Q&A: Mike Bristol on 25 Years of Bristol Brewing

In the midst of a year of celebrations, the Colorado entrepreneur talks generously about the brewery’s quarter-century journey. Here’s the extended interview.

I have only had one real job in my life,” Mike Bristol says with a laugh. That was as a technical field rep for Nissan based in Jacksonville, Florida, after graduating from Colorado State University in 1987. It was Florida where he met his wife and business partner, Amanda, and where they began brewing beer at home. As the craft beer industry began to grow in Colorado, the couple saw an opportunity in Colorado Springs. Fast forward 25 years, and we talk with Bristol at his pub in Ivywild School about a quarter-century of making and serving craft beer to Colorado.

Springs: First, what are you drinking?

Mike Bristol: Yellow Kite … our summer pilsner. I believe in seasonal beers—that drinking is situational. The beer I drink while on the patio in June is going to be different than my beer in front of the fireplace in December.

Do you remember the first beer you brewed at home?

The first batch I made was with my wife. There was this homebrew shop in Jacksonville, and the manager was crazy … a total nut. One day, he opened and told everyone to just take whatever they wanted … off the deep end. Before that, though, he set us up with our first recipe. If I was to pigeonhole the style, it was a malty ESB.

When did you decide to brew commercially?

We were getting a good response with our brews in Jacksonville from those we shared with. I had taken homebrewing well past the kit stage. I was reading everything I could get my hands on, and I would try any beer that I could find. I was fabricating my own equipment. I’m a process kind of guy, and continually wanted to tweak it … but also the romance of making beer—taking this grain, with hops and water and turning it into this magical substance—I love that. I love the history of it. A lot of what I read was the history of European brewing. And after seeing New Belgium [Brewing] and Odell [Brewing Co.] start, I thought, Wait, you can make a living doing this? I had never really thought about that … then I started researching that angle of it: the burgeoning craft brewing industry.

What was the first official Bristol brew?

Red Rocket [Pale Ale] and Laughing Lab [Scottish Ale] were the two we started with. Red Rocket, I made in Florida. I had a version of [Laughing Lab] in Jacksonville, but I continually tweaked it until it launched.

Did you have any brewing mentors?

After I had the idea to make a living with brewing, I called Doug Odell of Odell Brewing Company. I asked if I could come by to ask some questions. It ended up being a two-hour tour of his facility. I did the same with New Belgium [Brewing]. They’re both an inspiration—and still are.

At what point did you feel like you had pulled off the dream?

When our first account served our beer. The place isn’t around anymore, but I tapped the beer myself. Later that night, Amanda said, “Let’s go there for dinner and order our beer!” When the server brought it to us—well, that was amazing … it was huge. For reference, that was the night everyone was watching the O.J. Simpson chase in the white Bronco.

What are some of the highs and lows of Bristol’s 25 years?

At the start, if we were home before Letterman, it was a win for us. We were putting in so many hours. But some of what was really hard was also good. Around our two-year mark, there was more demand than we could keep up with. We had just enough cash to pay the bills, but not enough to grow. A guy visiting the brewery overheard [a conversation] … and offered us the money needed to expand.

You have beer with character, and a building with character. How would you describe the overall character of Bristol Brewing?

At the heart, we’re an eclectic group, [and] … passionate about what we do. How we carry ourselves is important to us. We want to be a leader by example.

Talk about your community involvement.

From the start, we wanted to be active in the community. We have our Community Ales, where four different beers each support a local nonprofit [generating $750,000 over the years]. We also have Karma Hour every Tuesday, when $1 from every pint sold goes to a nonprofit. It’s a two-way street; if we are going to rely on Colorado Springs for business, then we need to give back. Repurposing the empty historic Ivywild School structure into a community gathering place is an extension of our belief in good beer bringing people together.

What are your thoughts on the craft beer movement, and where do you see Bristol’s place in it?

In the early days, it was Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Now the rest of the country has caught up. It’s been fun to watch. We’ve been around long enough to see people who wanted to make a quick buck—their product wasn’t good, and the market eventually took care of them. We believe in great beer. I don’t care how many breweries there are in Colorado, but I care that they’re making good beer. As an industry, it matters. The consumer base has grown because of reputation.

Do you sell outside of the state?

We still only sell within the state. That’s something we really feel strongly about. I mean, I never say never, but our goal has been to be local. We sell throughout all of Colorado, but 75% of our sales are in Southern Colorado. This is the most important market to us.

What are some favorite non-Bristol beers of yours?

I’m a big fan of traditional Belgian beers. Now, as far as Colorado beers, I really like a lot of Odell’s, particularly their Colorado Lager. There are a lot of great beers coming out of Left Hand [Brewing]; I really enjoy their [Is there a particular one?] kölsch and Sawtooth [amber ale].

How is Bristol celebrating its 25th anniversary?

Throughout the year, we’re offering special 12-packs called Birthday Boxes, each inspired by a flagship beer. The first one was Laughing Lab, released in March. The box included three limited releases: Chocolate Lab, Barrel Aged Lab and a Scotch Ale. The second box was released mid-May, based on our Beehive Honey Wheat, [including] Beehive and three beers inspired by it: Hefeweizen, Wit and Simcoe Hefeweizen.

What’s ahead for Bristol?

Other than continuing to invest in our team, we’re hoping to do smaller batch brews for even more creative, limited-series beers. 

25th Anniversary Events

June 15: Bristol Brewing’s 25th Anniversary Party
Aug. 1: Beer Dinner featuring Birthday Box 3, Compass IPA Edition
Aug. 2: Official Release Party for Birthday Box 3
Oct. 17: Beer Dinner featuring Birthday Box 4, Winter Warlock Edition
Oct. 18: Official Release Party for Birthday Box 4

A Brief History of Bristol Brewing

1994: Mike and Amanda open Bristol Brewing Co. in an industrial center off Garden of the Gods Road.
1995: Bristol is a founding member of the Colorado Brewers Guild.
1998: The brewery moves to S. Tejon St. and opens a tasting room. A bottling line is added, making six-packs available.
2007: Community Ales debut.
2011: 6,000th batch brewed. Karma Hour debuts.
2013: The Bristol Pub opens at the renovated Ivywild School.
2017: Lab, Beehive and Compass now in cans.
2019: Batch 10,000 brewed; 25th anniversary.

Accolades for Bristol Brewing

Bristol Brewing has won 12 medals at the Great American Beer Festival since 1994, with Laughing Lab Scottish Ale winning nine of those. In addition, Laughing Lab, Red Rocket Pale Ale and Beehive Honey Wheat have each received an award at the World Beer Cup.

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