Tastings School - USA - Welcome to the house of fun (The New Belgium Beer Company)

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USA - Welcome to the house of fun (The New Belgium Beer Company)

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. At Colorado brewers The New Belgium Beer Company they 're looking to Europe with a big smile on their faces. Ben McFarland reports

Any beer lovers heading north out of downtown Denver need to keep the faith. The power of big and brash American beer is omnipresent and, stuck in a sweaty hire car, the lure of refreshment is almost too much to bear.

As I desperately try to untangle the unfathomable one-way system to find the Interstate, I pass under the shadow of Coors Field, a colossal yet crumbling shrine to baseball and the city’s most famous brew. The two are synonymous, thick as Posh Spice, but I have to be somewhere and, even though there was a game that evening, I’m not playing ball.

Further down the highway that makes a beeline for the horizon and neatly dissects the mile-high plains of never-ending nothingness in half, stands another place of worship for behemoth brewing.

This time a suitably razzmatazz Budweiser concert venue and gargantuan depot whose twinkling lights wink at you offering to end the drudgery of driving with promises of chinking glasses, scantily-clad cheerleaders and cool guys called Chuck.

This lad is not for turning though. I put the pedal to the metal and deliver myself from temptation. I’ve been assured that greater drinking delights await further down the Interstate at a small town called Fort Collins – home to the New Belgium Brewing Company, an exuberant and eco-friendly young company a little more than a rock’s throw from the Rockies.

As I turn off the concrete river that is the I25 and Pac-Man my way through the laid back streets of Fort Collins, pulling into the New Belgium car park, I feel like I’m swapping Wall Street for Sesame Street.

All of a sudden, the sun kicks his foot through the ceiling of clouds, the flowerbeds bloom, the trees blossom, young and smiley pretty things cruise past on bicycles and my highway hassle floods out of my shoulders. It might be the dodgy hire car air conditioning, but I swear I saw some Trixibell fairies knocking about too.

It is far and away the best car park I’d ever parked in. But I feel like a dirty intruder. Strictly, turning up at New Belgium in a car is a bit of a no-no. The brewery, you see, prides itself on being greener than Kermit the Frog when it comes to the environment.

To date, it remains the only brewery in the world which is entirely wind-powered (using power from wind turbines in Wyoming) and, it’s claimed, the largest single user of wind power in North America.

Other energy-saving initiatives include a multimillion dollar system that collects methane from the brewing wastewater and transfers it to power a 290- kilowatt electric generator; recyclable bins littered throughout the brewery; light tubes that channel natural light into the warehouse; motion detectors that switch off lights when no one is in a room; ammonia-driven refrigeration; high levels of insulation and solar powered technology.

But, as Kermit once famously warbled: “it’s not easy being green.” Financial and logistical sacrifices have been made. While the environmental gains are immediate, the financial benefits are very much of the ‘jam tomorrow’ variety.

To fund the switch to wind power a couple of years ago, for example, more than 100 workers agreed to forgo their bonuses until the company could afford to pay them again.

That may sound an unusually generous concession but New Belgium looks after its employees as much as it does the environment.

The place is a bustling hive of activity, teeming with cool young dudes wearing tattoos, piercings and even kilts; workers bang barrels out the back; laughter echoes through the building and the feelgood factor slaps you round the face like a wet kipper. The sense of community and enthusiasm is infectious.

Much of this corporate camaraderie can be attributed to a unique employee ownership scheme whereby employees serving more than a year are awarded a share of the company.

“If everyone has a stake in the business then people feel more part of it too, we’ve all got a vested interest in what we do,” says Matt Jones, one of New Belgium’s liquid centre workers. “It engenders a community of trust and co-operation and creates a great place to work.”

The staff own a third of the company and can track the dimes and dollars through a transparent fiscal open-book management where everything but coworkers’ salaries can be seen.

Brian Callahan, New Belgium’s first ever employee, has been installed in the enviable post of ‘director of fun’ and is armed with the task of delivering one of New Belgium’s ‘core values and beliefs’, namely: ‘having fun.’

Every Thursday, tools are downed, and everybody heads off for volleyball night on the floodlit pitch behind the brewery. There’s a climbing wall installed in the brewhouse and after just 12 months at the brewery, employees also receive a New Belgium cruiser bike. As many as a third of the company’s employees ride those bikes to work.

In the summer, New Belgium organises outdoor ‘ride-in movie’ nights for cycling locals while the ‘tour de fat,’ a fancy-dress frolic and ballyhoo of bikes and beer, now takes place across a number of cities.

The bike not only symbolises New Belgium’s ecofriendly approach to business but is also a significant nod to its creation. It was in 1985, during a nowlegendary bike trip through Belgium, that founder Jeff Lebesch became enchanted by the country’s eclectic beer.

Suitably inspired and armed with a souvenir strain of brewer’s yeast, he returned to Colorado and began homebrewing some Belgium brews of his own. Six years later, he and his wife Kym Jordan pledged to turn pastime into profession and began brewing commercially from their basement and kitchen.

Abbey, a Belgian style ale, was the first beer they bottled followed by Fat Tire, an impressive amber ale based on Palm. Such was Fat Tire’s initial success, driven by word-of-mouth and funky labels, that soon it was being peddled faster than it was being brewed. Soon, the new-fangled New Belgium outgrew its basement and moved into a local rail depot for a couple of years.

