Last week was American Craft Beer Week and one of the perks/joys/occupational hazards of being a beer writer is that I spent more time drinking beer than writing about it. (Oops. Sorry/Not sorry.) So to make it up to you, here’s a look inside one of the biggest (both literally and metaphorically) American craft breweries, New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado.
This employee-owned company is one of the most established craft breweries in the nation and has been a leader in the industry since it opened in 1991. Its flagship beer, Fat Tire, a balanced blend of American and Belgian influences, introduced a new generation of drinkers to craft beer and to more complex beer styles that Americans used to have to travel abroad to experience.
I was visiting my cousins in Fort Collins with my husband and son a few weeks ago, so of course we had to stop in and tour the brewery. I’ve been on a number of brewery tours in my life, but this one was the most fun – and not just because the give you four beer samples as you go. (Although that never hurts.) It was interactive and engaging and had an amusing surprise at the end. (More on that later.)
The tour starts with a little history. Founder and brewer Jeff Lebesch took a beer tour through Belgium on his mountain bike in 1988 and it turned out to be a fateful trip. The Belgian beer styles in his glass inspired the name of his brewery and the local reaction to the bike’s “fat tires” are referenced in New Belgium’s flagship beer. (Bicycle imagery shows up elsewhere in the brewery, from signage to artwork, including colorful mosaics.)
We sampled our first beer, the 1554 (a black lager) in the loud and pleasantly warm brewhouse, with the brewing vessels churning away behind us. Behold my sleepy, unmade-up self looking weirdly blissed out with my free beer. As you can see, they’re generously sized samples, but not full beers.
I’m currently obsessed with sours (a fairly logical progression for a hophead, I’m told) so I loved learning about the souring process. And it was pretty fabulous to sip a deliciously tart and tangy La Folie sour brown while standing among the handsome (and huge) wooden wine barrels it was aged in over the course of years.
From there, it was off to the bottling works. They were bottling Fat Tire that day, so we were treated to a sample of what will probably be the freshest Fat Tire I’ll ever try — just a few hours old.
My three year old kiddo loved this part. He still talks about watching the bottles at the “beer factory” and asks if he can go back. This tour isn’t specifically recommended for kids (although they’re both allowed and welcomed) but if you have a curious child or a kid who is into machines, they’ll probably appreciate the second half of the tour like ours did.
The Daybreaker that we tried at the final tasting stop was equally fresh. Daybreaker is the company’s answer to all the light, super drinkable, beachy summer beers (think a macro lager or a super refreshing Mexican beer) but with more dimension. We drank ours while watching the tall, blue cans zoom by on the canning line, a weirdly hypnotic display.
The tour ended (improbably, but amusingly) with a literal slide down into the tasting room below. It is incredibly amusing watching your toddler patiently line up for the slide with a bunch of sheepish adults and even more amusing to attempt to get a photo of a fairly fast slide after sampling beer for over an hour.
This photo is the best I could do. It’s not great, but it still makes me laugh a little.
Attempting to go down the slide myself without scratching the heck out of it actually made me laugh harder. Note to self: Don’t wear boots with metal spikes, a studded belt and a jacket with about a million exposed zippers next time… (Sigh…#punkprobs…)
This overarching sense of whimsy, as well as the free samples and a nice overview of the beer making process make this tour a great option for beer nerds and newbies alike. Tours are free and run every day, one every half an hour, from 11:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. They do typically fill up, so reserve yours online ahead of time. (Just note that you can’t book more than 2 months in advance.)
And be sure to arrive early for your tour, since they leave right on time and they will let someone else have your spot if you’re not there when they depart. (That’s how we wound up heading out on an earlier tour.) You snooze, you lose.
If you don’t have time for a full tour, you can grab a beer or some merch (or both!) in the tasting room from 11 a.m,. until 8 p.m. daily. It was pouring rain when we visited, so we skipped the outdoor seating area and lawn games this time. We still managed to snag a couple hot dogs from the food truck out front, despite the downpour.
Whether you go for the tour or not, be sure to try the rotating beers on tap in the tasting room, the ones that are difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. There’s just something about trying a beer that you know you might not sample again that elevates the stakes for me. (You can also buy merch and many of the more common and limited edition beers to take home with you as well.)
I tried the Juicy Watermelon, a watermelon lime ale that was just as fruity and refreshing as it sounds. And since I hadn’t even heard of the Raspberry Blond before, that was a must-try as well. It was fruity, balanced and delicious.
New Belgium Brewing is a bit of a walk or bike ride from Fort Collins’ charming downtown district. As you’d expect from a brewery with a bike for a logo and a super bike-friendly culture, bike racks are much more accessible than the across the street visitor parking lot.
If cycling isn’t your thing, the bus drops you off right in front of the door. Yes, you can drive too, but if you plan on trying lots of beers, do us all a favor and don’t drink and drive.
The next time you’re in Fort Collins, make time to take a pilgrimage — or even arrange a beercation — to New Belgium Brewing. It’s worth it.
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