Sep 302009
 
Authors: Aaron Hedge

Little Turner Williams presses his face against the glass in the window overlooking a conveyor belt that is moving 700 bottles of New Belgium’s 1554 Enlightened Black Ale each minute and exclaims in amazement.

The toddler from Indiana sits atop his father’s right shoulder as the Williams’ look at the brewing company’s bottling room after the family members who are old enough –/Tony, the father, and Meredith, the mother — tasted some New Belgium’s finest.

Tuesday represented a normal day in the life of the company, which, despite the current national economic downturn, continues to expand and now distributes to nearly half the country.

Marie Kirkpatrick, the tour guide for Tuesday’s 2 p.m. leads the crowd through the brewery’s complex underbelly that illustrates its massive line of brewing apparatus, stops at intervals throughout the tour and fills a line of about 20 glasses with various brews for the group to taste.

Kirkpatrick, who has been there for four years, is one of many New Belgium employees who hold stake in the company as an owner.

After a year of employment, every employee there meets with the higher ups in the brewery to discuss whether or not they should become an honorary owner, said Tyler Foos, a five-year employee who came to New Belgium after ending a career in banking in Wisconsin.

“A lot of our philosophy is rooted in that,” Foos said, adding later, “As an employee-owned company, we’re the stakeholders.”

Kirkpatrick is another owner who started working for New Belgium half a decade ago and one of many company employees who had no prior experience in the brewing industry.

“I put my marketing degree to good use driving fork lifts,” she said of her start with New Belgium.

That seems to be the mode of operations, according to several people who work for the business.

Brian Callahan, an employee who started working for founders Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan soon after the company started brewing in the early 1990s, has been there since he was hired, even after trying to leave.

“Jeff and Kim said to him, ‘No Brian, you can’t leave. We need you here,'” Kirkpatrick tells the crowd during the tour.

Callahan is now the “director of fun” at the company, and ensures that, if people are having a rough day in the offices on the top floor of the building, they take a break to utilize the spiral slide that goes from Floor 2 to Floor 1.

Brewery continues to expand while reducing carbon footprint

The concept of New Belgium began with 32-year-old Lebesch on a 1989 bike ride through Belgium, where he discovered a robust and mature beer culture that he wanted to bring back to Fort Collins.

And that’s what he did.

A couple of weeks after returning to the states after a trip through Europe, the electrical engineer set up a brew system in his basement where he created the now celebrated brews of Fat Tire and Abbey Ale.

After a hike with Jordan through Rocky Mountain National Park to brainstorm a strategic business model with a growler full of his new creation and a notepad, he teamed up with Jordan, who became the financial brains behind the company.

And now the company employs nearly 400 people from all walks of life and continues to expand its marketing initiatives, serving a total of 22 states nationwide as the third largest draft brewing company in the United States.

The company operates under a pretense of continuously reducing its carbon footprint, functioning as the only brewery in the country that operates solely from wind power.

This mind set is driven home to employees.

New Belgium’s parking lot is segregated by gas mileage –/any car that operates off of fewer than 40 miles to the gallon has to be parked at the end farthest away from the building.

Sales are doing well, according to employees, thanks to local liquor stores and a lasting appreciation of drinking culture in Fort Collins.

“People are choosing to not go out to restaurants,” Foos said. “At the same time, they’re are still drinking. They’re still consuming.”

One tour and six beers

Christopher Dobbs, a St. Louis resident whose son studied geology at CSU, then moved back home to discover a strong passion for home brewing, sits in the brewery’s private tasting room after downing a few goblets of the company’s more expensive samples and says the company and others like it provide an essential service to society.

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” he said, quoting the famous adage from Benjamin Franklin.

When at home, the recently retired beer connoisseur spends time in his kitchen brewing his own flavors and giving his son advice on how to perfect his brews.

He was fascinated by New Belgium’s process, which he said, with the exception of production scale, was no different than the home brewing process.

“It’s the same as what I do at home, but they have bigger machines,” Dobbs says over a glass of Transatlantique Kreik, an 8 percent alcohol beer made from Polish cherries. This one is Kirkpatrick’s favorite.

The ingredients that mix together and turn into beer flow through a complex, two-story system of tanks and mashing and mixing machines into wooden kegs where it sits for extended periods of time.

Volunteering for Kirkpatrick halfway through the tour, Tony Williams stands in front of the tour group to pour the brewery’s La-Folie, a sour red ale that sits in French oak kegs that formerly served as housing for aging French wine.

“Just don’t fill it to the brim,” Kirkpatrick says.

Turning to the crowd, she warns them not to down the entire glass of sharp-tasting beverage at once.

“This will be a shock to the pallet,” she says. “Three sips is the key.”

The drinkers take three small sips of the liquid that runs between $15 and $20 a bottle in Fort Collins liquor stores.

The Williams’ two toddlers, Turner and Berkeley, look on as the adults on the tour polish off the last of their beverages.

After the tour is over, getting ready to enter the bar just inside the front door and enjoy a few more glasses, Dobbs says brewing is a pervasive element in his life after his recent retirement.

“When you have cookies baking in the kitchen, your house smells delicious,” Dobbs said. “It’s the same when you’re brewing beer.”

Development Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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