While we were in Yellowstone National Park, the ‘maintenance required’ light on our hire car’s dashboard lit up. As this was a bit of a concern, we called the roadside assistance people to find out what it meant. Luckily it was nothing serious – it was just time to get the oil changed. We could go to an Enterprise and change vehicles, which we really didn’t want to do (we’d developed a relationship with our faithful Rav 4 by now), or we could take it to get an oil change ourselves. Of course we were rather far away from anywhere that would do this for us – the nearest Firestone garage was in Fort Collins, Colorado, about 500 miles away. We were reassured that we could continue driving and get to Fort Collins with no problems, so we carried on with our trip through Yellowstone and the Tetons and plotted a route that would take us to Denver via Fort Collins.
It was only when we got to Fort Collins that we remembered that this town was the home of one of our favourite breweries – The New Belgium Brewing Company – and the heart of the US craft brewing movement! So, as we were there, we decided to take a couple of tours, and do a bit of tasting, and ended up having a really great day.
New Belgium turned out to be very interesting. All craft breweries seem to have a mythology around their charismatic/eccentric founders and New Belgium is no exception. Their founder quit his job to make beer after being inspired in Belgium. There’s a convoluted story of how he found his mecca in Brussels and ended up staying a number of days with the bar’s owner, talking and drinking Belgian beers. There’s also a story of how the brewery got its logo and the name for its most popular beer (the bicycle of Fat Tire): the founder used a mountain bike to get around Belgium on this trip, and some Belgians – at that time not used to seeing mountain bikes – asked him ‘why the fat tires?’
Most interesting to me though was the fact that the brewery is 100% employee owned. In fact, as we have been taken round various breweries by their enthusiastic workers, we’ve been thinking lately that we’re both in the wrong jobs… At New Belgium, after the first year, employees get a bike and the chance to become a co-owner (after making a presentation to all the rest of the owners). After five years they get a trip to Belgium, to be inspired in the same way as their founder was, and after ten years they get a 4-week sabbatical on top of their holiday allowance, to go off and carry out their own projects, or otherwise do what they want; if they want, they can take their 2-week holiday allowance at the same time to make it up to 6 weeks – the ‘radical sabbatical’.
The tour at New Belgium is a lot of fun. As well as telling us the stories about their founder, and about how great it is to work there, our tour guide also taught us how to pour our own samples of beer. Other breweries have since tried to tell us that this is always a disaster, but it seemed to go pretty well at New Belgium… We tried their seasonals, their dark beers and we also tried a sour in the making. We also learnt about their environmental credentials, and their expansion plans: opening soon in Asheville NC!
While the brewery’s growth has meant they can no longer use the climbing wall one of their oldest employees (now a co-owner) installed after his first year, the brewery still exudes an atmosphere of fun. People hung around after the tour to drink, eat delicious sandwiches from the food-truck outdoors, and play boules in the sunshine. We soaked up the atmosphere for a little while after lunch, but then had to head off to the next brewery, and Denver!