hops, of course he helped out."
They came because Mike and Amanda Bristol kept inviting them — to Buses at the Brewery, and the Repeal of Prohibition fest, and the open party held the first night Ivywild School was officially acquired — and because the couple has never stopped giving back to them. Few events in the city don't feature beer gifted by BBC, and the brewery donates labor, costs and all proceeds from three different beers to nonprofits like the Friends of Cheyenne Cañon. It even hosts a Karma Hour where a dollar from every pint sold goes to that week's chosen nonprofit.
People notice that stuff.
"If we expected Colorado Springs to support what we were doing, we had a responsibility to support Colorado Springs," Mike Bristol says. And that mutual support society stands to flourish in a space that's come a long way since it was two classrooms.
Bristol's centralized modern bar combines the intimacy of the original location across the street — long, skinny community tables and all, though infinitely better space management for those only seeking growler refills — with restaurant-style seating and service. And it's all backed by a brand-new brewing system, built in Germany, that has the potential to quadruple brewing capacity. You can even see some of the just-milled grain travel into the brewhouse through a clear tube running across the open ceiling.
"It's a big step," Bristol says. "I can tell you that we launched the entire company in 1994 with $190,000. And just the equipment going into this building new, not counting the tanks we're taking over, is over a million bucks. And that's just the equipment; that doesn't include the bar or the other fancy stuff. So, it's definitely a different level.
"In 1994, I was 29 years old. I had no kids, I had no [nothing]. If we failed, I got another job, and that was the downside. Now, there's a lot to lose," continues the Colorado native with a laugh, before adding more soberly: "There's a lot more to lose now."
Part of it has to do with the 35 employees depending on the new venture to succeed, around 10 more than at the previous Tejon Street location. And part of it has to do with all that tall, gleaming steel on display through the big tasting-room windows.
The cutting-edge equipment was built to order by Bavarian company BrauKon, which is also designing and manufacturing brewhouses for Fort Collins' Odell Brewing Co., and Rockyard American Grill and Brewing Co., in Castle Rock, among other notables. The as-automated-as-you'd-like system creates three important efficiencies, says Bristol: in labor, energy and raw materials.
"Before these guys ever specced the equipment, we had conversations about, 'What styles of beers do you brew?'" says Bristol, adding that, for example, the company talked about using different gear-ratios in the lager tun based on the beer being brewed in it. "Stuff that, quite frankly, I hadn't even really thought that much about."
The nerdy upgrades include mechanized mash turners; pumps to suck out spent grain; a heat-recovery system that captures so much otherwise-lost hot-water vapor that it's piped to the bar's sinks; a chilling system that uses fans to automatically pull air from outside if it's cold enough; a filtered, four-roller machine that results in more evenly ground grain; and a doubled-up wort pump that reduces boil times by 20 minutes. On top of all that, almost all of it is controlled through a large, rectangular touchscreen connected via Internet back to BrauKon, so the company can see problems in real time.
"I would say when this thing is done, this will probably be the trickest 34-barrel brewhouse that I know of in this country," says Bristol with a mix of pride and glee.
This is all on top of a new barrel-aging room; basement cold-storage space excavated by hand; and a big, refrigerated warehouse dug into the hill behind the school that reduces cooling needs by 25 percent.
With all these new toys, it's hard to get Bristol to look back. He'll acknowledge "a little nostalgia" associated with, say, the company's mash tun and kettle — he's used it since starting the company on Forge Road 20 years ago — then quickly mention a plan to sell it. But in this old space made new, across the street from the former, in this mix of the past and the future, it only feels fitting that the first beer brewed on the new equipment was Laughing Lab.