Food News

Art and Science Come Together at One of the Region's Largest Craft Cocktail Ice Suppliers

Colorado Ice Works specializes in craft cocktail ice, among other ice creations.
Colorado Ice Works specializes in craft cocktail ice, among other ice creations. Colorado Ice Works
Sterling Lucas had never considered ice as an artistic medium until he applied to Colorado Ice Works earlier this summer. The student woodworker quickly became entranced by the opportunities and mechanics of ice production. It’s “a cool, intriguing topic to shed light upon,” Lucas says.

Colorado Ice Works is one of the largest craft cocktail ice suppliers in the region, selling to over ninety establishments in Colorado and distributing to Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico. The company also creates ice sculptures by hand and with specialized technology. It’s a “niche line of work,” Lucas notes, one that’s closely connected to the food and beverage industry, scientific innovation and artistic expression.

And the craft ice industry is heating up. This summer, the company made 300 percent more than it did in its previous busiest summer, says owner Mike Bickelhaupt. And he’s banking on the momentum to expand his business to a retail location later this fall.

Bickelhaupt is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and former corporate executive chef. He discovered ice sculpting while apprenticing with Michael Campe, the former owner of Colorado Ice Sculptures, which Bickelhaupt bought in 2013 and renamed in the late aughts. “I spent a lot of money on tools and ice just wanting to learn,” he says. “I definitely wasn’t a natural.”

Lucas noticed Bickelhaupt’s passion when he applied. “I remember during my interview just being creatively inspired by the level of dedication he has to his company,” he says. “I’ve not had a job that I thoroughly enjoyed and am excited about in years.”

Part of that excitement is the work atmosphere, but it’s also the process of manufacturing and harvesting ice, Lucas says. The ice is made in three-by-three-foot blocks, and the freezing process can take up to four days. “The key to producing premium ice is the pumps,” he says. “They help keep the oxygen out. Oxygen is what makes ice white,” and Colorado Ice Works ice comes out crystal clear.

After solidifying, the ice blocks can weigh up to 300 pounds, and employees must use a hoist machine to transport them to other freezers. From there the blocks can be segmented into smaller cubes like king ice (which is two inches square), 2.3-inch cocktail spheres and regular bagged ice.

The process, while involved, has evolved considerably from what ice harvesting used to be.
click to enlarge Sterling Lucas enjoys the fact that ice making is both scientific and artistic. - STERLING LUCAS
Sterling Lucas enjoys the fact that ice making is both scientific and artistic.
Sterling Lucas
Historically, ice had to be cut and hauled from frozen lakes. “Through the entire nineteenth century, there was a raging multimillion-dollar industry dedicated to manually carving up the small lakes of the Northeast,” writes Benjamin Lorr in The Secret Life of Groceries. Those ice blocks could be shipped across the world to places as far away as Kolkata, India and Mexico.

Denver built its first ice house in 1860, and the process was closely watched and chronicled by the Rocky Mountain News. That ice company even had to run an ad later that year offering a reward to counter frequent ice theft.

While many things have changed, ice is still big business, especially as the craft ice market continues to grow. Colorado Ice Works sold “half a million pounds of ice in 2019 alone,” says Bickelhaupt. And that number has increased since then. “Every piece of ice we’re making, we’re selling it all.”

He anticipates ice shortages for suppliers who don’t have their own equipment. In addition to the company's current ice-making machines, Colorado Ice Works recently applied for a patent for equipment that should allow them to make craft ice faster than they already do. They’ve even considered the prospect of harvesting ice from lakes if need be. But “technology and equipment are more economical,” he says.

While much of the technology for ice manufacturing has evolved, the need for cold hasn’t. ”Our freezers are 20 degrees, except when they’re defrosting, which is 30 degrees, and we can’t make cubes when we’re in defrost mode,” Lucas explains. To stay warm, he wears RefrigiWear bib overalls, gloves and leather boots, but even with that gear, he’ll step outside every couple of hours to warm up.
One example of the kinds of sculpture that Colorado Ice Works can make. - COURTESY OF COLORADO ICE WORKS
One example of the kinds of sculpture that Colorado Ice Works can make.
Courtesy of Colorado Ice Works

Handmade ice sculptures are made with woodworking tools such as chisels and gouges, but the process is much faster than sculpting wood, Lucas notes. While carving a small piece of wood can easily take sixty hours, Colorado Ice Works employees can sculpt a single 300-pound ice block in two to three hours. Larger pieces typically take four to five hours.

The feeling is different, too. “It cuts like water. There’s no effort. It just slides right off,” he says.

Bickelhaupt also loves the pliable nature of ice, and the way it bends and reflects light. “It’s kind of like a diamond,” he says. “Clear ice is fascinating.” He particularly enjoys sculpting animals or faces or showing a human in motion. He once sculpted a five-foot star that was suspended and dropped as part of a New Year’s celebration in Evergreen, and he's also created a ten-foot Homer Simpson and a fourteen-foot Marge.

But as fun as it is to create, Bickelhaupt sometimes has trouble watching the hours of work melt away; full ice sculptures typically only last up to seven or eight hours outside a freezer. “That’s why it’s really important to get a good photograph,” he says.

The Colorado Ice Works retail shop will include live ice sculpture demonstrations. “I want people to engage with the ice and see the snow flying,” Bickelhaupt explains, and he's excited to be able to see the expression of clients enjoying the works while they're still around. The store will also keep ice plates, glasses, shot glasses, several kinds of bagged ice and craft cocktail varieties stocked for purchase.
And the space will showcase the work of employees, including Lucas.

“It’s every artist’s dream to want to produce something, and for it to be seen and appreciated,” Lucas says, whether it's a lasting work or “whether they’re drinking it or just being in awe of the moment.”
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Claire Duncombe is a journalist, photographer, multimedia storyteller and musician. She is a recent graduate of CU Denver, and a proud Philadelphia native.
Contact: Claire Duncombe