Posted by: nickgerlich | August 30, 2007

Foam On The Range

I’m as pro-capitalism and bigger-is-better as the next Marketing prof, but I can’t help but be amazed when a little guy comes up from nowhere and makes a big splash.

It’s just that this time the splash is capped in foam.

New BelgiumThe New Belgium Brewing Company of Fort Collins CO is not exactly the new kid in town, but after more than a decade of toiling (and brewing), they are making a dent in the beer industry. Once a micro-brewer (beer-speak for someone willing to take their profits, if any, in liquid form), New Belgium is now a powerful regional brewer.

And as the brewer of the increasingly popular Fat Tire Amber Ale, New Belgium is making inroads that little guys aren’t supposed to make.

Furthermore, NB has the distinction of being the first US brewery to rely solely on wind power, having inked a deal about 10 years ago with a Wyoming windfarm to buy their juice. This works well in a town like Fort Collins, home of Colorado State University, and one of the more pedestrian- and bike-friendly communities I have visited in a while.

Now with 290 employees, NB has just opened a new bottling plant next door on land it wisely scooped up cheaply before the big housing bubble, and now sends its bottled delights to 17 states. They even employ a Minister of Fun, who makes sure that employees have a good time while on the job (the tornado slide from the second floor is a good example).

Stick around for a year, and you are rewarded with a fat tire bike. These bikes are hot commodities, and the only ways to get one are by working a year, purchasing one in a charity auction, or winning one at one of the numerous regional events NB sponsors. Many employees do indeed ride them to work, as I verified one August Monday morning while pedaling along the bike path.

NB’s tasting room is more like a free bar, because visitors can come back day after day to receive their four small glasses of beer. All employees eventually become vested owners, and their collective goal is to give back to the community and their customers. The only problem is that I bet there are indeed a lot of return visitors, especially from the college community.

We arrived at noon on a Saturday by bike from our campground four miles away, hoping to take the brewery tour. The place was packed, and we quickly learned they were nearly out of tickets for the 4:00 tour. We quickly grabbed our tickets, and then I settled onto a peculiar stool fashioned from old bike parts and a very uncomfortable stingray seat. A young woman asked for our four choices, and while waiting we filled out free postcards that they graciously stamp and mail for visitors. After sampling fine specimens of the brewer’s art, I purchased a variety of souvenirs and we headed back out on the bikes.

The man at the door had warned us that when we returned at 4:00, the place would be a zoo. He was right. Aside from our kids, we were far and away the oldest folks in the place. It looked more like a fraternity party with young adults lapping up free beer.

The tour was everything I expected it to be: part brewing lesson, part sermon on recycling and sustainability (NB even processes all their waste water, and returns the methane byproduct to provide 15% of their energy needs), and part fun. I was not dissapointed, for here is a firm that has found a niche in a marketspace dominated by global brewers like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors-Molson. Mass-produced swill does not hold a candle to a well-crafted brew, and the company wisely resists temptation to build more breweries or expand production beyond their ability to monitor quality.

That sounds like something worth sustaining to me.

Dr “Pour One For Me” Gerlich

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