Stan Hieronymus on New Belgium Fat Tire

New Belgium Fat Tire

American Amber Ale
First Brewed
June 1991
Malt Varieties
Pale, C-80, Munich, Victory
Hop Varieties
Willamette, Goldings, Nugget
House Ale Yeast
With a perfect balance of hop to malt, Fat Tire pairs well with garlicky pizza, sweet summer corn, spicy chipotle and just about anything with grill marks on it
Stan Hieronymus on New Belgium Fat Tire

A few months before husband and wife Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan began selling New Belgium Brewing Company beers in 1991, they took samples of Abbey and Fat Tire Amber Ale to a bluegrass festival in northern Colorado. “We were giving it away,” Lebesch said, referring to Abbey. “And the response was decidedly underwhelming.”

Until that day he thought Abbey would be the brewery’s lead beer. He had been brewing test batches for two years. “I was really proud of it. It was very enlightening to think Abbey was not going to be our flagship,” he said. Lebesch was right, and right again. Abbey is an excellent beer that won 10 medals at the Great American Beer Festival between 1993 and 2005, six of them gold. And Abbey did not become the flagship.

Fat Tire was more like a rocket ship. The first year, Lebesch brewed beer in the basement of the family home using repurposed dairy equipment capable of producing about eight barrels (248 gallons) of beer a week. He installed a larger system in a renovated train depot in 1992 and made 993 barrels of beer, most of that Fat Tire. Lebesch was inspired by amber beers he had tasted in Belgium, and created one that was soft on the palate, malty and fruity at the same time. “It is not emphatically Belgian in character,” beer authority Michael Jackson once wrote, “but it has some resemblance to Palm.”

New Belgium blasted out of the microbrewery category in its fourth year – it took Sierra Nevada 10 years – brewing 18,951 barrels while beginning construction of a nearby brewery that has expanded many times since in its current location. Production surpassed 100,000 barrels in the eighth year, 200,000 in the 11th, 300,000 two years after that, 400,000 in another two years, and 500,000 three years later in 2009.

“People ask me, ‘What were you thinking?’” Lebesch said about the time New Belgium production eclipsed that of all six Trappist monastery breweries in Belgium combined. “I cannot remember having plans beyond the basement.”

Fat Tire accounted for 70 percent of New Belgium’s sales in 2008 and 67 percent in 2009. The share dropped to 60 percent after the brewery introduced Ranger IPA in 2010. New Belgium does not share sales figures for individual brands these days, but acknowledges Fat Tire now accounts for less than half of New Belgium’s production. That is still more beer than all but about 20 American breweries produce.

(Off-premise sales of Fat Tire Amber Ale — the brewery added Fat Tire Belgian White to the portfolio in 2017 — tumbled 19 percent last year, according to IRI Worldwide, part of a general trend that helped inspire #FlagshipFebruary.)

In Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands, the authors, who worked with New Belgium on marketing strategies beginning in 2003, write: “Thanks to the beer’s name, its watercolor of a single speed bicycle on its label, its Colorado mountain provenance, and its artisanal production, Fat Tire perfectly evoked this mountain outdoor adventure subculture.” They explain that it appealed to a wider audience because “it happened to be a very palatable, slightly sweet beer that many drinkers who were not connoisseurs like to drink. So it had the potential to break out of the craft category and become a mass-market beer.”

That Fat Tire turned into a powerful brand may bother those who think “craft beer” should be 99 percent marketer free, but the name and the watercolor cruiser on the label weren’t the product of a focus group, and the brewery’s story kept coming back to bikes. Fat Tire was named to commemorate a biking trip through Belgium that inspired Lebesch to begin homebrewing similar beers. Employees receive a fat-tire cruiser after working at the brewery for one year. Launched in 2000, the Tour de Fat (“Shift gears. Get weird.”), a traveling carnival that visits multiple cities each year, has raised more than $5 million for nonprofit organizations.

Stan Hieronymus.

This means little to devotees who would focus only on “what’s in the glass.” A 2009 column in a Florida weekly, at the time that New Belgium began to distribute in the Southeast, expressed an opinion seen often in online beer forums: “New Belgium Flat Tire is overrated.” The author continued, “I might catch a fair amount of sass for this, but Fat Tire is the Schlitz Malt Liquor of the New Belgium product line.” She praised other NBB beers, but beyond insulting the hundreds of thousands of drinkers who enjoy Fat Tire she missed the connection between all the beers New Belgium makes.

Step back into the brewery during the summer of 2000. Belgian born brewmaster Peter Bouckaert, who joined NBB in 1996 and left in 2018 for a startup, spoke with equal enthusiasm about Fat Tire and the recently named La Folie. “As a brewer, I’m never going to be happy. We’re still working on Fat Tire,” he said.

He showed off four newly delivered 60 hectoliter wooden vessels acquired from a winery. Few involved in American brewing knew how to spell foeder back then and he himself didn’t know that his brewery would soon label a section of its cellar a ‘Foeder Forest.’ “I think it’s a good illustration of what New Belgium is,” he said. “Luckily we have Fat Tire, and that lets us do all these other things.”

Stan Hieronymus is author of For the Love of Hops, Brew Like a Monk and several other books. He drank his first New Belgium Brewing beer, Abbey Grand Cru, in a forest service lookout tower in southern Colorado, at 9,849 feet above sea level. It went straight to his head.

Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.

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