Category Archives: Western Adventures

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

You can go home again!

“Look girls, cowboys!” my friend Bev said. My other friend Devorah said, “Yippee ki yay.”

Sure enough our vehicle was met by some nice looking young men in Stetsons and chaps, and by one older, smiling, bearded gentleman.

The cowboys, Dale and Chad, whisked away our luggage to our cabins and Jerry, the ranch owner led us to the sprawling main ranch house. The sign at the door didn’t say welcome, it said, “Welcome home.” That said it all.

Chad, a wrangler.

Most Americans have had a family farm in their backgrounds or wish they did. A laid back, comfortable home where you are always welcome, the kitchen always smells good, and there are wonderful animals to get to know.

The Bar Lazy J ranch in Parshall, Colorado is exactly that place. The minute we arrived we felt totally at home. The old log buildings from the early 1900s with their slightly out of square angles as the buildings have settled comfortably, the stone fireplaces, the warm, slightly worn furnishings are part of the homey charm. But the real secret of the ranch’s lure is the people who live and work there.

Jerry and Cheri Amos-Helmicki, who own the ranch, have a philosophy. “We have three priorities: first the help, second the horses, third the guests. If the first is happy they take good care of the second, and then when the first two are happy, so are the guests,” Cheri explained.

It definitely works. The Bar Lazy J is the oldest continuously operating guest ranch in Colorado. Everyone who works there from the wranglers, both male and female, to the kitchen staff, loves the ranch and their work. That doesn’t stop the wranglers from teasing greenhorns, but it’s all good natured fun.

The cabins, like the ranch house, date back to 1907 – 1911. They all front on the Colorado River which runs through the property, making fly fishing a popular activity. Equipment is available in the Fishin’ Shack behind the wranglers’ bunkhouses.

The first afternoon that guests arrive they learn about one of the unique events the Bar Lazy J offers – the running of the horses. The ranch herd of 70 to 100 horses have a pasture a short distance from the guest facilities where the barns and paddocks are located. The wranglers let the horses gallop from one place to the other. The horses clearly enjoy the wild race and everyone enjoys the sight and sound of such a large herd galloping by. The morning and evening run is one of the high points of the day for people and horses.

The running of the herd.

One of the first things the crew likes to show visitors is the “bottomless cookie box” – a chest kept constantly filled with fresh offerings. The kitchen is open to the guests to fetch coffee, cocoa, or cold drinks between meals. The meals are something else. It’s not the “bacon and beans most every day, sooner be eatin’ the prairie hay” of the old song. It’s a gourmet spread three times a day with a little exotica like buffalo meatloaf sometimes added to the menu. The ranch house bell rings a half hour before meals to warn riders, fishermen, hikers, and loafers that the grub is coming, and then again when it’s time to go to the table. No one misses the meals.

The first night after dinner guests got to meet the horses that would be theirs to ride for the duration of the stay – usually a week. Cochise, a paint, was mine because I was a novice rider. It’s a relationship that develops rapidly, easily becoming a love affair.

One guest who has been coming back for several years (three quarters of the guests are returnees) walked up to the corral fence. The horse he had ridden each year recognized him from across the paddock, neighed, and trotted right up to nuzzle him.

Jerry believes in a thorough education before he trusts anyone with his beloved horses. After breakfast the next morning he and Shawnee, another paint, carefully instructed us newbies in horsemanship.

“You are not a passenger. This is a partnership,” he said. After his 45 minute orientation, a group of wranglers got us all mounted and led us to a hill top where they put us and our horses through our paces. Before long the wranglers were satisfied that we knew how to control our mounts and that we felt secure. We had learned some of our horses’ personal quirks and habits – Cochise was having a hard time resisting the new grass.. After a buffet lunch on a screened porch overlooking the river, we were ready for the trails.

Bev opted to sit by the river and read a book, Devorah decided to learn the intricacies of fly fishing from a pro, while the rest of us rode. About two hours later I dismounted and discovered Cochise had not done all of the work. My muscles barely allowed me to hobble to the hot tub for a solid soak. That made all the difference.

In fact, by the time Jerry and Cheri had launched a laid back cocktail party, I was ready for a cold one. After a while, the bells rang, the horses ran, the bells rang again, and we entered the dining room where a fire blazed in the fire place illuminating the wonderful Western art collection on the mantel. The meal was spectacular.

Still weary from my ride, I sat on the screened in porch of my cabin and listened to the river. I had snagged a cookie from the bin on the way back to my cabin and nibbled it. In a bit I’d join the girls in the living room of the ranch house in front of the fire.

I thought about my family farm in the South. It had long since passed out of the family when my grandparents died. I thought about my husband’s family farm in Minnesota, snatched up by an agribusiness when his uncle died. We’d never had a ranch in the family, but the Bar Lazy J was so familiar because of the farm memories. I realized even if there had never been a farm in the family this place would feel the same. It’s as if we share a national nostalgia, a collective memory of what should be.

I sat back and nibbled my chocolate chip cookie and realized at the Bar Lazy J, contrary to conventional wisdom, you CAN go home again, even if you never had one in the first place.

To contact Bar Lazy J –

Rates are $1725 a week for adults and include all meals, horse riding and other activities

$1195 for kids 7-12, $995 for kids 3-6 – includes special children’s activities

5 weeks of the year are set aside for adults, and there is 10% discount, and some 3 day stays are offered during the adult weeks