One of the highlights of our recent trip to Colorado was our two visits to the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins. On the advice of Matt Curtis we made sure we booked the free 90 minute tour well in advance, but due to quite convoluted circumstances we were able to meet up with Steve Wood whose title is National Sales Ranger Trainer a couple of days later. First up though was our tour with Morgan of the 4th largest craft brewery in the USA which began with a brief history along with the first beer taster, a Belgian dubbel. The brewery sort of started in a basement with Jeff Lebesch beginning to homebrew in the mid 80s due to his finding not much flavour in the mainstream beers available in the US…a story we have heard before. He wanted to brew a Belgian style beer but hadn’t actually had one so decided to take his next vacation over there. Realising that drinking strong Belgian beer and driving wouldn’t be a great mix he took his fat tired bike with him along with a journal to document the beers and any ideas he had. His beer epiphany occurred in the great beer city of Bruges where he came up with a recipe idea and couldn’t wait to get home to start brewing it. That first beer was a version of the Abbey ale that we had a taster of on the tour, and the second was an amber style that became their iconic Fat Tire. At this point the brewery was still in the basement and he was still just giving it to family and friends because he couldn’t legally sell it, so in the early 90’s his wife Kim stepped in and got them a brewing licence. For 2 more years they kept their full time jobs before taking the plunge in 1995, opening up in the current Fort Collins location which, due to a growth in business, expanded in 2001. In 1997 they were one of the first breweries to start collecting wine barrels and 2 years later they released the first ever sour beer in the USA, a Flanders style red. Morgan explained that for their sours they use 2 base beers, Oscar, a dark lager, and Felix, a Golden Ale. At this point on the tour we had a sample of the latest version of said beer, La Folie (Lips of Faith) (2017), which went down better than expected (I’m not a huge sour fan). Morgan carried on with the story, being particularly taken by how, as the new millennium started and with business going well, Kim was delivering kegs to local bars and sometimes getting more sales than certain bigger brands.
By now we were beginning to get an idea of the size of the brewery, it’s a huge operation, running 24/7 with 35 brewers working in shifts on different production lines. I was also taken aback by some of the figures, for example the huge fermenting vessels that we could see outside held the equivalent of 470,000 bottles of beer. The bottling line itself fills 714 a minute which is the equivalent of a 12 pack every second…phew! Time for another beer, a kettle soured beer called Tartastic that was pretty fresh having been bottled about 45 minutes earlier.
One of the most interesting things for us was hearing about how the company operates in relation to the staffing and the surrounding community. The core values have remained important along with the need to make money because they are a business after all. With Kim being a social worker she always had a strong desire to make sure that the staff were well looked after which probably accounts for the current 93% retention rate. Ever since their beginnings the bike has always had a strong role in the brewery identity, and after 1 year at the company every employee gets the gift of a new fat tire bike with each year’s design being different. After 5 years there is an all expenses trip to Belgium to discover a bit more about the origins of the company, and after 10 you get a 1 month paid sabbatical. This could explain why they are ranked as one of the top 30 companies in the USA to work for. They are also very environmentally conscious with 99.9% of their waste diverted from landfill, provide 18% of their own solar electricity, and have an onsite water treatment plant that provides 220 gallons of water to the cities households each day. By now we were coming to the end of the tour and had our last beer from a can overlooking the canning line which only does 320 a minute. This was Dayblazer, a 4.8% golden ale brewed to appeal to the Bud and Miller market and which I’m sure will go down well at the The New Belgium Porch, a purpose built bar and party deck at the new Colorado State University stadium – up the Rams! It had been a good tour, Morgan was a great guide being both informative and funny and the 90 minutes flew by…the only thing left to do was have a seat at the bar and sample a few more beers.
Two days later we were back to chat with Steve who has been working for the company for 18 years, having worked for a distributor of imported beers before that. He introduced us to Patrick who has been a brewer there for 17 years and is part of the team of 35 who work in shifts to keep production going. He had just finished his 6 – 2 shift but was gracious enough to give us a more in depth behind the scenes tour. We started in Brewhouse One where the mash tun, kettle etc were on a slightly larger scale than I am used to and I was surprised to learn that with a lot of the core beers they mash for just 30 minutes before emptying out the tun, rinsing it and then going again with the same beer so they can do many batches a day. We were shown the yeast propagation lab where 2 young female interns were being taught before moving onto the barrel room. We’d already had some background on this with Morgan but we were able to chat with Ted, a young brewer, about the huge wine barrels that are used for souring and blending the beers, hear the story of how their first American Oak barrel was won during a bowling game in Missouri, and have a sample of a cherry sour straight from the wood so to speak – it was delicious. The beers are all aged for a minimum of a year and tested constantly to see how they are developing. We got a glimpse of Lauren Salazar down there who is responsible for the blending along with making sure all the beers that are brewed there are the best they can be with her daily tasting tests in the sensory lab.
Next we popped in to view the pilot brew system which was on a more recognisable scale and were given a couple of samples from the FVs. All the staff are encouraged to get involved if they want with experimentation being welcome, although Dave who is in charge of acquisitions said there are sometimes problems when they upscale in terms of getting the quantities of ingredients required. Finally came one of the most fascinating aspects of the tour, going onto the floor of the bottling and canning line, some of which was too much for my tiny mind to comprehend such as the labelling which was being done so fast you couldn’t really see it. The whole process from the start when the flat 6-pack boxes are made up to the laser sensor which checks the bottles are full to the same level was fun to see. And cheers to Steve for letting us grab a pretty fresh beer off the line when it was safe to do so…We also picked up a can of Old Aggie, a Superior Lager that was brewed for the aforementioned CSU football team, which I have been introducing to iconic landmarks (check @davhop72 for pictures).
All in all it was a fascinating experience and a bit of an eye opener to see craft beer brewed on such a scale. The beers are not readily available over here but if you are on vacation in the States, or are visiting Colorado, then I recommend giving them a try.