New Belgium opened its doors and America's eyes in 1991. This Fort Collins based brewer was one of the greatest influences on what we would all come to understand as the Craft Beer revolution, but as with all great things, it would take time and energy to get them to where they are at today. Lucky for all of us, they were up to the challenge. The origins of New Belgium should be familiar to all homebrewers. Not because of their success or popularity, but because their story is our story.
Jeff Lebesch , the first Brewmaster for New Belgium, found inspiration for his now iconic beers while taking a bike tour through Belgium. Impressed by the beers he found on his tour he came back to the US and set out to duplicate the flavors he had come to love. Spending countless days, nights, and weekends in his basement perfecting his recipes, he came up with two beers that are still a staple of New Belgium today; Abbey, a Belgian dubbel, and Fat Tire, an amber ale that pays tribute to the bike ride that inspired a revolution.
Initially, Abbey was not well received. A big, bold dubbel utilizing five different malts and a Belgian yeast strain; this beer just wasn't ready for American taste, but it would see great success in the coming years as Americans awoke from the stupor of limited beer options. Although Belgian beers are now found everywhere, that wasn't always the case, and you can thank New Belgium in part for that.
The initial team was small; Jeff Lebesch, his wife at the time Kim Jordan, and Anne Fitch, who would create the artwork that makes New Belgium so easy to recognize regardless of the setting or presentation.
Kim Jordan runs the company today after Jeff's exit in 2006, further destroying the idea that brewing should be left to the boys. Heading up the company ever since, Kim has introduced policies and procedures that have not only made New Belgium the success it is, but also rethought the way a corporation should be run. New Belgium is employee owned. After one year with them you get your shares, and a cruiser bike paying homage to the bike trip that started it all.
It doesn't stop with ownership either, New Belgium is an Earth conscious B-Corp attempting to redefine the influence businesses have on our economy by being responsible not only in their power consumption, but in how they give back to the communities that support them. Looking to alternative energy to power their plants, 18% of the energy New Belgium uses is created on-site using wind and bio-gas, while the rest is produced by a local wind farm. It's more expensive, and as an employee owned corporation, that meant less revenue in the pockets of its owners, but their governing philosophy of environmental compassion has provided them a unique opportunity to lead the way and define corporate responsibility in the 21st century.
In 1996, New Belgium found a man that would help shape the taste and culture of New Belgium. Peter Bouckaert, the brewmaster for the Rodenbach Brewery at the time, left Belgium for Fort Collins Colorado, and has since headed up their brewery alongside Kim Jordan. Accentuating the ideals of a corporation dedicated to their employees and environmental awareness Peter is a pivotal influence for New Belgium.
Peter is not an easy man to get a hold of, only having done only a handful of interviews since becoming a part of New Belgium 19 years ago.
Peter comes from a beer heavy background. Born and raised in Belgium, Peter has been exposed to good beer his entire life. From the 2% table beer he experienced in boarding school to the Belgians produced by Rodenbach brewery, Peter has the history in beer a lot of his American born contemporaries can't have.
Starting his personal journey into brewing in 1986, Peter brought to New Belgium a love of sours that the company celebrates today. La Folie, a foeder aged Belgium Brown, Transatlantic Kriek, a joint offering between New Belgium and Brewerij Boon that includes Polish Cherries, and La Terrioir, a dry hopped sour ale from their Lips of Faith series. Those are just the current offerings; New Belgium started into sours in 1997 with La Folie and currently produce notable beers such as Snapshot and Hop Tart which Peter discusses in our interview.
Austin: How did you start brewing commercially?
Peter: I did an internship in the special beer brewery of the second largest brewer in Belgium at that time, Alken-Maes brewery in Zulte.
Austin: Can you describe your brewery, equipment, how much beer is produced, or any other information that would make your brewery unique?
Peter: I have never been able to work in a brewery that is so flexible. Anytime new toys (read equipment) come, we are able to design for current needs and imagine potential future needs and how we can build new capabilities. It's amazing how you can use one piece of equipment in a whole different setting. We currently can do around 1 million barrels in Fort Collins, and we still sell brews we make at 8 bbls on our pilot system. Thanks to the way we have built out the brewery over the years, I am still amazed every day what can sod here. Oh, quadrupling to 64 oak foeders (sizes 25 hl to 270 hl) for our wood beer program in the last two years was a fun distraction.
Austin: Do you still brew at home?
Peter: No! My last experiment ended up in a brew pub. It's hard to balance work/life running two breweries.
Austin: What are some of the differences between small batch and large commercially produced batches?
Peter: It's amazing how much control and small tweaks you can do on our large system. We test brew on a fairly simple 10 hl brew system, but then we can fine tune a recipe to a piece of beauty on the larger systems we have in house. I can geek out on the nuances possible with the almost unending range of variables. The large system is really where the three brewing ingredients can shine. Three ingredients being knowledge, experience and creativity.
