New Belgium Brewery
New Belgium are purveyors of fine, fine beers, and are located in Fort Collins, Colorado, with a second facility now in Asheville, North Carolina. We at Bikabout were fortunate enough to be able to tour the Fort Collins site this past November, and it remains the best brewery tour we've ever taken. But before I explain why this modern craft brewery so richly deserves its own Bikabout blog post, I need to put "modern" and "craft" into context. It's important to understand where we came from, in order to understand why the place we are at now is so good, and why New Belgium perhaps best exemplifies that place.
The Great Trough of 1979
1979 was the low point for American beer, and was, in most respects, not a great time for America in general. The less said about that year's fashion, the better. "YMCA" was selling over 150,000 copies a minute. I was three, and my parents were already divorced. And more to the point, this is what Americans were drinking in staggering quantities:
The "Great Trough of 1979" is what I call the lowest point in the number of American breweries, which occurred sometime in 1979, just before things finally turned around. Witness our folley in graphical format:
Big breweries bought out smaller ones, consolidated the brewing back at their enormous facility, and eventually shuttered the smaller brands, making fewer and fewer types of beers, and more and more highly profitable generic fizzy yellow crap. This pattern repeated over and over again, taking the US from roughly 2,000 breweries in the late 1880s to just 89 breweries in 1979. ...Eighty nine breweries for a country of 225 million people. All the subtle browns, the bold stouts, the malty doppelbocks, the Bitters, everything with color and flavor began to wither and go into hiding here. My point here is more about these megacompanies doing the consolidation than it is about the awful (Carling Black Label should be labeled as a carcinogen) beer they were convincing us to buy. We were throwing all of our money at people who were brewing steadily worse beer for us. We were paying a few companies a shite-ton of money to take all of our choices away. There was exactly ONE IPA available in the US, if you knew where to find it, and that was Ballantine (ask your oldest uncle if he remembers Ballantine -- the real one, not the new version that Russian-owned Pabst just resurrected from his fuzzy memories to try to pull some street cred), and hell... Ballantine was brewed so haphazardly that none of the head brewers ever bothered to even write down the recipe. Seriously. It was a bad time for flavor.
And then illegal homebrewers in California started a movement, culminating in Jimmy Carter legalizing homebrewing in 1979, but that's all another story for another post. All you need to know is that starting in 1980, we began to claw our way back to Flavor Country, and that many of those budding young brewers took notice of what happens to Beer when you prioritize the bottom line above all else.
fast forward to 2015: it's raining breweries
Breweries are everywhere in 2015 - small, bold ones. We're now becoming positively flooded with choices, specializing in everything from sours to Germans to hop bombs. So why did I single out New Belgium for a bike-and-beer themed post? The "Fat Tire" bicycle connection is obvious, and their beers are fantastic, but dozens of other breweries make great beer or feature bikes in some way. New Belgium paid attention to everything that was wrong with the old beer model, and made themselves the antithesis of it. And that gets you a blog post.
they ensure an employee connection with bikes (and belgium)
Founder Jeff Lebesch traveled to Belgium in 1989 and toured the countryside on a fat tire bike, soaking up as much good beer as he could. According to our tour guide, at one point he even managed to luck into a private tasting / beer geek-out with a bar owner whose bar was closed for a national holiday. He took what he'd learned in Belgium and came back to Fort Collins to apply it to his homebrewing, which quickly garnered a reputation that was good enough to convince him and his wife Kim to go commercial. To keep that Belgian connection alive, all employees get a special fat tire bike on their 1 year anniversary, and paid trip to Belgium for their 5th work anniversary.
They are now fully Employee Owned
This means that the employees make the decisions jointly, and share in the profits jointly. When you buy a New Belgium beer, your money is being spread equitably among all of their employees, unlike macro breweries who pay laborers as little as they can get away with, and executives as much as they can get away with. The employees are the shareholders.
They get Sustainability
That's a massive understatement. On their website, they proudly display their power, water, and waste metrics for all to see, in easy to understand graphics, translated into units that make sense to everyone. It takes them, for example, about 4 glasses of water to produce every glass of beer at present. They voluntarily limit power consumption during peak grid times. Their facility is covered in solar cells. They have a company Prius that anyone can check out to run errands. They offer free electric vehicle charging to the public. There are too many of these to list...
They are a transparent "B Corp"
This is a relatively new thing, but think of it in the same light as getting a building certified LEED, an operations site certified ISO, or a farm certified as USDA Organic. A non-profit audits them annually, grades them on their progress, and the results are visible to everyone. It puts muscle behind their good intentions, and it drives their decisions.
We love New Belgium for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because they represent the most fully realized, perfectly formed rejection of the Big Beer Model of the 20th century. New Belgium will not buy out its competition to extinguish it. New Belgium is not being piloted by bonus surfing professional executives-for-hire. New Belgium is exactly what beer is supposed to be about... creating great product, creating truly great jobs, and setting a great example of how to reinvest in your community, in your environment, and in the culture of Good Beer. The more you know about them, the better it feels to support them. That's what a buying experience should be like. You'd be hard pressed to find a better way to spend your beer money.
Cheers from Boston, guys and gals, and thanks for an epic tour.