On our first trip to the brewery we met with Spokes Model and long serving employee Bryan Simpson in the tap room over a generous pour of their flagship amber ale Fat Tire (5.2%) and he ran us through some of the history of Fort Collins' biggest craft brewery. Established in 1991 after a cycling trip to (Old) Belgium frequenting many of the beer bars and Brasseries the country has to offer, husband and wife team Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan aimed to emulate some the beers on their garage brew kit. And so New Belgium was born.
|The original brew kit|
As we travelled through the state of the art facility, one of the largest craft breweries in America, we were struck by the sensitivity for tradition in the brewery as well as the want to push forward and produce modern American beer, all against an ideology of environmental care and sustainability. From the original brew kit from humble home brew origins, to the highly polished stainless steel four vessel brew system with steam recollection, to the traditional oak vats used to produce their sour beer next door, to the ultra-modern lab with stir-plates and Erlenmeyer flasks of beer samples. This approach of modern brewing technology coupled with traditional European techniques allows New Belgium to produce one of the biggest ranges of quality beers of any brewery we've been to.
As the tour continued we headed into the foudre forest, an absolutely beautiful room with more than 64 10,000l repurposed wine vats used in the making of slow sour beer, intermingled with a selection of whisky casks from Denver distillery Leopold Brothers, and a climbing wall. All the foudres are filled with one of two different base beers lovingly named Oscar and Felix, the first a black lager and the other being a golden ale. As we stood chatting surrounded by wood we were offered a glass of La Folie (GABF 2001 Gold Medal), an utterly delectable Flanders Red style sour beer with a blend that has been acidifying for anywhere between one year to as much as three. The tartness is reminiscent of apples and peaches, with a light yet lingering oaken texture toward the end. One of the best beers we've ever drunk, and in the most perfect of settings to try it... the heady aroma of the room is the sort you can conjure up just from thinking about it.
The final section of our tour through what is affectionately referred to as the Thunderdome - a frankly enormous bottling line and relatively smaller canning line which took in all around 4 minutes to stroll across. The continuous rattling of glass and clunk of machines highlights the scale of New Belgium's output (as if 64 oak vats of beer weren't enough to do that), capable of 700 bottles a minute with only a hand-full of people operating it. Slick.
We finished up in back in the tap room with a glass of La Terroir, created with the aforementioned Felix as the base then dry hopped to add a layer of complexity, that buoys all the other layers of sour freshness. Another contender for lifetime favourite beer for us both, and impossible to pick which we loved more between La Terroir and La Folie. We brought a bottle of each home just to re-test this theory but still just concluded that both were astounding.
|Us with Bryan and Chris from the New Belgium team!|
We spent a good couple more hours in the taproom, working our way through the New Belgium core range along with specials including their collaboration with Ben & Jerry's - a 6.3% salted caramel brownie brown ale which was SO up Laura's street (and she got to to try the ice cream the following day too). We massively enjoyed chatting to all of the staff we met, every single one of whom was bursting with enthusiasm for the company they all feel truly a part of (which indeed they are, the company being 100% employee owned). Bryan also told us a story of how Neil Fallon from one of our favourite bands, Clutch, had a go on Bryan's guitar while the band were involved in creating a collaboration beer. Bryan might just be the coolest man we've ever met.
We had such a brilliant day that for Laura's birthday we decided to return, where we joined on the general tour. This followed the same format as the first but was slightly less in-depth but still relaxed and informative. This one included a go on the brewery's helter skelter!
There have recently been a number of rumours regarding the future of New Belgium and the likelihood of it being bought out. We asked Bryan on our first trip who vehemently denied that this was a possibility. Our tour guide on the second visit was a little more vague, which could suggest that it has been mentioned throughout the company but is still by no means a certain. But as the brewery is an employee owned company, it would be hoped that their votes and opinions would be taken into consideration before making a decision with potentially a huge impact on their future.
With a second site in Asheville, North Carolina, having opened earlier this month, it will surely be the case that New Belgium's reputation as a progressive and far-reaching brewery can only increase. Although the brewery prioritises the American market and hopes to sell in every state as a priority over growing export, we are hopeful that before too long we will start to see their beer on our shores!