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Tasting Notes: New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, CO

“I’ll have a Fat Tire and that IPA from Fat Tire.”

I’ve heard that sort of request numerous times from beer drinkers who aren’t even novices to the genre. It’s the craft beer specialty mindset where one specific beer from a brewery achieves such an exalted status that the beer’s name supplants the actual brewery’s.

Quick, who brews Fat Tire Amber Ale? That’s a lot harder to swiftly think about compared to the brewer of the Lagunitas IPA.

Perhaps Lagunitas IPA cannot be included in this discussion, though it very much fits amongst its colleagues for iconic beers. I for one knew about Arrogant Bastard years ago, but had no clue who actually brewed the beer. The same for Black Butte, Pliny, and Fat Tire. These are the flagship beers of the craft beer movement that has swept across the country from beer epicenters like Portland and Denver to the tiniest towns of West Virginia and Delaware (can you think of a Delaware craft brewer? Don’t think too hard.).

Yours truly may almost always be the only writer behind these articles, but trust me, there were others tasters present.

Yours truly may almost always be the only writer behind these articles, but trust me, there were others tasters present.

These are also the beers that are starting to verge on over-expansion. Like with restaurant chefs, craft breweries can very quickly expand its output to too high a level and the product begins to be noticeably compromised. I always use the airport as an example when this really starts to be the case. Just ask Wolfgang Puck. And now, it almost seems you can find Lagunitas IPA and Fat Tire Amber Ale at as many airport bars as Stella Artois and Shocktop.

That’s a good thing in that travelers get decent to good craft beers, instead of the mass produced messes they used to be stuck with. That’s also a bad thing because what were often exceptional, very personal small batch beers are now a fraction of what they once were.

My family, many of whom live near New Belgium in Colorado, treat Fat Tire Amber Ale with the same reverence as John Elway.

IMG_8898After sampling all 17 beers recently on tap at New Belgium’s Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado, it’s fair to say Fat Tire is very much in the middle of the pack at its own brewery. It’s not that it’s a poor product. It’s just nothing special. That was a universal opinion. The signature beer of a craft brewery shouldn’t be one you don’t remember at the end of a tasting, even with all of the stouts and Belgians pyrotechnics over the course of the sampling journey.New Belgium produced 800,000 barrels in 2012, not exactly small batch beer anymore. Then again, they surpassed the official mark for “craft” beer back in 1994 before anybody outside of a 20 mile radius had heard of them. Plus, Fort Collins’ beer industry is best known for its prominent Budweiser Brewery along I-25. That isn’t exactly a craft brewery.

Odell’s was the first to bring craft brewing to Fort Collins, a town previously not known for much other than being Colorado’s third or fourth major city and being home to various Western livestock shows and events, and Colorado State University. It’s not far from Wyoming. It’s not that far from Denver. It’s not too far from skiing in the mountains.

But, it’s the brewing culture that has really helped become a key component to Fort Collins’ recent surge as a great city to work and live in. It’s not a Cowtown anymore, though the drive from I-25 to New Belgium might tell you otherwise.

After an extensive and (strong) beer-filled bike journey through Belgium in 1989, then 32 year old home brewer Jeff Lebesch returned home and opened New Belgium in Fort Collins in 1991, long before craft breweries were in vogue. Even Samuel Adams wasn’t a big name back then.

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Lebesch is no longer affiliated with the entirely employee owned and operated New Belgium. However, it’s amazing to see what can result from some experimental home brewing and the inspiration the Trappist monks, Dunkels, Sours, Pilsners and strong beers of the Old World can provide.

New Belgium is easily today, over two decades later, one of the five most influential non-mass producing breweries in the country.

At the constantly packed tasting room, you continually are reminded of two recurring themes deep at the heart of New Belgium: environmental sustainability and bikes. Yes, the two compliment each other quite nicely.

Fat Tire? The mountain bike, or “fat tires” Lebesch rode through Belgium. As the best known Amber Ale in the country, it’s a faithful, unspectacular beer with plenty of hops mingling amongst heavily toasted malt notes. My issue is always with the finish, a touch too bitter with traces of uneven carbonation that keep screaming of overproduction everywhere I sample Fat Tire, be it at the brewery, or Chicago O’Hare.

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I didn’t care much for the other signature beers: run of the mill light offerings of the Sunshine Wheat and Blue Paddle Pilsener, but did appreciate the terrific 1554 Enlightened Black Lager that fully accomplishes that challenging vision of bring powerful stout

flavors to a clean, flexible lager body. The same story with the Shift Pale Lager, mixing Pale Ale with Lager.