Then, in 1995, Jeff, Kim and a handful of eager employees moved into the current home – a keen and green beer-making machine. In less than 20 years, New Belgium has been transformed from a basement producing a humble, eight and a half barrels-a-week into a friendly (environmentally and otherwise) brewery that ships more than 140,000 barrels of lovingly crafted beer to 11 states.

The New Belgium portfolio is a broad multidenomination church. Ranging from wheat beers made with kaffir leaves to face-contorting sour beers via a robust bottle-conditioned beer inspired by, of all things, a Belgian curved banister, the New Belgium beer selection is extreme and eclectic in equal measure.

According to the Brewers Association of America, New Belgium is now the 13th biggest brewer in the US and the third fastest growing player on the craft beer scene.

Much of this can be attributed to the success of Fat Tire – an extremely drinkable beer that is no doubt disrupting the sleep of sales guys at the bigger craft brewers.

If the wheels of New Belgium keep turning at the same rate, it won’t be long before its more normal neighbours along the I25 get (fat) tired too.

Interview

Peter Bouckaert, formerly of Alkan-Maes and the revered Rodenbach breweries in Belgium, swapped Flanders for Fort Collins 10 years ago and, as maverick and outspoken head brewer, has firmly put the Belgium into New Belgium.

How is New Belgium different to other craft brewers?

The fact that we can do whatever we want is a brewmaster’s dream.

We do everything different here. There’s no rule book or parameters. Instead of looking at a beer as lots of separate influences, we create beers that are greater than the sum of their parts.

We use a lot of different yeasts and spices. 80 per cent of our beers have spices, but they are not the be all and end all, but add an extra dimension.

So how do the Belgians feel about you brewing ‘their’ beer in the shadow of the Rockies?

I get a lot of feedback. Some of the older people think I’m a traitor, selling their secrets and stealing their share of the export market.

But we are copies. We’re NEW Belgium and, if anything, we’re rolling out the red carpet for Belgium beers by introducing people to new flavours and tastes. It raises awareness, I’m helping the Belgians come in.

I hear you refuse to be a judge at beer competitions, why is that?

I refuse to judge as I’m an artist and I don’t want to talk about styles. I don’t care WHAT it tastes like, I care about HOW it tastes. I just want to make great beer and not have to pigeon-hole it into categories.

I’m the Jackson Pollock of brewing. I take my can of paint and drip it all over the canvas and then beer writers say it’s because I was frustrated as a child. It’s crazy. All I’m saying is I had fun creating this and I want to know whether you like it or not.

How does the Belgian beer scene compare with the American?

The Belgians take good beer for granted whereas the Americans are really proud about what’s happening here. The US has had to put up with a really bland yellow beer culture for years and they’ve reacted against that.

People don’t want blandness. Look at what’s happening in chocolate and cheese. They want flavour.

What does the future hold for craft beer in the US?

Craft beer has a three per cent share of the beer market and it’s a fast growing sector. But there’s still a lot of potential for growth and it won’t be long before it gets big enough for the big boys to want a major piece of the pie.

It’s interesting to see how they watch the craft brewers. They cannot let them get 10 per cent – even though it’d be better for beer generally if they did. The three-tier system means that the big boys can put pressure on the distributor and cut off access to market.

Any advice for aspiring brewers?

The brewing process can be a little one dimensional.

You need to think about it from a different angle. Just putting more hops in doesn’t make a more interesting beer – there’s more to it than that. You can tweak any one of the many aspects involved in the brewing process – people ignore the mash process but that’s absolutely key.

It’s a shame that British drinkers can’t enjoy your beers. Any plans for export?

We don’t have the capacity to go abroad yet. We want to be number one or two on the craft brewing scene before we think about export.

New Belgium Beers (in their words)

1) Fat Tire Amber Ale, 5.3% Like the ageless delight of pedalling a bicycle, Fat Tire Amber Ale’s appeal is in its feat of balance: toasty malt flavours (sorta like biscuits just pulled from the oven) coasting in equilibrium with crisp hoppiness. Delicious stability – in the world of sometimes-precarious beer flavours – is perhaps what prompted one consumer who wrote us to say, “this beer just makes you smile.” Fat Tire’s depth of flavour, achieved with neither a disproportionate sway toward hops or malts, tandems well with a full spectrum of today’s engaging cuisines.

Salmon, dry-aged cheeses, roasted chilies, omelettes at midnight, sweet potato French fries and just about anything with grill marks or garlic are just a few of the edibles we like to partner up with our Amber Ale.

2) Sunshine Wheat Beer, 4.8% Sunshine Wheat swirls in the mouth with ripples of coriander and orange peel tartness, settling nicely into a tranquil sea of apple and honey tones. A filtered wheat beer, Sunshine offers a crisp, refreshing alternative to heavier-bodied heffe-weizens.

3) Abbey, 7% The colour of just-polished mahogany crowned with a tightly laced, mousse-like head, our Abbey Belgian Ale raises eyebrows just on sight alone. An ethereal swirl of banana, spice and smoky aromas compels further study.

Cross the liquid threshold and discover flavours evoking ripe fig, caramel, coffee and clove. Settle into the solace of Abbey’s other-worldly finish. This is ale consecration.