Colorado Ice Works specializes in cocktail ice and ice sculptures
Sterling Lucas had never considered ice cream as an artistic medium until he applied to Colorado Ice Plant earlier this summer. The student carpenter quickly became fascinated by the possibilities and mechanics of ice production. It’s “a cool and intriguing subject to shed some light on,” Lucas says.
Colorado Ice Works is one of the largest suppliers of artisanal cocktail ice cream in the region, selling to over ninety establishments in Colorado and distributing in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico. The company also creates ice sculptures by hand and with specialized technology. It is a “niche of work”, notes Lucas, closely linked to the agri-food industry, scientific innovation and artistic expression.
And the artisanal ice cream industry is heating up. This summer, the company achieved 300 percent more than in its busiest summer, says owner Mike Bickelhaupt. And he’s building momentum to expand his business to a retail outlet later this fall.
Bickelhaupt is a United States Coast Guard veteran and former corporate executive. He discovered ice sculpture during his apprenticeship with Michael Campe, the former owner of Colorado Ice Sculptures, which Bickelhaupt bought in 2013 and renamed later in the years. “I spent a lot of money on tools and ice just to learn,” he says. “I was definitely not 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 business,” he says. “I didn’t have a job that I really liked and that had been fascinating me for years. ”
Part of that excitement is the working atmosphere, but it’s also the process of making and harvesting ice cream, Lucas says. Ice is made in blocks of three by three feet and the freezing process can take up to four days. “The key to producing top quality ice cream is the pumps,” he says. “They help keep oxygen out. Oxygen is what makes ice white, ”and Colorado Ice Works ice is crystal clear.
Once solidified, the blocks of ice can weigh up to 300 pounds and employees must use a lifting machine to transport them to other freezers. From there, the blocks can be segmented into smaller cubes like royal icing (which measures two inches square), 2.3-inch cocktail spheres, and regular bagged ice.
The process, while involving, has evolved considerably from what ice harvesting was.
Historically, ice had to be cut and pulled from frozen lakes. “Throughout the nineteenth century there was a raging multi-million dollar industry devoted to the manual carving of the small lakes of the northeast,” writes Benjamin Lorr in The secret life of the grocery store. These blocks of ice could be shipped across the world to places as far away as Kolkata, India and Mexico.
Denver built its first cooler in 1860, and the process has been closely monitored and recounted by the Rocky Mountain News. This ice cream company even had to run an ad later in the year offering a reward for stopping frequent ice thefts.
While a lot has changed, ice cream remains big business, especially as the market for artisanal ice cream continues to grow. Colorado Ice Works sold “half a million pounds of ice in 2019 alone,” says Bickelhaupt. And that number has increased since. “Every piece of ice cream that we make, we sell it all.”
He anticipates ice shortages for suppliers who do not have their own equipment. In addition to the company’s current ice machines, Colorado Ice Works recently filed a patent for equipment that should allow them to make homemade ice cream faster than they already do. They even considered the possibility of harvesting ice from the lakes if necessary. But “the technology and the equipment are more economical,” he says.
While much of the ice-making technology has evolved, the need for cold has not evolved. “Our freezers are at 20 degrees except when they’re defrosting, which is 30 degrees, and we can’t cube when we’re in defrost mode,” says Lucas. To stay warm he wears RefrigiWear leather overalls, gloves and boots, but even with this gear he will go out every two hours to warm up.
Handmade ice sculptures are made with woodworking tools like chisels and gouges, but the process is much faster than woodcarving, Lucas notes. While carving a small piece of wood can easily take sixty hours, Colorado Ice Works employees can carve a single 300-pound block of ice in two to three hours. Larger pieces typically take four to five hours.
The feeling is different too. “It cuts like water. There is no effort. It slips right away, ”he says.
Bickelhaupt also likes the flexible nature of ice and the way it bends and reflects light. “It’s a bit like a diamond,” he says. “Clear ice is fascinating.” He particularly enjoys sculpting animals or faces or showing a human in motion. He once carved a five-foot star that was hung and dropped as part of a New Years celebration at Evergreen, and he 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 working hours melt away; Full ice sculptures usually only last seven or eight hours outside of a freezer. “That’s why it’s really important to have a good photo,” he says.
The Colorado Ice Works retail store will feature live ice carving demonstrations. “I want people to engage with the ice and see the snow fly,” says Bickelhaupt, and he’s thrilled to be able to see the expression of customers enjoying the artwork while they’re still there. The store will also keep ice cream platters, glasses, shot glasses, several types of bagged ice and varieties of craft cocktails in stock 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 have it seen and enjoyed,” says Lucas, whether it’s a lasting piece or “drink it or drink it. be simply impressed by the moment ”.