The popular winter seasonal Snow Day Winter Ale has been hit or miss in my experience, pleasant, but without a clear narrative. It wants to be a spiced ale, but lacks enough spice. It wants a malty focus from the addition of the Midnight Wheat malt, but you barely notice it.

IPA’s aren’t a forte either at New Belgium, with both the Belgo IPA and Ranger IPA presenting pleasing hop forward notes initially, then not having much more life to them. Yes, at just 60 and 70 IBUs respectively, neither aspires for a hop-crazy experience. The problem is there isn’t anything else to cover up for the lack of hops. They don’t command attention and bring crisp, clean streams of hop to the palate as you’d hope.

On the other hand, the Abbey Belgian Style Ale is a World Beer Cup award winning stud, full of mellifluous plantain, allspice, and no shortage of coriander seeds. It’s multi-dimensional and fully balanced. Unfortunately, it’s brother, the Trippel Belgian Style Ale is multi-dimensional and doesn’t have enough character in any of those dimensions to discern the hops to the malts, with an exceedingly meager mouthfeel like a weak Blonde Ale.

New Belgium’s “Lips of Faith Series” is the powerhouse section of the brewery’s line-up these days, with single batch, provocative brews created, often as part of collaborations. The ultimate winner of the day was the majestic Imperial Coffee Chocolate Stout, handsome, proud, and not hiding the espresso notes whatsoever. This is clean, woody espresso we’re talking about, not burnt instant Lavazza. The beans come from not very far away, courtesy of Fort Collins’ own Cafe Richesse. The head is that beautiful creamy foam you hope for in an Imperial Stout and the body a deep black that shows its been lifting weights daily. Started this past October, weighing in at 10% ABV, this should be the beer that is the signature of New Belgium, not Fat Tire.

New Belgium's Biggest Fan

New Belgium’s Biggest Fan

Equally impressive was a Belgian effort called Matt’s Cascadian Dubbel, a fascinating study in hops and a distinctive herby-malty backbone. Belgium gets another shout out with the superb Frambozen, not at all the cloying raspberry Jolly Rancher associated with the genre. It’s pristine with real structure and sour raspberry to the palate instead of sugar. I enjoyed another Belgian effort, the Bière de Garde as well, a complex collaboration with Michigan’s Brewery Vivant that speaks distinctly of cracked pepper and grapefruit, with a supporting role from anise.

A recent trip to Southeast Asia inspired  the Billy’s Beer, the tasting’s most polarizing brew. I thoroughly enjoyed the notes of Thai ginger, chili pepper, and toasted peanuts, putting me right at home in a Singapore covered market stall. Other tasters didn’t even want to stick around for the grading round. It’s impressive spice-wise and at 9.5%, no walk in the park.

The one universally agreed upon miss-hit of the “Lips of Faith” line-up was a Peach Porch Lounger Saison, that was more booze forward strong ale with too much Brettanomyces and malt covering up any cloves or even the peach elements.

Recently New Belgium took part in the “Beer Made by Walking” concept, creating a beer with ingredients foraged from right around the brewery. I had no problem at all with what they crafted after finding plums and lavender, ending in a very bright, floral, slightly tart, lighter effort. You just knew the foraging movement created by chefs and cocktail mixologists had to make it to brewing soon enough.

Still in the end, our tastings use a scale of 0-10 to rate beers as a way to compare them with others. Some of us (yours truly) are more open to any genre and grade based on what the brewer was aspiring to create. I rarely want a pint of a Pilsener, but I know what terrific Pilsner is like. It’s all I wanted in Prague. Fellow tasters are, let’s say, fans of safer beers or stronger beers or hoppier beers. They have their niche. If they don’t like coffee, they won’t like a Porter. It’s not rocket science.

Disappointingly compared to its colleagues across Colorado, California, Oregon, and many other craft brewing centers, New Belgium was almost a whole tier below. If you were to give an “A” to beers rated from 8 to 10, then many breweries (think Avery, Great Divide, Green Flash, Hair of the Dog, Dogfish Head, Russian River…) would receive an A from recent visits. New Belgium could maybe squeak out a B-. As a generalization, the line-up needed to be bolder. More hops. More strength. More fruit. More yeast. More of something. Except coffee in the Imperial Stout.

Research

Research

That being said, New Belgium does boast some wonderful beers, none of which are called Fat Tire. The finest beer actually wasn’t even one they made. It was a combination of the Frambozen and the Imperial Coffee Chocolate Stout together made as the raspberry chocolate truffle for dessert after getting through the brewery’s portfolio.

Godiva, eat your heart out. I can certainly see next year’s Valentine’s Day Seasonal already at work. That is a beer I would bike through the mountains of Colorado for.

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