The Bicycle Built for Beer

The bike found the beer, then the beer built a green empire.

By Andrea Granahan

A battered suitcase turned into art with the help of a porthole commemorates the trip that began New Belgium Brewery.

Combining beer with bicycles might bring to mind a wobbly rider leaving a pub, but in Fort Collins, Colorado, close to Denver, it has created a dynamic business that is socially conscious and a model “green” corporation.

It all began in 1989 when Jeff Lebesch, an avid bicyler and beer lover traveled to Belgium. He had purchased one of the newly invented mountain bikes from the maker in Marin County in California. Wherever he went people asked him about his bike with the “fat tires”. Stopping one day at Brugges Biertje, the beer masters spent the day telling him all about what went into making their fine beers. It was an epiphany for him. It hit him that making beer was not only doable but fun.

On his return to his hometown in Colorado he set about trying to duplicate their beer processes in his basement, jettisoning a career as an electrical engineer to do so. He experimented, and using dairy equipment, came up with two beers that made him happy – Fat Tire, an amber brew he named in honor of his experiences in Belgium, and a nutty brown “dubbel” beer he christened Abbey. He met and married Kim Jordan, who loved his beer, and took over marketing his fabulous beer by knocking on neighbors’ doors to sell it. One of the neighbors was artist Anne Fitch who produced the art still used on New Belgium labels.

From a keg in the basement to top of the line new "green" technology, but the beer tastes the same and it's good.

Growing demand made the couple realize they had outgrown the basement. Before they launched into expansion, Lebesch and Jordan packed a jug of homebrew, a pad and pencil. They bicycled to Rocky Mountain National Park and hammered out the code they wanted to apply to their fledgling business.

That code included producing world class beers, a strong commitment to the environment, high involvement from employees, balancing the needs of employees with those of the business, responsible enjoyment of beer and, very important,  having fun – especially with bicycles.

Today New Belgium employs 340 people and produces a half million barrels of beer a year in a plant that has inspired other corporations. And Lebesch never forgot his bicycle that got him to the beer.

New Belgium employees have some unique perks. When they have been working at the brewery for a year they get part ownership in the corporation, and a custom built commuter bicycle. The brewery also has a stable of bicycles on hand for employees to use on errands, including a few motorized ones for long distances. A collection of antique bicycles is on display, and the tasting room is furnished with tables made of old bike wheels. They even have a bike-in movie outdoor movie series every summer with the proceeds going to non-profits.

A parking lot at New Belgium Brewery.

The company also sponsors a number of bike events such as the Tour de Fat, a multi-city, mobile bicycle festival that features a quirky parade of bizarre bikes and costumes, various bike sporting events and beer. The festival is free and the profits of the beer sales are given to local non-profits.

Lebesch also did not forget his inspiration. When employees have been at New Belgium five years they are given a special trip to Belgium where they get to meet the brewers of that country.

Environmentally, New Belgium is at the top of the list of conscientious businesses. The basic design of its building makes maximum use of daylight for lighting,  uses evaporative cooling eliminating the need for compressors and has an array of photovoltaic cells. New Belgium treats its wastewater using by-products for methane generators and nutrient laden sludge for gardens, uses wind power for electricity, and uses specially designed brewing kettles reducing power requirements. The company fosters a “one percent for the planet” movement by donating that much to environmental causes.

Even the bicycle festival is run on environmental lines, using solar powered equipment. It has a program called Team Wonderbike that has 10,000 members who have pledged to offset eight million car miles a year by using bikes instead of cars whenever possible for 12 months.

Tastings at the brewery are free – visitors getting six small tasting mugs of various beers. It’s a popular place on Friday evenings with anywhere from 300 – 1000 tasters showing up for the free suds. Many arrive on bicycles.

Friday night in the tasting room. Much of Fort Collins turns out for the occasion.

The environmental commitment of the company is not a static thing. All employee owners are constantly trying to find more ways to go greener. . The company has helped make Fort Collins a very bicycle friendly town. Many restaurants supplement the plentiful town bicycle racks with racks of their own, and the town has a bicycle “library” where visitors can check out a bike for free to ride around downtown.

The “having fun” tenet has led to employees holding winter bike rally rides, summer rides all the time, a standing Thursday night volleyball game, beer tastings, and parties.

Lebesch has a philosophy of “follow your folly” because following his dream led him from an electrical engineering job to New Belgium. He follows his own advice and has retired from the business as his wife, Kim Jordan, has taken on the job of CEO. He now races sailboats. And from all reports both he and Jordan are still abiding by the rules they set in Rocky Mountain National Park in the beginning by having a lot of fun.

99,000 bottle of beer on the wall....the cavernous bottling room at New Belgium

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