Few brewers have shaped American beer the way Peter Bouckaert has. Full stop. He brewed for years at Rodenbach in Belgium, producer of some of the world’s most iconic Belgian sours. Then, in the mid-1990s, Kim Jordan tapped Bouckaert to be the brewmaster at her then-fledgling brewery, New Belgium. Throughout his 21-year career there, Bouckaert was responsible for introducing American craft drinkers to blended Belgian-style sours—including the game-changing sour brown ale La Folie—and for growing the company to become the eighth-largest American brewery by volume last year.
In a move that surprised many, Bouckaert announced last week that he would leave New Belgium later this year to pursue a new role as brewer at a new Fort Collins, Colorado-based brewery called Purpose Brewing and Cellars. Purpose is helmed by Zach and Laura Wilson, who recently took over 1933 Brewing and have reinvented the company and its space as Purpose. The trio hopes to have the new brewery open this summer. We spoke with Bouckaert as he reflects on two decades at New Belgium and plans for the future at Purpose.
DRAFT: Looking back on your time at New Belgium, what are you most proud of?
Bouckaert: I think it’s that we just went national [in terms of distribution]. And that’s maybe encompassing for me. When I started, we were just in Colorado and gradually grew to all kinds of new beers, new people, new passion, we just kept on growing. Maybe that’s the easiest one, in the sense that it’s all-encompassing.
DRAFT: What did you learn from working at New Belgium for so long?
Bouckaert: It’s an incredible company. For me, something that was very significant was that when I started here, I moved from Belgium. I was hired for the job; I didn’t know where exactly I would go, what type of company it was. … But to have a company where we talk financials every month, it’s very open. It’s an incredible company to work for and I wasn’t expecting that in the U.S. I expected it to be much more cutthroat. I didn’t think I would have vacation. That was the most striking, to see how the company makes decisions. From the get-go, I said I wanted to learn and I never expected to stay as long as I did, but the speed of learning kept on being there. It’s been beautiful.
DRAFT: Why leave now?
Bouckaert: Again, the drive for me is learning. When I went on my sabbatical [to write “Wood & Beer: A Brewer’s Guide”], I decided on very short notice to go on my sabbatical and it came due to … you get that message like ‘What are you doing with your life? Where are you going?’ I went out West, I talked to a lot of people that I knew and had beer. We talked about our personal lives and business. For me, I came back like ‘Wow, there is so much beauty still out there.’ The fact that I saw my heart beating suddenly, I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s happening here?’ It was like, ‘Wow, there is something else I could be passionate about.’ That was the initial message for me as I came back. The realization of ‘Oh wow, maybe I should explore a few things.’
DRAFT: What is there left for you to learn?
Bouckaert: I’m working on here [at Purpose] a cash flow sheet; I had never really made a cash flow statement before. That was so much fun. It’s mine. You have to do it all, you have to do everything yourself again. In a way, we have so many great people here at New Belgium that they are probably all more qualified to do things that I could do. In the meantime, you lose the fun, the ability to be doing it all yourself. Creating is the learning part. You’re not learning anymore, you’re a master, just saying ‘It looks good.’
DRAFT: Is there a point at a larger brewery where your role becomes more administrative than creative?
Bouckaert: My function here has evolved over time and Kim [Jordan] has always been very supportive, with the open question: ‘Is this what you want to do?’ Sometimes my answer was ‘Yes, I need to deal with this project myself.’ … She’s always been asking that. My funnest part of my job at New Belgium is the comfort. I am doing a lot of projects, 80 percent of them might not see daylight.
DRAFT: What types of beer can drinkers expect from Purpose?
Bouckaert: We are purposely vague about that right now. We have some other communications coming out … Purpose is very small, so we will have many one-offs. We will have some regular beers, but we want to make it a unique experience when people come into the brewery. We want to make it more of a winelike experience where you taste a lot, get the owners to maybe taste something with you, make it a very individual experience of a brewery. We will have some wooden barrels, but I am interested in doing some other things as well. Something that I’m very excited about is that we’re going to have a small coffee roaster as well. I drink a lot of coffee. This is a wood-fired coffee roaster and I have never used something like that. I don’t know where I will end up with that … if we want to experiment with the roasting, like does it have to be coffee we are roasting? We will see.
Editor’s note: The interview has been edited for clarity and length.