It's tough to turn your passion for homebrewing into something more than a hobby. And it's something else altogether to turn your small batches of basement-brewed suds into one of the country's largest breweries in less than 25 years. However, that's exactly what the founder of Colorado's New Belgium Brewing Company did.
We got a look inside the Fort Collins HQ to find out how much work goes into turning out their top-notch tipples, and how much fun they have doing it.
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Back in 1989, New Belgium's founder (and then-aspiring home brewer) Jeff Lebesch embarked on a European bike tour to visit a laundry list of villages well-known for producing beer. He returned home to Colorado with a litany of recipes to test out, which resulted in his first two successful creations: a brown dubbel he named Abbey, and an amber he called Fat Tire, an homage to the two-wheeled European voyage that inspired him. The notion that a single trip to Europe can change your life's path is a tired cliche, but that's exactly what happened.
Two years later, he was earning enough praise from friends on his beer that he enlisted the help of his wife Kim to spread the word, which she did by literally knocking on neighbors' doors.
The hustling paid off big time, as New Belgium earned a great reputation right in the midst of the craft brew boom in the mid '90s. It's held onto it, too. These days they do nearly $200 million in annual sales, and employ over 480 people.
Today, they're the third-largest craft brewery and the eighth-largest overall brewery in the U.S.
The brewery produces 11 different varieties year-round, including the signatures Fat Tire and Ranger IPA, plus a number of small-batch and limited-edition seasonal brews.
Not to mention a few crazy-delicious suds aged in wood, like their sour La Folie Brown Ale, and the sour dry-hopped Le Terroir Sour Ale. The sour beers have grown so popular that they've decided to double their foeder (wooden barrel) capacity.
To ensure flavors are consistent and for other quality assurance purposes, New Belgium has its own team of microbiologists and chemists who test each batch.
If only you'd known that being good at science could land you a well-paying gig working with beer all day, you might have paid a little more attention in class.
They also have cadre of professional tasters with exceptional palettes to help them concoct new and unique fermented goodness.
In keeping with the brand's independent spirit, the brewery goes out of its way to be as energy-efficient as possible. Their goal is to become entirely wind-powered, and until then they pay an extra rate to ensure theirs comes from the cleanest source possible. They also use special energy-efficient kettles that can boil wort during production with exceptional speed.
Even better, 10% of the HQ's power comes from methane gas created as a byproduct of their on-site water treatment plant, converted inside this special bubble setup.
For two years now, New Belgium has been 100% employee-owned. That sort of collective mentality makes for a unique work environment, and is a big part of why the company has made it onto a few "best places to work" lists.
Judging by this midday ping pong sesh next to the bottling line, we can see why.
If you want a closer look, hitch a ride on one of their guided tours to see behind-the-scenes production, and be regaled by stories of how their most popular beers came to be. Or, you could skip all that and just hit their on-site Liquid Center to fill up growlers and taste their entire lineup of big- and small-batch suds.
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercompressor. Coincidentally, his appreciation for great beer is giving his midsection quite the fat tire.