Brewery tours are like one night stands. Some are memorable, but more often than not, the experiences blur together to a point where the faces change, but the particulars remain the same.
A fashionably draped taproom, stunning in its decor, can front what lies beyond, acting as window dressing for the inner workings. But you know not to judge a book by its cover, a gorgeous bar could be the extent of the brewery’s personality. Gleaming copper may catch your eye, lustily glinting in the light and enticing you even though that beauty may just be skin deep. Shapely brewing vessels can tease you, as you remind yourself that size doesn’t matter, it’s how you use it that counts. Rows of curvacious, well endowed fermenters may tempt you to caress their sides, alluring in form, made all the more attractive because of their function. The number of large and sinuous hoses snaking across the floor may scare some, terrifying in their potential to uncouple and eject their liquid contents across the room. But it’s just part of the brewing process and all is well as long as a safe workplace is maintained.
Realistically, it all comes down to taste, preference, and the moment. Some of the ugliest taprooms belie the incredible beers produced behind the scenes, or how ingenious the brewery’s components and techniques are. Others are just attractive fronts for insipid products made by the shallow and trendy. Yet every so often you run across a brewery tour that combines all of the qualities you are looking for, and if you’re lucky, it can live up to your expectations. New Belgium Brewing, completely to my surprise, is the whole package.
Life conspired to keep the Wife at home for the trip to Fort Collins that we had been planning since shortly after the new year had elapsed. Reservations were made, deposits laid out, and an itinerary confirmed that precluded any thoughts of cancelling the trip, so Your Man in the Field was on his own for the extended weekend. Just getting a spot on the NB tour involved signing up online months beforehand for the Friday morning slot. Their dance card is always full, so plan accordingly if you want to spend some time behind the scenes with them.
Fortified for the day ahead from a satisfying breakfast at the B and B, a cab dropped me off amongst countless rows of bicycles in front of the brewery. And a beauty of a brewery it is. I spent the half hour or so before the first tour of the day exploring the public spaces inside and out, admiring the attention to detail everywhere. The taproom is furnished brightly with stools and tables constructed of recycled bike parts, utilizing rims, gears, and chains into the decor. Much of the furniture’s wood is stained in vibrant colors, grabbing the eye like red lipstick.
I settled in to waiting for my date by sipping a satisfyingly hoppy Rampant Imperial IPA pondering the taps suspended from the ceiling. Like everything else in the bar, how beer is delivered to the glass was well thought out, casting conventional wisdom to the wayside, or at least nudged. Tongue in cheekness reigns throughout both faces of the company. Need some water? Pull your own from a tap set apart and labeled ‘Helter Seltzer.’
Our guide for the day, Laura, gathered us outside the front entrance to begin the tour, plying us with a taster as the spiel began. Laura, like all of New Belgium’s tour guides, spends most of her time serving beers in the taproom, taking turns in leading visitors throughout the complex. From her ease and elocution, little would tell you that she isn’t the primary tour liaison.
After a few introductory words, we were led around the building to what is officially labeled as Brewhouse #2, but is better described as the Cathedral of Craft Beer. A twist through a door and curving staircase delivers you upon the threshold of a vaulted, timbered space, two stories tall. The tops of massive mash tuns and brew kettles dominate the center of the room, their stainless steel sheen reflecting and bouncing the abundant daylight streaming in from nearly all sides. Every sound made is amplified and echoed off the polished concrete floor, reverberating from the rafters and creating a sonic dynamic that is reminiscent of enormous houses of worship.
Once the group of about 15 of us was corralled to a seating area off to the side, Laura continued the presentation, focusing this time on the history of NB, and how the facilities had grown, moved, and grown again. Tasters of their Trippel were set before us as we listened, placed upon glass topped tables, nooks of mementos peeking through below.
Then came the inevitable part where my eyes glaze over, and I usually stop paying attention, focusing on everything in the room except the conversation; yes, I’m talking about the brewing process. Not only have I heard the same song and dance a million times, but I know it inherently from being a homebrewer. It’s not that different from when your date starts into what their friends are doing, what behavior their annoying (and ugly) pet is exhibiting, or what untalented media star is their flavor of the moment; you start fidgeting, utter one syllable responses, and suddenly find everyday objects fascinating. But that’s just me.
Once that was over, I was the bright eyed, attentive tour goer, ready to take in whatever they wanted to tell me, and at that moment it was to take a look around. All of the brewing vessels have glass portals, offering a glimpse of the cauldron as the mash or wort boils merrily. The dramatic space is often used for meetings and receptions, and as such, has a bar towards the rear.
As the tour progressed back outside, through the taproom and beyond, the benefits of being a New Belgium employee became evident. At their one year anniversary they are given a limited edition bicycle (the style and color change every year), and at five years are taken on a paid trip to Belgium.
More glowing wood embraced us as we entered a twisted forest of foedors. Large wooden vats varying in capacity, foedors can be used in the aging of wine or beer, with many in NB’s collection imparting the wine they once held to the sours and other Belgian styles they brew. Like the cellar of some elven king, the vats of varying heights towered above us as we made our way amongst them to a portable tap ready to serve us the Transatlantique Kriek. Part of their Lips of Faith series, the tart Lambic was better suited to the Wife’s tastes than mine, one of the many times during the trip that I wished she was there to share the sips and experiences.
From the hand crafted to the mechanized, wood to stainless steel, the tour proceeded to the nuts and bolts area of the brewery where ginormous bottling and canning lines reside. Here we were offered what I must confess is one of my least favorite beers, not only from New Belgium, but craft beer as a whole: Fat Tire. Don’t get me wrong, it’s saved me in bars where the only other thing on tap was Bud, or Coors Light, and it’s introduced many to craft beer who wouldn’t have tried anything else, but it’s just not my bag. Thankfully, they also had Ranger IPA, which I quite like, so much so that it has occasionally occupied our fridge since they released it.
As a finale to the day, we were led into the office area of the plant where the adornment continued the eclectic and wittiness. Photos of previous Tour de Fats, found object mosaics, and a Foosball table reemphasize what a fun place NB must be to work at. In addition to a brightly colored elevator, employees have the option of a spiral slide as a means to descend to the ground floor, which is also offered to tour members to cap off the experience. Then we were unleashed back into the taproom, which had tripled in occupants since we had left.
I sat collecting my notes, drinking a Shift Lager while they wrapped up the obligatory beer glass I had just purchased, trying to put my finger on any one point that had made the tour so memorable and fun. I finally came to the conclusion that I couldn’t single out any component, that the parts truly made the whole.
I gathered up the accoutrements of my trade and headed out the door for Odell Brewing, less than a quarter mile away. I had drank the New Belgium Kool Aid. The bounce in my step buoyed by equal parts beer and memories of an exceptional brewery encounter.
New Belgium Brewing is a Participating Brewery with the Beerporium Brewery Passport and Journal. Get your Passport today!