Even as the popularity of craft beer grew exponentially in New York City over the past few years, there was, for many transplants and other people just generally in the know about this sort of thing, one big presence lacking on the shelves of better beer stores everywhere—that of craft beer giant New Belgium Brewing. As of last week, though, our long nightmare is over: the brewery has officially made their beers (some of them at least; more on that later) available all over the city.
What took them so long? Well, New York is a weird place. Chris O’Leary at Brew York has written extensively on the topic, but to sum it up, selling beer in NYC is expensive; it’s logistically fraught; the laws are somewhat archaic; and it’s extremely competitive. But after opening a new east coast outpost of the brewery, in Asheville, North Carolina, the timing was right for New Belgium to give it a go.
So what exactly are we beer-drinking New Yorkers getting? First, some background.
New Belgium was founded in 1991 by Jeff Lebesh and Kim Jordan in Fort Collins, Colorado. By 2002, they were distributed in 16 states, and New York is number 44 for the brewery. As of 2015 they were the fourth largest craft brewery in the country, behind only Yuengling, Boston Beer Company (which is Sam Adams), and Sierra Nevada—all of which makes their longtime absence from the New York market even more confounding.
Aside from their beer, which I promise we’ll get to, there are a few things about New Belgium that are unique and bear mentioning.
As of December, 2012, the brewery is 100% employee-owned. Prior to that, employees owned 41%, with owner Kim Jordan and her family holding the rest. The company essentially bought her out and then redistributed that remaining 59% among its employees, who number roughly 600, spread across the two brewing facilities. This, combined with an extremely welcoming corporate culture, has earned New Belgium recognition by the likes of the Wall Street Journal and Outside Magazine as one of the best places to work.
And secondly, New Belgium holds as one of its core values a commitment to being environmentally friendly—or, as they put it, “Environmental stewardship: honoring nature at every turn of the business.” They’ve done this in countless ways, from sourcing sustainably grown barley to diverting nearly 100% of its waste from landfills. There’s a huge amount of information on their website about all their efforts, and it makes it abundantly, refreshingly clear how seriously they take it. They’re also great supporters of bike culture. All over the Fort Collins brewery—or campus, really—you’ll see employees riding New Belgium-branded bikes, and in fact employees are given their own cruiser bike after a year of employment. (As for other employee perks, at the five-year mark a paid, weeklong trip to Belgium to learn about the country’s beer history isn’t too shabby either.)
Ok, now let’s talk about the beer.
New Belgium makes a huge variety of beers, only a relatively small amount of which are currently available in New York. And I’ve got to say, I’m a little bit surprised by the selection they chose to launch with. Their flagship Fat Tire is one of them, of course–a 5.2% ABV amber ale that features a pretty damn perfect balance of caramel malts and piney hops. It’s not a sexy beer by any means, but it’s an important one, up there with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor Steam as beers that form the foundation of the whole world of craft.
Also available is the one-two punch of their Ranger and Rampant IPAs. Ranger is the more drinkable of the two, coming in at 6.5% ABV and 70 IBUs. It’s a solid beer that can feel a bit old-fashioned when compared to the IPAs that are making news here in the Northeast these days; it relies on light citrus and herbal hop flavors to balance out the considerable malt sweetness–a far cry from the wildly hopped juice bombs everyone up here is drinking (or at least standing on line for). Same goes for Rampant, their 8.2% ABV double IPA, which is clearly loaded with hops (I get some pine and floral notes), but seemingly more for bitterness than flavor. Both beers are more than serviceable, but maybe proof that IPA just isn’t what New Belgium does best. Or so I thought!
Citradelic, a super refreshing IPA brewed with tangerine peel and a variety of more in vogue hops: Citra, Galaxy, Azzaca, etc. It’s lighter in color than their other IPA offerings, and packs a huge citrus and tropical punch. And at a reasonable 6%, there are far worse beers you could bring to an all-day BBQ. This has been the biggest revelation for me, and assuming fresh bottles (and cans) keep showing up on shelves, I suspect I’ll drink a ton of it.
You’ll also find a new seasonal beer called Heavy Watermelon Ale, which is a 5% number brewed with watermelon flesh and lime peel. I haven’t tried it yet, but i’m curious. I recently had Ballast Point’s Watermelon Dorado, but at 10%, that was an entirely different beast, and it was sorta gross, like watermelon syrup. There’s also Glutiny, a “gluten-reduced” pale ale I probably should have tried but didn’t.
Annnnd finally! There’s La Folie, which is a wood-aged sour brown ale that is without question among the finest sours being made anywhere. I had it at the brewery in 2014, and have been lucky enough to grab bottles each year since. It’s delicious fresh and even better with some age. Do not hesitate to pick up multiple bottles if you see it.
So what’s still missing? Well, most beer people would say the most glaring omission is their Lips of Faith series–22oz bottles of more experimental beers. A salted Belgian chocolate stout, for instance, a Yuzo Berliner Weisse, a Coconut Curry Hefeweizen. They do lots of interesting stuff that is very much worth trying. Rumor has it the series will hit New York in August, which… all things considered, is not too long to wait.
The other beers scheduled to come to New York in August are a session IPA called Slow Ride, and their 1554 Black Lager.
Weirdly, though, what I’m most interested in being able to pick up are two of their less flashy beers: Blue Paddle Pilsner and Shift Pale Lager. They’re both exceptionally well made and extremely drinkable–perfect summer beers if ever such a thing existed.
But at this point, it seems absurd to complain, doesn’t it?
Follow Mike Conklin on Twitter.