Austin: What's your favorite beer?
Peter: Orval, a beer dry sweeped with Brettanomyces, dryhopping evolving with time and Brett. Simple complexity.
Austin: What's the worst product you've ever used?
Peter: Persimmons that were not ripe, since I love Huitlacoche (corn smut).
Austin: Describe the perfect beer - style, aroma, flavor, etc. This is sort of a zen question. What is the perfect beer to you? It doesn't have to be a beer you've made, or even a beer that's been made.
Peter: Can not answer this question since I do not want to know what style a beer is. Zen is Chimay, it is the most Zen like brewery I have seen. The monastery and the setting of course, but also the great beer, a bottle conditioned tripel made in two weeks. There are no frills, everything in the making is simple and clean. I was in shock and awe when I saw the brewery the first time, awe because of the straightforward simplicity.
Austin: Tell us about one of your most memorable homebrewing experiences.
Peter: Probably my first one. We were still finishing the lauter while mashing, the kettle while lautering and the cooling while boiling. We had a dark beer that turned out great, made with pale malt.
Austin: Do you use any publicly available tools, or websites in your brewing?
Peter: I love to learn and learning happens all day every day. When creating I always avoid tools or directions. A piece of art is made in 3 years and 3 months. 3 years for the unconscious absorption of experiences and 3 months to physically create the art. In the last three months, I avoid anything written about the ingredients, or the tools to create the art since they would ruin creativity.
Austin: What is your favorite food and beer pairing?
Peter: Cheese and beer, I love hard potent cheese with sour beer.
Austin: What was brewing like pre-Craft Beer Revolution?
Peter: Revolution is a sudden change. I think we live in an evolution. I think it is crazy what the US forgot in the Wonder bread period. It's fascinating to read Lacambre's book from 1851 to see how much Europe forgot. We are rediscovering and adding to it, like in an evolution. Lots will be dead ends, new things will exist. And we will forget again, as we are currently digging into hop flavors we are forgetting so many other colors we could paint with.
Austin: What do you think the future of craft beer holds? Will the next 10 years bring the same kind of change we've seen in the last ten?
Peter: I am a bit appalled about the influx of money in US craft brewing; now everybody with a rich uncle can brew money without passion. I am hoping some other profitable sectors pick up the carrots for that money so those people can find their passion. Reaching the customer through the three tier, however the tier system will get further ripped up, and will be telling as well. The big brewers have to find new traction again, as they did in Belgium 30 years ago when beer diversity boomed. We have changed the landscape, and some of those changes will stay; a wider selection of different beer. Other changes will fade and in my eyes, the number of breweries will peak and decline. It's fun and cool to have my neighbor making beer, but I am not sure if the beer will be good or bad this time. I have been in the US since 1996 and the last Great American Beer Festival was the first time I saw an increase again in beers I had to toss out. Passion and perfection is hard, but you did not have to become an artist.
Austin: What style do you think will take off in the near future?
Peter: Creativity almost balanced with experience will be the next hot style.
Austin: Do you filter any beers? How do you clear before packaging?
Peter: I have many tools before packaging, and filtering is one of them.
Austin: Do you make any beer that you would consider aging?
Peter: I am a brewer and I love young beer. We do have a couple of sours and Brett beers that are actually pretty good with age.
Austin: Can you tell us about your plans for sour beers? How about Brett beers?
Peter: I want to turn the US sour. We started sour in 1997. We quadrupled our wood cellar in 2 years, but also started making non-wood sour beer like Snapshot and Hop Tart. From time to time we have been making Brett beers since I think 1998, but I could be a couple of years off plus or minus.
Austin: What is the one piece of advice you wish someone would've giving you when you first started brewing?
Peter: That in the US, people need a style first and then a beer. I am still convinced that it's reverse; you enjoy a beer, not a style. An artist creates, a publisher copies. Brewers should be artists, but we are constantly bogged down in trying to diminish the art into a style.
New Belgium has come to be known for their quality, and their attention to detail that could only be described as monastic in it's devotion. Beer is a religion to New Belgium, and Peter Bouckaert leads the faithful out of the darkness of bland beer, and into the light of better beer.
Whether you're sipping their flagship Fat Tire, savoring the dark and malty 1554 (a recaptured recipe Peter helped devise), their surprisingly light Sunshine Wheat, or any of their Belgiun beers you are tasting the art of everyone at New Belgium.
Peter Bouckaert is but the head artist, the Abbot if you will, and the latest Brewmaster to join us for our series, The Brewmasters.
Please join me in raising a glass to Peter Bouckaert, the Brewmaster of New Belgium.