Brewery Excursions in Colorado: Part Seven - Brain Sparging on Brewing


Sour beer, saisons, farmhouse beer, homebrewing, ramblings

December 27, 2011

Brewery Excursions in Colorado: Part Seven

And then there was the last brewery: New Belgium. I like a lot of NB's beers; I don't drink as much of their beers as I used to -- both because we have access to more beers in Texas than we did ten years ago and because I have found others I enjoy more -- but the visit to the brewery reminded me how good some of their beers are. The brewery tour is an excellent tour. It's an hour and a half and they give you a lot of beer along the way. Plus, there's a slide at the end.

Whether you like or dislike NB's beers, you should appreciate that they have a solid vision of their business strategy and care about running business ethically, rather than just based on making more money than everybody else. After a year of employment, all employees obtain partial ownership in the business. That's really cool. I have spent several years working with employee benefits and I can say it's almost unheard of to vest benefits after only a year. They also spend a lot of time and money charitably operating bike runs for charity across the nation. Instead of dumping the waste water from brewing -- it takes eight gallons of water to produce one gallon of beer, according to them -- they have an on-site water treatment plant that treats the water before it goes to Fort Collins's sewer system and they also take methane from the waste and use it to power generators that help power the plant. They are also incredibly generous with their time and beer for the tours.

We started our tour in the tap room. It smelled strongly of yeast hard at work, which is always a delicious smell. We drank some Old Cherry, which is a winter seasonal made with...cherries. It's very good. It's not a sour so it's a good cherry beer for people who love cherries but don't like sour. It's just a hint tart from the natural acids in the cherries. It's also not cloyingly sweet like the Lindeman's kriek (or similar backsweetened lambics). Sadly, it's only kegged and as far as we could see, didn't make it out of Fort Collins. I was told that Clutch was out, which also made me sad because I had really been looking forward to trying it. I also tried the Prickly Pear-Passion fruit saison, which was tasty although like many of NB's beer sort of stripped down for the sake of shelf life. I wish it had a little more rustic character. It wasn't as good as what we had at Funkwerks but it was good enough I walked to the very end of the B terminal of the Denver airport to drink more at the NB taphouse at the airport.

While at the taproom I overheard some other people asking the bartenders about some future NB plans, so I want to share those here. First, NB is considering a taproom in Old Town Fort Collins (sort of the old school main street) but it's not definitive. Second, NB intends on building a second brewery to improve distribution but they have not chosen a location so anybody who tells you they know where is wrong because not even NB employees know. (There are probably multiple sites being considered and various levels of work being done to see how feasible/profitable it would be. My guess is it would be somewhere on the eastern seaboard since there is a lot of beer culture out that way -- so a large market -- and that's the area furthest from Colorado so it would make distribution easier to distribute to the east.)

You can see one of the brewhouses (there are two) from the tap room. It's crazy, the whole thing is operated from two desktop computers. They were brewing when we were in the tap room. It's very automated. Two guys sat at the computers running everything. This is a picture of the brewhouse; I didn't get a picture of the computers. Sorry.

Ok, so on with the tour. The tour starts with a sampler of Abbey, which was the first beer produced by NB. They tell the story of how the owner biked around Europe drinking beer and learning about beer and was prodded to start a Belgian-style brewery in the US. The couple who own the brewery converted their basement and kitchen into the first NB location before building the current brewery, referred to as "the mothership". I suspect it's probably more difficult to start a brewery in your house in Fort Collins, let alone most other cities. After story time we were given a sampler of Snow Day. I'm not as much a fan of Snow Day as I was 2 Below. However, it's a good beer (I just don't like the hoppiness) and it's good in a sampler volume. Anymore and my taste buds get burned out.

The first place we stopped was outside of one of the labs. I believe this is the yeast lab, but it may be one of the quality assurance labs. It's not a great picture but you can see all sorts of scientific stuff going on here. It's on the way to brewhouse two, which is the brew house we were shown since they were currently operating out of the brewhouse one, visible in the picture above. Had people been working in the lab I probably would have bugged the tour guide -- who was very cool and very knowledgeable -- to talk to them about some of the more technical aspect of their brewing practices. Alas, nobody was home so we continued on to the brew house.

