Monday, November 2, 2009

New Belgium Brewery (A curiosity piece)

New Belgium brewery has been on my mind lately; mainly due to stuff I have read about them lately. I am not sure i have much of a conclusion for my thoughts, but I will proceed anyway. Maybe writing out my thoughts will help me....

First, I will describe my personal history with New Belgium beers. I say personal history because I have been drinking their beers since I was old enough to buy beer back in 1997, living in Texas. I always really liked their beers; especially their lesser known Sunshine Wheat, Trippel, and some others that we don't quite have out here in Tennessee yet. Even their Fat Tire had a strong appeal beyond just the fact that there was a bike on the label (I was working at a bike shop at the time - their's was the preferred of the "bike associated" beers back in the day.) Fast forward about 6 years and I moved to Tennessee, where I have been since. New Belgium Beers have only recently been available here, and really just 3 standard brews and a seasonal are available. And they have stormed onto the scene. Neon cruiser bikes are everywhere (even bike shops), there are frequent specials on New Belgium Beers, and they have quickly infiltrated about everywhere that serves beer. I sort of think this is a good thing. Only that where my friends and I used to bring back cases of New Belgium beers from trips and such, now I sometimes feel like I am settling for a Fat Tire when there are no other decent craft beers within easy access.

This summer, I visited the New Belgium brewery. It was no less than breathtaking. The culture is closely guarded and the facilities are second to none. They are very active in their community and they had many different beers to sample. Essentially, they have made their brewery a beer mecca and their beer one that is often celebrated. They have become America's "cool" brewery.

So two bits of information that I have read lately are interesting to me. The less interesting is that they are looking for a beer ranger in North Carolina. Maybe it has already happened, but they are on the verge of hitting the Atlantic (Just a year or so ago, they wouldn't even cross the Mississippi). The other bit of news is that the couple that founded New Belgium are getting divorced. My source for the info (a trade magazine) stated that the divorce should be final by the end of October (now). The wife part of the relationship is taking over the company and the husband is letting go of his involvement.

That is interesting to me in several ways. The biggest, though, is that the husband, Jeff Lebesch, is the person who started the brewing and came up with their flagship Fat Tire Beer. Now, I am not going to pretend to know how the company has progressed since then as far as management, direction, or whatnot. I also have no idea what has transpired to take things to this point (and I have no interest, especially on a personal level), but I do question the focus when the original beer master leaves a brewery. Jeff hasn't been in charge of production for a long time, that is known, but still.....

It is no secret that Kim Jordan, the other half of that founding couple and now CEO, knows the business as well as Jeff. But it is also obvious (from interviews, etc) that her focus is on the culture and the employees and such as much as on beer. I think these things are important, but it all has to start with the beer. And I do feel like some of the quality of the beer has been lost in the last year or two. Granted, I may be all wrong about Kim's role in that and maybe the quality is one of the things she is looking to improve upon in the coming months and years. But these things are clear: they are expanding very quickly, the beers they are expanding with first are not their best beers (in my opinion), and their ubiquity seems to be pushing them to the realm of Sam Adams, a beer that is everywhere but mostly just a fall back when there is nothing else worth drinking. To successfully distribute so widely, a beer has to cater more to the average beer drinker, which essentially precludes it from having any significant character....

So anyway... as I mentioned, I am speculating that Kim Jordan may not be the best for the brewery and that losing the originator of the beer may also remove the original passion from the brewery. I hope I am wrong. But my hope is waning. I am curious to see what happens in the coming years, and I am curious to see who will take the "coolness" crown if New Belgium loses it.

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