A vintage fat-tired mountain bike is a fitting symbol for Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Co. Riding a bicycle is a balancing act. If you don’t keep moving, you’re liable to fall off. Today, few craft breweries have better balance and movement than New Belgium. As the third-biggest craft brewery in the United States, New Belgium not only produces world-class craft beers, they promote environmental stewardship, employee-ownership and increasingly aggressive growth, like a new $100 million, 150,000-sq ft brewery in Asheville, N.C., breaking ground this year.
Balancing success is a recipe that can be traced back to its flagship beer — Fat Tire Amber Ale — which today is one of the most popular craft beers in America. It’s so popular in fact that New Belgium actually redesigned its company logo in 2006 to include the famous bike on the Fat Tire label because customers recognized New Belgium’s amber ale more than they recognized New Belgium. The beer itself is a lesson in equilibrium.
“Fat Tire won over fans with its sense of balance — toasty, biscuit-like malt flavors and hoppy freshness,” explained Bryan Simpson, media relations director at New Belgium. “We try to emphasize moderation and balance. We feel that amber ales should not be overly malty, hoppy, bitter, alcoholic or sweet.”
Fat Tire’s history is as interesting as its flavor profile. It is named in honor of New Belgium’s co-founder Jeff Lebesch’s trip through Europe where he rode his mountain bike with “fat tires” through famous beer villages. After that trip, Lebesch returned to Fort Collins, Colo., with an imagination full of recipes and a handful of ingredients, ready to embark on a whole new journey. Together with his co-founder, Kim Jordan (who today is the CEO), they traveled around sampling their homebrews to the public. Fat Tire was first brewed in 1991, and today New Belgium brews north of 400,000 barrels (bbls) of Fat Tire a year.
“Fat Tire has won four awards, including a Silver at the World Beer Cup,” said Simpson. “It has a medium body with sweet caramel malts and subtle notes of fresh fennel and green apple. The carbonation and light sweetness finish clean on your palate. Overall, the flavor is a toasty malt with gentle sweetness and a flash of fresh hop bitterness. The malt and hops are perfectly balanced. Visually, the beer pours a clear bright amber with white lacing.”
How is the famous ale made? Fat Tire is made with Willamette, Goldings and Target hops. It has 18.5 IBUs and 5.2 percent ABV. The malts in Fat Tire include Pale, C-80, Munich and Victory.
“Our house amber ale yeast is proprietary, but we want a neutral ale yeast strain that showcases the malt and hops,” explained Simpson.
Fat Tire is by far New Belgium’s biggest brand, but that’s changing. Today, New Belgium produces ten year-round beers: Fat Tire Amber Ale, Ranger IPA, Rampant Imperial IPA, Belgo IPA, Shift Pale Lager, Sunshine Wheat, Blue Paddle Pilsner, 1554 Black Ale, Abbey and Trippel, as well as a host of seasonal releases.
Much of New Belgium’s future growth will likely come from its Asheville, N.C., brewery, aimed at the East Coast market and beyond. The 400,000-bbl brewery and packaging facility will provide New Belgium with additional capacity allowing the Colorado-based brewer to expand into new areas of distribution. Upon completion in 2015, the facility will initially create 50 new jobs in the Asheville area with more than 100 positions expected at full build-out.
“It continues to be exciting times in the world of craft brewing,” said Simpson. “We’re looking forward to having our second brewery open in Asheville by 2015, so stay tuned.”
At a total cost projection of more than $100 million, the new brewery will feature a 200-barrel brewing system, tasting facility, process wastewater treatment center onsite and a rooftop beer garden. Eventually, tours will be available to the public. Construction will begin in early 2013.
“Our biggest business issue has always been meeting production capacity,” explained Simpson. “In order to meet our growing production needs, we have to continue buying buildings and equipment, getting it up and running as quickly and efficiently as possible and paying down the depreciation on that equipment and the interest on the loans.”
It’s a balancing act. Good craft beer always is. That’s a philosophy New Belgium will continue to embrace. It’s also good advice for up-and-coming craft brewers. What marketing insights can Simpson share?
“It definitely goes back to the approachability of moderation and balance, appealing to a wider audience,” said Simpson, “and having a great symbol like our bike doesn’t hurt either.”