My brewery tour companion and I approached the door to the Smiling Toad Brewery in Colorado Springs with expectations that were … let’s call them modest. When I spotted the sign from the street, a little A-frame by a skinny sidewalk that read “brewery” and drew our eye to the gold lettering on a small store front and a sign outside advertising “kraft beer,” the first response was hesitation. Bracketed by car mechanics, Smiling Toad looks more like a place that measures its work in quarts of oil than one that counts them in pints of beer.
But opening the door shamed us into a moment of reverent quiet. It was as though we had arrived in the living room of a welcoming friend — a friend who happens to have six craft-with-a-“c” beers on tap, a really beautiful blonde wood bar and well-padded bar stools. We were greeted by Mark Wiebe, the co-owner manning the bar, the staff dog, Ella, and the only two customers in the brewery, which has seats for about 15.
The conversation immediately picked up a momentum that necessitated that we take stools at the bar, bring our dog in to socialize with Ella and say yes to the sampler flight of the six beers of the day listed in chalk on a board at the end of the bar. The two other patrons were working their way through the Brewer’s Guild coupon book, and had visited Keven Baity Kraft Beers when it was at the same location. They say The Smiling Toad is a nice change.
“We’re trying,” the bartender agrees against a backdrop of lily-pad-green walls and signs spouting witticisms, including the wisdom the co-brewers here apparently take as sage: If you brew it, they will come.
In our flight of beer, the standouts are the Bella Lavender and the Imperial Stout, but every selection, from the pale to the IPA to the Irish, is a solid entry in its category. The lavender has a strong floral nose, balanced pale ale flavor and finish, with just a bit of herbal bite. A Sweet Potato Chili Saison offers a yeasty roundness with just a hint of heat at the front. Being a pour-me-a-glass-of-your-darkest kind of drinker, the stout is the one I’d arm wrestle for. Its malty and coffee flavors and 10-percented-ness are all one could hope for in a stout.
The bartender offered a brewery tour, and Smiling Toad’s owner, Biff Morehead, a man with an impressive white mustache that seems to do all the talking for him, leads it. Four big steps into the backroom, and that’s the tour. We squeeze in to take a look at the setup for Colorado’s smallest brewery, a half-barrel operation that could have been owned by a seriously dedicated home brewer.
Morehead jokes that the brewery was what he wanted for Christmas last year, that it’s technically his wife, Patti, who owns it, while he and Wiebe run the daily operations and put in the love and work necessary to keep it going.
It may be a quiet Saturday afternoon, but Morehead says business has been good. They’re happy, really happy.
“How long have you been here?” I ask, admittedly a poorly phrased question.
“Since about noon,” he replies. We share a laugh and then he clarifies that they opened in May.
By the time our taster flight is bottoming out, there’s a crowd building. Just when I start to think our cozy feel is compromised in this widening audience, Wiebe begins his work cracking open the newcomers. To a newly arrived woman on the stool next to mine just taking her first sips from her own flight, someone who looks like she could use a little extra of that stout, he asks, “Where you from?” He teases a couple that just sat down at the end of the bar that they missed the tour. “It’s OK,” he says. “Get comfortable. We’ll do another.”
There’s no word for that experience of finding a new hole in the wall you’d like to make your own, but it’s a sense of triumph, like you’re winning at the game of life because you know somewhere that’ll be as much about having a decent drink as getting pulled into a good conversation with good people.
While the Smiling Toad isn’t the kind of place that’s likely to be on my way to anything again, it’s the kind of place I’d go out of my way to be.