Along the way to the brew house there was a window into one of the rooms with fermenters. I'm not sure what the significance of the guitar was. I forgot to ask.

In the bottom of the brew house they told us all the typical stuff about how beer is made ("beer is made with four ingredients..." you're homebrewers, you know the rest) so I looked around at the equipment. The glycol plate chillers, etc. You can see here a fresh order of Chinook came in. NB uses pellet hops. The work floor of the brew house was really clean and very organized, unlike some of the smaller breweries (especially Avery) that were more dirty and had sacks of grains lying around everywhere. This cart full of hops was the most out of place thing I saw the entire trip.

After they showed us the bottom of the brew house we went upstairs where you can see things going on and receive more beer. Upstairs was another bar where instead of serving us beer we were taught how to pour from a tap and allowed to pour our own beer. I zeroed in on the Abbey Grand Cru because I had never had it before. It was really good. I was expecting it to be over the top and boozy like many beers labelled "grand cru" but it was smooth and easy to sip. It was like Abbey but with strong fruity notes of cherries and apricots. I might have to try to snag a bottle or two.

In addition to getting yet more beer you can see the top of all the brew house vessels and there are windows so you can see what's going on. There are four vessels but I only got pictures of three. The first is the mash tun, which I didn't get a picture of. The second is the lauter tun. This is the picture to the right. You can see the rakes turning the mash to stir up mash and get those sugars off the grains. These are some huge vessels. They extend from a few feet off the floor on the first floor to about five feet up on the second floor and these are some tall ceilings. They are probably thirty feet tall and maybe twenty feet in circumference.

Next the runnings are mixed together in this waiting tank where the wort is kept hot until the boil kettle is available for the next batch to boil. This runs contrary to a lot of homebrew wisdom about wort darkening as it stays warm. If you're doing an hour boil and getting ten barrels of beer to a boil that's a long wait (at least an hour!) so either they calculate the wait time into the color of beer or it has a minimal effect.

Finally the beer makes it to the boil kettle. They had just filled the kettle and it was just starting to simmer a bit, which is why the picture is so unclear. (Evaporated water) Obviously after the kettle it is cooled and then goes to one of thirteen fermenters. Some of the fermenters are small, like in the picture above. Some are massive fermenters outside that stand probably 100 feet in the air. After fermentation the beer goes to one of eight bright tanks to clarify before going to the bottling or canning lines.

After having a drink with the vessels we were taken the the separate building where the bottling occurs. They are currently replacing the canning line so we were shown the bottling line. Before we got to the bottling, the tour guide stopped to offer us some Fat Tire. This isn't just Fat Tire, it was Fat Tire that had been bottled about thirty minutes before they opened the bottles to serve us. It was a different beer than what we usually get. The hop flavor and aroma was much more distinct than the regular bottle of Fat Tire. For me it was a real eye opener about how much of the quality of beer is lost in transport, sitting in warehouses, more transport and sitting at a retailer before it makes its way to my glass. As a homebrewer, that relates to how we store our own beer. Jamail and some others really preach about homebrew not sitting at ambient temperatures but I had usually disregarded that as dated misconceptions about the stability of beer but I think that might be one area where I should rethink my beliefs. My beer usually sits in my guest bathroom/fermentation room at ambient temperatures. It's out of the light but generally sits anywhere from the high 60s to high 70s, depending upon the time of year. Those are really warmer temperatures than beer should be kept. If I had a basement I'd keep it down there but it's rare to find a basement in Texas. I wish I had space to keep all my beer at cellar temperatures once it conditions to an optimum flavor profile but I just don't.

