On our recent travels to Colorado, there were many great beer destinations for us to explore but perhaps none greater than New Belgium Brewing Company of Fort Collins. The largest production craft brewery in the Centennial State and the third largest in the country behind Boston Beer Company and Sierra Nevada (NBB currently ranks seventh largest brewery overall including the macros), New Belgium pushed out nearly 600,000 barrels of beer in 2009.
During a fruitful three days at the first national Beer Bloggers Conference in Boulder, we met some of the passionate representatives of New Belgium, among these was the knowledgeable and hardworking Michael Bussman. Bussman, titled the “social media nerd” takes on the responsibility of running the brewery’s blog as well as promotions, taproom tastings, and brewery tours. From the moment we met him, Bussman’s dedication to his trade and his expansive understanding of the craft beer climate was vibrantly evident. The highly charismatic Bussman offered us a private tour of the New Belgium brewhouse if we elected to accept, and, of course, we happily obliged.
With a panoptical acumen of seemingly all things New Belgium, our gracious guide apprised us of the intricate, collaborative, and sustainable workings of one of the best run brewing facilities we’ve ever witnessed. Here is a gander into the world of Fort Collins and New Belgium Brewing Company from the source known by many as the “Mothership”:
Tell us a bit about your background. Where you’re from and how did you get interested in the craft beer industry?
Michael Bussman: I grew up in Missouri, went to college in Colorado and spent a lot of years post college working as a mechanic in various bike shops around the country. Strangely enough I fell into the craft beer industry because of bicycles. I got a job a carnie and bicycle mechanic for New Belgium’s Tour de Fat in May of 2008 and I just kept running from there.
Tell us a bit about what you do at New Belgium Brewing. What’s an average day look like for you? Is there an average day?
MB: In November of 2009 I retired from the Tour de Fat and got a job in the Liquid Center, New Belgium’s tasting room. I spend most of my days slanging beer samples, telling stories, and giving tours. I also spend some time every week writing the blog at Newbelgium.com and contributing content for Facebook and Twitter.
We first met you at the Beer Bloggers Conference in Boulder. How did you get involved in this event and what did you take from it?
MB : The Beer Bloggers Conference was great. I got to go because of my involvement with NBB’s blog and my overall interest in social media, the event seemed like a really good fit. My take away ranged from great idea’s on blog lay out and aesthetics, to content organization and engagement, to connecting with a lot of other bloggers out there in the blog-o-sphere. I think that in the future I can see post collaborations and guest writers for what I am doing as well as, hopefully, joining other writers on their blogs.
Fort Collins is a town of bike lovers. We noticed fat tire and cruiser bikes everywhere. Was it always like this or do you think NBB is responsible for this to some extent?
MB: Fort Collins (and Colorado in general) is a pretty active, fit kind of place where bicycles have an everyday kind of usage, and I think it has always been like that. New Belgium’s company bike culture grew out of that as well. Our co-founder Jeff was on a bike tour in Belgium when the inspiration for NBB hit. He was an avid cyclist living in Fort Collins when the brewery started up and lots of early co-workers were riders and then the culture just kept growing. NBB does a lot to promote cycling culture in Fort Collins (and around te country) with events like the Tour de Fat, which money for local cycling organizations, as well as general bicycle advocacy. But I would say that NBB’s bike culture in an absolute extension of our local Fort Collins bike culture.
New Belgium Brewing is the largest Colorado brewery and the third largest craft brewery in the United States. How many barrels are produced a year currently. How will this increase with the undergoing expansion?
MB: 585,000 was the count for 2009. Unsure what 2010 will look like, but there will be some growth. And as far as the current cellar expansion, who knows, but that will enable us to make more beer for all those thirsty people put there.
There’s a big crane being constructed outside the brewery. Tell us about the expansion efforts currently taking place. That is one huge crane.
MB: We have purchased a few more fermentation vessels as well as a few more bright beer tanks and we are currently installing them. The install is requiring a bit of a reshuffle with the placement of some of our current tanks but in a month or so everything should be in the right place (existing tanks and new tanks) and ready to tie into the system. The tie in will take some more time but hopefully in early 2011 everything will be up and operational allowing us to ferment a bunch more beer to bring to the people.
How big is the brewery and its property?
MB: The property size is about 55 acres and my guess is that we are currently using about half of the land.
How many mainstay brands does NBB currently offer? How many seasonal and Lips of Faith?
MB : NBB offers eight year round, full time brands (Fat Tire, Abbey, Trippel, Blue Paddle, Mothership Wit, 1554, Sunshine Wheat, Ranger IPA), and then we do five seasonals (Spring= Mighty Arrow, Summer= Skinny Dip, Fall= Hoptober, Winter= 2Below, and Frambozen for the holidays). In the Lips of Faith category that number is always moving around. The only beer in that group that is continually offered is La Folie, but at any given time there will be one or two (or sometimes three or four) others in the mix. So the hard and fast numbers are a bit hard to track on the day to day but a short answer to your question would be: a lot.
Tell us about your waste treatment water plant, its history and what it does.
MB: This PWWTP (process waste water treatment plant) is one of my favorite places at NBB. This plant has been operational for a decade or so and contributes to the brewery in a myriad of ways. It cleans our water before giving it back to the city. We are considered a pre-treatment plant, we process the water through three phases and get it over 95% clean. When the water leaves our facility it is not ready to drink (it is short of a reverse osmosis treatment), so we send it right down the sewer. As one of the larger water users in the city of Fort Collins this huge amount of water is helping dilute the load the city is receiving from the rest of the users making their treatment a little easier. But back at our PWWTP the process water (not any bathroom water, this is just the liquid used in the beer production process) winds its way through three phases, anaerobic, aerobic, and clarification. The first phases is the most awesome. During the anaerobic journey the little bits of micro-biology that are eating up the impurities in the water have a strong by-product, that bi-product is a bio-gas that is very rich in methane (about 75%), we capture that methane in a big white bubble and pipe it back to the main building where a generator is waiting to burn it for power. We garner about 15% (at full bore) of our overall energy need just from treating the waste water that the production process creates. The following phases of treatment aerate the water and then clarify it so it is ready to head back towards the city’s plant.
