My Bucket List Brewery Tour at New Belgium
The New Belgium Brewing Company beer tour is one of the best brewery tours in the country. I did the tour back in 2014 and I will never forget how amazing it was. Since that trip, I have been to nearly 200 breweries-many of which were tours. I have enjoyed some pretty awesome behind-the-scenes tours at Dogfish Head, Odell, Bell’s, and Founders since 2014. I have always wondered what a private tour at New Belgium would be like, but never really had a connection there.
However, sometimes, the magic of beer unites people in the most random ways. When I was planning my trip, I posted on a Colorado craft beer Facebook group, and a gentleman named Andy Mitchell reached out to me and offered me a tour. I messaged him at once and we set it up. He was showing another small group around and generously allowed me to join them. So, at 4pm on Thursday, July 11th, I parked my car, grabbed a mixed 4 pack of local beers from MN that I thought Andy would appreciate, and made my way into the brewery. Walking into the brewery gave me goosebumps-and that doesn’t happen a lot to me because I go to so many breweries. Yet, New Belgium is my favorite liquor store, the one that opened my eyes to the wonders of craft beer. I remember it like it was yesterday. . .
I still remember drinking my first bottle of Fat Tire, their flagship beer, in 2003. It completely blew my mind at the time. A few years later, someone brought a 22 oz. bottle of Fat Tire to my house for a cookout and I was giddy. This arrival of New Belgium in my beer fridge was monumental because for many years, you could not get New Belgium unless you went to Colorado, or got it in one of the few states that bordered Colorado.
I get it-many people look past Fat Tire in favor of new and aggressively dry-hopped hazy beers nowadays. I would say it is a mistake to overlook this beer because it possesses one thing that most of those hazy IPAs do not-perfection. This beer is damn-near flawless. If you don’t like the style, that is on you, but it is a bald-faced lie to say that Fat Tire is a bad beer.
Since Andy and I met online in a craft beer Facebook group, I didn’t know what he looked like. I scanned the room, and a dude with an epic beard waved me down. I shook his hand and handed him the four pack and thanked him profusely for letting me join. He asked me if I wanted a beer and at that point, The Mountain from Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been able to pry the grin off my face. I ordered up an Exprimental Pale Ale that is part of their Ales for ALS series. It was refreshing-balanced, with a citrus note and a slight bitter finish.
Once we all had beverages, it was time to begin the tour! The other people in our group were fun people to be with. They asked good questions and seemed genuinely curious about all the automation in the brewery. I always have to remember that my fascination level of a brewery is exponentially higher than the average person. So, I didn’t ask too many questions. I was more focused on snapping pictures and enjoying my beer.
Andy is a tremendous tour guide today, but his main job at New Belgium is controls engineer. He also has a background in brewing, so he is the perfect person to show us around. Andy is adroit at expounding on the brewery minutiae if one asks, but also is happy to keep things light and free-flowing. As we are led into the area where the tour begins, Andy explains that much of the brewing is automated and controlled by computers. He punches up some binary code and, before we know it, we see tanks on the screen. At first, I think that he is just finishing his game of brewery Tetris, but then I look closer.
It is fascinating that a brewery of this size and scope can literally be run with the touch of a finger. Obviously, ingredients have to be put into tanks, but once that happens, New Belgium’s automation does the rest. In this main room, there is a huge tank and a placard that proudly displays that this Steinecker brewhouse was built in 1995. It still gets the job done, just ask the hundreds of thousands of fans who love the New Belgium product.
As we ascend up a flight of stairs, we see the brewhouse that started it all-the homebrew setup from the co-founders Jeff & Kim’s basement! New Belgium Brewing Company was started by co-founders Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan after being inspired by the beers of Belgium. That Belgian inspiration anchors the roots of the beers of New Belgium, however, their portfolio expands well beyond their incredibly satisfying Abbey Ale . Kim and Jeff wanted to set themselves apart from other businesses in how they treated their employees. In 2012, New Belgium became 100% employee-owned.
As we continue our way upwards, we arrive in a bright room with the tops of large Steinecker tanks. Natural light illuminates a beautiful space that is held together with massive timbers that sprawl up to the ceiling like voracious hop bines. Each tank has a mosaic border around where the metal meets the floor. The room has a wonderful aroma. We stop here to chat more about the brewing process as I take more pictures.
This beautiful space can host events and is simply breathtaking. Maybe if I decide to renew my wedding vows some day, I will do it here? A man can dream. . .
Yeast Propagation Room
Not every brewery can boast their own yeast propagation room. However, New Belgium is far from every brewery when it comes to resources. I am sure that less than 5% of the breweries in America have the ability and know-how to propagate their own yeast consistently. That is just one of many overlooked things that make New Belgium one of the best in the business.
If you are on the regular New Belgium tour, you hang out in the main room, but you don’t get to see the yeast propagation room. You also don’t get to go down the stairs and traverse underneath the massive tanks that you can see from the parking lot. I felt like I was Indiana Jones trying not to touch any of the many hoses and pipes that seemed to be everywhere.
