Take one electrical engineer, one social worker, add a shared love of beer, and you have a recipe ripe for an award-winning, socially-conscious brewery—the Fort Collins, Colorado-based New Belgium Brewery.
In 1989, co-founder and engineer Jeff Lebesch went on a “fat tire” bicycle tour of Belgium and its beers. He came back to Fort Collins with an itch to explore homebrewing in his basement, which was to become the humble birthplace of New Belgium Brewery. At the time, Fort Collins had a keg brewer and a pub brewer, but no one was brewing bottled beer, and no one was brewing in the Belgian style. Lebesch thought he’d fill the niche, and his basement homebrews went commercial on a very small scale in 1991. In the early years, Lebesch’s wife, social worker and brewery co-founder Kim Jordan, was alternately known as New Belgium’s bottler, sales rep, distributor—you name it. Today she’s the brewery’s CEO.
Abbey, a Belgian-style dubbel, and Fat Tire, an amber ale, were two of their first offerings, and they remain the core beers on New Belgium’s roster.
“We fully expected Abbey to become our flagship beer,” Jordan says. “That obviously didn’t happen.”
Since New Belgium began offering its beers to the public in 1991, Fat Tire has become its best-selling brew. The first year, the brewery sold roughly 300 barrels of it; this year, sales will exceed half a million barrels for the first time.
Part of New Belgium’s success is due to Jordan and Lebesch’s eco-friendly approach, which is rooted in the philosophy of sustainability.
“We gravitated toward those values,” which, as Jordan remembers, were outlined during a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.
For starters, New Belgium is employee-owned. When CEO Jordan talks about the 308 people that make up the brewery’s family, she describes “co-workers,” not “employees.” Those employees each receive a cruiser bicycle (to encourage eco-friendly commuting) on their one-year anniversary with the company. In 1998, those same co-workers also unanimously voted to switch to 100 percent wind power—getting their electricity from a wind farm in Medicine Bow, Wyo.—and became the first brewery in the nation to do so. New Belgium also donates $1 to philanthropic causes for every barrel of beer sold. To date, the brewery has donated more than $2.5 million to causes ranging from environmental (Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado) to health and human services (a women’s shelter in Arkansas).
Ultimately, New Belgium comes down to three things: caring about beer, caring about the Earth and caring about people.
“I still have those ‘pinch me’ moments,” Jordan says. “When I’m walking into the building, it still surprises me that this is something that was initially born of our value system.” –Peter Bronski