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New Belium Brewing Company

September, 2001

By Bobby Bush

Continuing this long weekend of events encompassing the Great American Beer Festival, I boarded a chartered bus for Fort Collins, Colorado. Loaded with beer press, a handful of brewers and a few brewpies (rhymes with groupies), the traffic-plagued trip was relatively quiet. We were headed to New Belgium Brewing Company, a ten-year-old microbrewery of particular note. The main event was the 5th annual Realbeer.com Vertical Tasting, followed by dinner.

After a brief glance around the facility, which still sparkled like new even though New Belgium dedicated the building over six years ago, we settled down, about 70 strong, in a well-appointed dining room. Each place setting consisted of ten tiny goblets. Famous beer writer Michael Jackson sauntered in, crumpled tan suit, blue shirt and requisite beer tie, and took his seat too as we learned a little of New Belgium Brewing’s past and present.

Founded by Jeff Lebesch, an American electrical engineer, and his wife Kim Jordan, New Belgium sprang from an idea that Jim had while pedaling his fat tired mountain bike. Inspired by a 1986 trip to Belgium, what began as a family-owned basement operation, with son Zack helping on bottling days, has grown almost non-stop into a 135-employee, regional microbrewery producing 220,000 barrels in 2001, 31% more than last year. Through an employee stock option plan, 32% of the ownership is employee held. Employees participate in major company decisions, one of which established NBB as a leader in environmental efficiency. For example, steam from the brew kettle is captured and reused as brewing water. In 1998, the staff agreed to forgo a portion of their dividends to invest in equipment to make their company the first wind powered brewery in America.

New Belgium, the company, is truly as remarkable as New Belgium, the beers. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First up for the vertical tasting was New Belgium Abbey Grand Cru. At 10% abv, this bottle-conditioned beer ages well. It is brewed every one thousand batches. With Michael Jackson providing commentary, we sampled batches #5000 (from 1998), #6000 (1999) and #8000 (2000) in reverse order. Brewed from the same recipes, these three beers varied in taste profile significantly. The newest was earthy, buttery with plenty of malt taste and a rum-like aroma. Though it had the same copper color, #6000 boasted malt strength. Toffee flavor replaced the previous buttery effect. And the 1998 Grand Cru was darker with stronger rum nose. Mouthfeel was slippery while flavor leaned toward fruity with caramel presence. The effects of bottle-conditioning were obvious.

Michael Jackson was informative and humorous. He exclaimed that he’s “occasionally described as an authority on beer.” But he’s “not an expert or a brewer, he’s just a writer who drinks beer.” He advised New Belgium founder Lebesch way back when, that a brewery producing Belgium-style beers in American was “a bad idea.” With a laugh, he obviously does not support that opinion anymore.

Next up for vertical tastings were Avery Brewing Company’s Quadruppel, called The Reverend. Adam Avery, from Boulder where his 3,000 barrel micro is located, shared three batches, all relatively young. From his personal stash, #1 (brewed December 2000) was winey, apricot-ish, with a young barleywine taste. Just months old, #2 was brewed in July 2001 and sported similar taste with dry finish and long sweet aftertaste. The third batch was just four days in the bottle. It was thin and malty, and very fresh in taste.

All the way from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, Dogfish Head brewer Sam Colagione brought his remarkable World Wide Stout. Fermented with six different yeasts, added at different periods in the seven-month primary fermentation period, this 18% abv ale does not really condition in the bottle. No yeast is strong enough to survive the alcohol. Two version were sampled. Brewed with “a ridiculous amount of barley,” this new WWStout had a smooth sherry character, while the three-year-old rendition had more bite in its sweetness. The dryness of the younger was replaced by richness in the older.

Appetizers on the back deck, including delicious steamed mussels, preceded by a well-prepared buffet dinner complete with heathbar cake topped with warm Abbey Ale Chocolate Sauce. Hmmm

Wow, I’m out of space and didn’t even mention New Belgium’s great line of beer. BBC has ten GABF medals and has twice been named midsize brewery of the year. Here ya go: Blue Paddle Pilsener, Trippel Belgian Style Ale, Fat Tire Amber Ale, Sunshine Wheat Beer, Folie (aged in wooden casks), Abbey Belgian Style Ale, 1554 Brussels Style Black Ale and an ever evolving list of special/seasonal brews such as Two Cherries Ale, Saison Belgian Farmhouse Ale, Porch Swing Single Ale and Frambozen Raspberry Brown Ale.

For a bigger slice of New Belgium Brewing, see www.newbelgium.com.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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