Walking underneath these tanks, the immensity of the brewery really hits home. We also get to see more of the automation and computer systems at work. The computer system constantly monitors what is happening in the tanks. There are so many pipes and tubes! I wonder who has to clean all these things to keep them so shiny?
Roll Out the Foeders!
Like the endless supply of liquid gold flowing through the pipes, we continue onward! Now, we are in the coolest room of all-the foeder room! A foeder is a wooden barrel meant for aging beer or wine. In 1996, New Belgium was able to lure Peter Bouckaert away from Brewery Rodenbach to become their brewmaster. He promptly established a mixed fermentation program at New Belgium before leaving to start his own Fort Collins Brewery, Purpose Brewing and Cellars.
New Belgium’s catalog of mixed fermentation beers is vast and delicious. I think that there is a stereotype that a brewery of New Belgium’s size is too big to do artistic and complicated beers well. However, their process, quality control, and resources allow them to make some of the best in the country. The mixed fermentation program that Bouchaert installed at New Belgium is still thriving and this part of the tour is absolutely fascinating. There are so many foeders here just relaxing and letting the beer do its thing.
I’d Rather Have A Bottle In Front Of Me Than a Frontal Lobotomy
After the foeder area, we briefly make our way outside to head to the building where they bottle the beer. As we make our way there, we see hops inching toward the heavens on trellises. In my previous tour, I remember this part of the tour being fascinating. However, we just got to watch the bottling line in action from the above level through windows. Luckily, we got to venture out onto the bottling line that happened to be bottling Fat Tire!
The cacophony of clinking stimulates my senses as I stare at my surroundings-mouth agape. This is a lot of beer! For the first time on the tour, the volume of production feels real and tangible. The speed at which the bottles are filling combined with the audible hum of so many things happening at once is an experience that every beer geek should have. Twelve packs just shooting down the conveyor belts at speeds faster than even Andre the Giant could handle! This is so cool!
Andy asks us if we would like to try a bottle of Fat Tire as fresh as it gets. Do the bounds of his generosity know no bounds? I happily take one and crack it. I take a deep draught from the bottle and attempt to savor this experience as best I can.
We wrap our way around the floor and exit the building. We see a volleyball court and a bunch of people playing a game. This is not just a separate park attached to the brewery. This is the New Belgium staff playing together after their shifts. I don’t know about you, but when I am done with my job, I get the heck out of dodge. The fact that the culture here has created such a sense of community is fascinating.
We head back into the taproom and a few people go down the slide. They also have a lot of the brewing awards on display that New Belgium has won over the years visible in a case. The tour is over, but I want to try a few more beers. Andy pours me a few tasters and then presents me with a nice bottle of something that spent time in some foeders. We chat and I thank him profusely for allowing me to join the tour. He provides me with idea for food, beer, and anything else I need while I am in Fort Collins.
This is why I am thankful to travel. There are certain beer experiences that I have enjoyed over the years that have become seared in my memory as seminal moments in my beer journey. This is one of them. In a way, this moment has been in the making since I first tried a Fat Tire in 2003. I appreciated it then, and you bet your buns I am appreciating it now.
The adventure of craft beer is very much related to time and place. The trick is to being able to understand and catalog these moments appropriately in your memory. This tour is a reminder of why craft beer matters to me. I now have a new friend in Andy. This tour cements itself in my memory as a magical experience centered around beer. This entire experience reminds me why it is important to travel for beer. Beer brings people together. We need it now more than ever.
Post Script to the Story
I am finally putting the finishing touches on this article, almost a year later. When I got back from my trip, life got away from me a bit and I wrote this piece in chunks. As I was almost finished with it last fall, a bombshell announcement dropped that New Belgium’s employees had voted to sell the brewery to Lion Little World Beverages. While there has been a lot of things said both for and against this transaction, I was immediately concerned about how the company would change. I reached out to Andy and asked him how things were going. Andy got back to me and said, “I was very upset and a bit nervous for a while, but honestly it’s been good. 99% business as usual so far.” Andy even mentioned that the new ownership carbon neutrality goals were more aggressive than the previous ownership.
I was happy to hear that things were going well. As I look back on last summer’s trip, I miss being able to travel for beer. Our world has changed so much in the last few months due to Covid-19 and, more recently, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It seems almost silly to write about a beer adventure when things in the world seem so turbulent. However, I would argue that beer is something that can also help us heal and come together. Beer allowed me to make some wonderful memories. Now, I follow Andy’s various brewing and culinary adventures via social media. I cannot wait until I can venture out safely and have a beer with him.
In closing, if you are ever blessed with the opportunity to visit New Belgium Brewing Company, do so. Their tours are incredible, their beer is consistently diverse and amazing, and the people behind the brand give it soul. Prost!
Dan Beaubien has been involved with Beerploma since 2014 although his passion for craft beer dates back to 2006 when he started traveling for beer. Dan mostly covers craft beer events, festivals, brewery openings/releases, and beer reviews. Dan has a soft spot in his heart for authentic British Style ales, IPAs, and all things barrel-aged. If you have any questions or comments about this article feel free to email Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org .