After sipping on fresh Fat Tire they brought us to the windows overlooking the bottling line. I have two pictures: one from the bottom level and one from above. You can see a net on the left of the picture from the ground floor. Within that net is a ping pong table. At the time we were observing, the two guys that maintain the system were playing ping pong. Apparently there was a problem in the line and it was stalled and for whatever reason, it was not their responsibility to fix it. From the picture from the second floor there's a TV screen towards the left of the picture. This screen shows what's running, how many bottles have been filed and how many will run before a new beer is loaded. I don't remember exactly what it said but I seem to remember that they run almost 100,000 bottles of the same beer before changing to something else. This bottling system is enormous.

After watching the bottling system not do anything we went down to one of my favorite parts of the tour: the barrel room.

To the left is a picture of the massive barrels -- foeders -- where NB ages its sour beers. Although I was hoping to get a glimpse of Peter Bouckaert doing something Belgian, the room was empty except for our tour. The barrel room is the least...New Belgian-y of the whole place. NB is bright and colorful but here in the barrel room it is poorly lit, very warehouse-like and slightly dank. Below this picture is another picture of the foeders; you can see the heads of some of my tour-mates to give you an idea how tall and massive these things are. You can also see the huge wench used to move the foeders around.

Amongst the barrels you get your final sample of beer. We were able to sample La Folie, right among the foeders. Really cool. The tour guide told everybody to wait to taste so everybody could taste at once so people could see how each other reacted. There was a lot of looks of displeasure. I had tried La Folie back in 2009 or 2010 and had really not liked how acetic it was. When I tried it this time I picked up a strong green apple tartness with some slight lactic sourness and dark malts. I definitely liked it more than I remembered but probably not enough to buy it again. I don't know, the green apple flavor just doesn't win me over. I think it's worth trying but unless you are a tremendous sour fan (particularly of the Flanders red variety) you might want to split a bottle among many friends. I don't get a lot of brett flavor in La Folie so it's possible that they sour their beers strictly with bacteria and no brett. Some bacteria, like lacto, can run its course in 3-6 months so it's very possible.

So my tour guide and previous tap room bartender had told me Clutch was out, but here I was standing in front of a Clutch tap next to the La Folie tap. I asked if there was any Clutch left and my wife added that I had been desperate to try it and talked about it nonstop. The tour guide was generous enough to pour a sample which killed the keg. So it is possible I got the last distribution of Clutch, ever. (Although there are probably kegs kept aside for employees, the owners,  tasting against future versions, etc.) Clutch is really smooth and not at all sour. The beer is a blend of stout and dark sour. The stout is probably more like the Belgian stouts, which lack the Roasted Barley/black malt acridness and sharp coffee flavors of British and Irish stouts. It was smooth and chocolate-y with some coffee flavors. There was only a slight tartness at the end of the taste. It wasn't green apple-tasting so the "dark sour" is either something entirely different from La Folie or one component of La Folie, if La Folie is a blend of multiple beers.

At the end of the tour you get to go down a windy slide. It's a lot of fun. You must go down the slide to complete your experience (unless you are wearing a skirt -- that might be too revealing). Then you return to the tap room to enjoy more beer. When we returned to the tap room we tasted some more beers. We tried Frambozen fresh, which had a much brighter raspberry flavor than we've found in the bottles. Like the fresh Fat Tire, probably a function of storage conditions and age. We also tried a stout which was brewed as a small batch served only in the tap room of a prize-winning homebrew recipe from either an employee or a friend of the brewery (I forget which they said). It was an excellent stout. We also tried a beer that I believe was listed as a Lips of Faith beer (although it does not appear on the website) which was Jared's Smoked Porter -- a smoked peach porter. When I saw that I was like, "hey, I brewed a smoked peach porter two years ago," and it was somewhat similar to this NB beer, except admittedly the NB version did a much better job of bringing out the peach flavor. I'd like to think they nicked the idea from my blog but I'm probably not the only person who has ever thought of a smoked peach porter. It was at least cool that I came up with something unique that a brewery is now producing in a very similar form. After another round of Old Cherry we decided to leave.

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