New Belgium is know for sustainable practices like wind, solar, and water re-usage. Can you describe to us more about these practices and what efforts are made by NBB to be environmentally mindful.
MB: Honoring the environment at every turn is one of the core values and beliefs that our co-founders outlined as New Belgium was still in infant stages. We take this commitment very seriously in everything from our dedication to alternative energy to sustainable eventing to continuing to increase our efficiencies in the brewing process. I would like to plug the website here and send folks over to http://www.newbelgium.com/culture/alternatively_empowered.aspx a lot of our efforts are detailed there. We also did a life cycle assessment of a six pack of Fat Tire which is readable over here at New Belgium’s sustainability blog: http://www.newbelgium.com/culture/alternatively_empowered/sustainability-blog.aspx
How do the tours of the brewery work? What can people expect if they visit the taproom?
MB: The Liquid Center is what we call the tasting room over here at NBB and our hours are 10 to 6 Tuesday through Saturday and we run tours everyday. The tours start at 1:30 and run on the half hour till 4:30 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Friday the tours start at 12:30 and Saturday they start at 11:00. We book the tours online at Newbelgium.com and reservations are recommended. We tend to book a few weeks out in the summer and just a few days out in the winter. But even if you don’t have a reservation or you just want to sample some beers come on down. There is no cost for either the tours or the tasting and we do have tons of merchandise and beer to go for purchase (including $6.50 growler fills).
What’s your take on the Fort Collins craft beer scene/community?
MB: Man, there are so many good beers in this town, and so many great breweries brewing them (O’Dell’s, Fort Collins Brewery, Coopersmith’s, Equinox). The tap and bottle selection at bars is full of local fare and you can hardly walk two blocks without hitting a tasting room for samples and growler fills. The beer in this town is great and I know it is only getting better.
How does this relate to the greater Denver-Boulder and even Colorado craft beer environment?
MB: Fort Collins is just one more awesome stop in the Colorado beer-rich environment (and Fort Collins is my personal favorite of these stops). It is awesome to see so much growth and quality in our industry right here in Colorado.
It seems that NBB is really mindful of the well-being of the employees and you seem to really enjoy your job. What efforts has the company made, in your eyes, of making this a place people where really want to work?
MB: NBB has made a commitment to its employees that has created one of the best working environments I have ever heard of. The benefits are top notch (not to mention the perks), the pay is great, upward mobility is encouraged, and we are employee owned so we all have a stake in this delicious pie. But on top of all that we are treated with a huge amount of respect, questions can be asked and answers will be given, we are encouraged to know what is happening within the business and we can be proud to be a part of it.
What are your favorite beers at New Belgium?
MB: This is a tough question, my favorites change pretty regularly, at least seasonally. This year it went as follows: The spring was Mothership, Summer was Skinny Dip or Blue Paddle, Fall was Ranger, and so far this winter 2Below has been great, but Trippel is a go to as well. Over all La Folie could be an answer and Eric’s Ale may be a favorite of all time, and when Fat Tire came out in a can my love of it reemerged with gusto, so I’m not sure really sure, I like to change my beer in hand pretty regularly.
Tell us about your souring and barrel aged program.
MB: Ahhhh, La Folie. Our current brewmaster is Peter Bouckaert and he came to us in 1995 and he came from Rodenbach. He is Flemish and loves Flemish beers. Upon his arrival he started our sour beer program and from it we have offered La Folie, Eric’s Ale, NBB Love, Tart Lychee, Berliner Weiss, and more. La Folie is the cornerstone of this program and the only one that is, year after year, on the production schedule. Everything else shows up and then leaves to make room for whatever is next. This started as a very small project that was not originally slated to become as big as it has (NBB is now home to the largest wood cellar in North America) and we are super excited about it and so are the people. Sour beers are really picking up in popularity and I am glad that is the case, I think we make great sour beers and I hope the styles continue to grow in this country.
You have a new bottling line and also a canning line. How efficient are these and what kind of production do these put forth?
MB: Our bottling line is pretty new, it was commissioned in 2007 and since then has been plugging away close to 24-7. It is the fastest packaging line at New Belgium at 700 bottles a minute (at full speed). It is housed in it’s own facility call the Thunderdome. The Thunderdome is 55,000 square feet of straight bottle mayhem, it really is a sight to see. The canning line is a different story. It runs full speed at about 60 cans a minute and then those cans have to be loaded into their cardboard by hand and then the boxes have to be glued shut by hand. The difference the two line is dramatic, and kind of hilarious. We started in with the cans in 2008 with Fat Tire, added Sunshine in 2009, and did a limited (mostly Colorado) run of Ranger this summer. But we hope in the future to have some machinery that can crank out a few more cans a minute as the popularity of canned craft beer continues to grow.
What do you think the most important element is in the success and continuing growth of NBB?
MB: I think continuing to hold to our core values will prove to be of the utmost importance. I think as we grow and keep gaining more co-workers and we stick to our principles which include making great beer, environmental stewardship, and not taking ourselves to seriously the sky is the limit, and who knows where we can go.
Thank you, Michael!