New Belgium Brewing Co., which the Brewers Association ranks as the nation’s fourth-largest craft brewery by sales volume, turns 25 this spring. Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan, then husband and wife, started the operation from their basement in Fort Collins, Colorado, about an hour’s drive north of Denver.
Lebesch was an electrical engineer who was able to cut the brewery’s startup costs to about $60,000 by rejiggering used dairy equipment. An avid homebrewer who discovered beer’s kaleidoscopic range of styles during bicycle trips through Belgium, Lebesch also served as New Belgium’s brewmaster for the first several years. Jordan, a social worker, handled just about everything else.
The couple released their first beers in June 1991. Those releases were an amber ale called Fat Tire (in homage to the Belgian bike trips) and a brown dubbel called Abbey Ale. Both were a stylistic break with the regnant craft beers in the U.S. then — or the most popular beers in general, dominated as the market was by watery pilsners such as Budweiser and Miller Lite.
New Belgium’s Fat Tire and Abbey Ale — the latter especially — were based on Belgian styles. Most craft beers were based on German and English styles such as pale ale, India pale ale, kolsch, weiss, and stout, with the odd American-born steam beer thrown in. There wasn’t even a category for New Belgium to enter its wares in at the 1992 Great American Beer Festival. In 1993, Abbey Ale won gold in the newly created “Mixed, Specialty” category.
For a startup brewery operating out of a residential basement to lead with Belgian styles was a risky move back then. Even imports from Belgium were rare in the U.S. marketplace in the early 1990s. But Lebesch and Jordan hung their commercial hat on Belgians, and the move paid off.
Within a year, they had a proper brewery going; by the end of 1992, they had quit their day jobs. Revenue began to climb, as did the number of sales accounts, and soon New Belgium expanded again, into its current Fort Collins brewery. Lebesch stepped back as brewmaster in 1996 — Peter Bouckaert, from Belgium, has been in the role since — and retired completely in 2001. Jordan moved from CEO to executive chairman of the brewery’s board in 2015.
Both also sold all their shares in the company, too, as did other partners. New Belgium is now wholly employee-owned. It produces 14 year-round releases and numerous seasonals and specials, including a line of sours.
Finally, New Belgium opened an East Coast operation in Asheville, North Carolina, earlier this spring. From basement to bi-regional in 25 years: not too shabby. Here are five beers to ease you into this groundbreaking brewery.
Fat Tire Amber Ale
5.2% alcohol by volume :: 22 international bittering units (out of 100)
This is a malty masterpiece, one of the best craft beers released in the past quarter-century. A toasty aroma gives way to that malty, slightly sweet taste. Only mildly bitter and not too filling, Fat Tire is also quite sessionable—a great, straight-ahead beer.
7% ABV :: 20 IBUs
New Belgium’s other initial offering is even sweeter and milder than Fat Tire. The Abbey Ale, in keeping with the Belgian dubbel style, is rich in texture and taste, with a velvetiness that gives way to a warm, spicy finish. New Belgium says it updated the recipe in 2015, but I don’t taste much difference.
Ranger India Pale Ale
6.5% ABV :: 70 IBUs
New Belgium’s obligatory IPA offering is bitter, but not overly so. Instead, it’s slightly spicy, mostly with citrus flavors. Like with Fat Tire, it’s light in body with no loss in tastiness.
Rampant Imperial India Pale Ale
8.5% ABV :: 85 IBUs
A rambunctious double IPA with a strong floral aroma and a citrusy, almost lemony, taste, New Belgium’s Rampant IPA is also bracingly full-tasting, a spicy meal in a glass, and unapologetically powerful alcoholically.
Snapshot Wheat Beer
5% ABV :: 13 IBUs
True to the brewery’s genesis, New Belgium’s Snapshot falls on the Belgian wit side of the wheat beer spectrum. It’s finely made, all haziness and tartness, with a crisp, gently spicy finish. It’s light on the belly and the brain, too — a perfect pairing for these warmer days.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His latest, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, was a finalist for the 2016 James Beard Award for best beverage book.