Every year more than a 120,000 people visit New Belgium Brewing Company in Ft. Collins, Colo., to tour and taste. The brewery has recently added some new tweaks to its 23-year-old beer experience, including an outdoor tasting veranda with an oversized Flintstone-like Rolle Bolle game (also the name of their 2013 summer seasonal).
But there are more visceral reasons that craft beer lovers make the trip. New Belgium was one of the first breweries to understand that when we drink craft beer, we are savoring the dreams of its founder. It’s an intimate relationship and a core reason for the galactic growth of craft beer.
If you want to see the future of craft beer, which now has 6.5 percent of the total beer market share and growing, visit New Belgium. You’ll find everything you would expect at a craft brewery—great beers, including its flagship Fat Tire Amber Ale, collaborations and tempting seasonals.
While visitors who take a tour are treated to complimentary tastes of several beers, New Belgium has ended its long practice of providing free samples to tasting room visitors. “We began to notice regulars who would arrive multiple times a week to drink free beer,” explained Bryan Simpson, New Belgium’s Public Relations Director.
Because all New Belgium co-workers are owners, they are especially attuned to their social responsibility, so now New Belgium serves its beer in small snifter glasses in the tasting room for a few dollars per glass.
While on the tour, you can still see the first fermentation vessel used by co-founders Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan in their basement, as well as their revolutionary quality control lab.
There are a few new sights on the tour as well. You can take a peak into the wood beer cellar, known as “The Woods,” where giant French Oak wine foeders are inoculated with brettanomyces to create wonderful sour beers like La Folie and Le Terroir.
This focus on wood-aged and sour beers—which New Belgium produces under the “Lips of Faith” small batch series—is the new big thing in craft beer. The high-end beer line sells anywhere from $7 – $16 per bottle, but it offers an exciting new imbibing experience, reminiscent of wine tasting. These small batch beers are also very popular in the New Belgium tasting room.
Another new addition (but not on the tour), is a 10-barrel research line where brewers can cut loose and try out their latest ideas for new brews. The day I visited, a rye IPA was being swished around.
New Belgium has also trained about 60 of its staff in the fine art of sensory taste testing in order to get the best feedback in blind taste tests.
While New Belgium helped launch the great brewery scene in Ft. Collins (11+ breweries today), it will soon arrive at the other end of the craft beer spectrum in Asheville, N.C.—a well-established beer town with nearly 20 breweries.
Construction on New Belgium’s second brewery is scheduled to start in the spring of 2014. No doubt this venerable craft beer maker will find an entire new group of east coast brew tour devotees.