Hoppin' Around No. 1: New Belgium Brewery Tour in Asheville, NC
Asheville, North Carolina brews the most craft beer per capita than any city in the United States. This may be partly thanks to two western breweries who build very large secondary breweries in the city: Sierra Nevada (the number three craft beer producer in the US) and New Belgium (the number four craft beer producer in the US). New Belgium's Asheville brewery produces enough beer on its own, that it would rank as the number seven top producing craft brewery in the US. New Belgium originated near 1990 in Fort Collins, Colorado in the basement of a home brewing engineer and was one of the first breweries in the US to offer Belgian style beers. Within five years, it had expanded to a one hundred barrel brew house that continued to expand to an Asheville brewery that opened in 2016, allowing New Belgium to expand its distribution to all 50 states. We found ourselves in Asheville when we wanted to take some time away from the coast for stretching our legs in the mountains, and we couldn't resist checking out New Belgium's newest expansion. Before beginning the tour, we went into the Liquid Center to one of New Belgium's almost 20 in house beers on tap.
*Note: As some of you know, we are growing our family! And we'll be having a baby in August, so Emily is not currently drinking any beer. She is excited to see and smell the beers but will have to wait to taste any until after our baby is born. Luckily, New Belgium had some seltzer water taps, so she still got to carry around a pint glass and enjoy some bubbles in the taproom and on the tour.
We began our tour underneath an archway lined with bicycles, New Belgium's trademark. The bike originates from the founder's passion for mountain biking and the popularity of riding city bikes around the flat city of Fort Collins. Each year, New Belgium commissions the design of a new bike from an American company in Detroit, which employed 12 full time employees to complete New Belgium's order. The traditional New Belgium bike is a single speed, but that style isn't quite fit for the steep hills in the mountain city of Asheville, so they have started designing three speed bikes to suit their new location. They manufacture over 2,000 bikes each year that they give away to employees and as raffle prizes or fundraisers. The archway featuring the traditional New Belgium bicycles was constructed for the grand opening of the brewery on Craven Street, and after the celebration, rather than dismantle it, they installed in over a bridge leading from the Liquid Center (i.e. taproom) to the brewing operations. Apparently, it has been the site of several wedding proposals and one actual wedding.
New Belgium decided to expand their operations with an east coast location for distribution purposes, and in 2014, they chose and began construction on their Asheville brewery. They bought 18 acres near the River Arts District along the French Broad River. In line with their environmental stewardship commitments, they chose a piece of land that they could rehabilitate. The land was originally home to a livestock auction, where they herded and sold cattle. The land also played host to a car junkyard and a circus. Over the years, the soil had been very polluted by car grease, cow manure, and whatever else could be left behind by years of circus performing. The construction crew had to remove the top several feet of soil from the location and refill it. When they brought in more dirt, they actually raised the elevation of the brewery by about ten feet to make sure the site was above the one hundred year flood plain to protect their brand new $145 million brewery.
The brewery itself is a combination of old and new. They repurposed a lot of materials salvaged from the original site before they cleaned it up, including restoring and treating about 14 linear miles of wood that they wrapped the Brew House and the Liquid Center with. The buildings, however, are expertly designed to be as self sustaining as possible, and New Belgium has made it a company goal to be completely carbon neutral by 2050. The Liquid Center and Brew House received a LEED Platinum certification for their sustainability efforts, complete with lots of solar panels, large windows, and a butterfly roof that catches water to be used in plumbing and cleaning. Further, the Brew House preserves the heat used in the boiling process. They capture the steam from the brew kettle and compress it in a large hot liquor tank that maintains the heat at 150 degrees. Then, when a new batch of beer needs to be boiled, they surround the kettle with the previously heated water, which increases the heat of the wort (The beer liquid before it ferments and becomes beer.) without using any extra energy. A normal boiling process takes about an hour and a half to two hours to come to a boil and boil long enough for the brewing process. New Belgium, with their preserved steam, can do it in 45 minutes.
The first stop on the tour after an overview of the brewery as a whole was the Brew House. This large building is where the beer is made. The first room had large tanks vented to the outside and submerged in the floor (Except for the boil kettle, which is connected to the heat preserving hot liquor tank). This is where the grain and other ingredients become steeped in water to make "pre-beer" or wort before it goes to the fermentation tanks and yeast is added to transform the sugars into alcohol. The room also had a few tap handles to give tour members their first taste of New Belgium beer (Unless they, like us, had already done some tasting in the taproom before the tour). The guide usually pours everyone a sample of Fat Tire, New Belgium's flagship beer, a Belgian Style Ale, but since we were a small tour, we got to choose from a variety of the brewery's many offerings, including IPA's, fruity beers, a pilsner, and a Belgian Wit. As we sipped on our samples, we heard more about the brewery's founding principles (including "Have Fun") and saw the first of many 3D circus murals painted all over the Brew House walls.
Our next step involved going downstairs to see the fermentation tanks and labs, but stairs are too boring for New Belgium. In the fashion of a key feature of their Fort Collins Brewery, they installed a slide descending from the boiling room to the lower level, again upholding their "Have Fun" core value. We walked through a hallway and peaked through windows at brewery operations, including their yeast tanks. They develop and propagate their own strands of yeast, especially since Belgian style beer flavors depend very heavily on the kinds of yeasts used to ferment the beer. The original yeast strain for Fat Tire was developed from the founder bringing six bottles of Belgian beer with live yeast in the bottle home to the United States with him. He then strained the beer to separate the yeast particles, combined them, and grew them to create the strain of yeast that is still used to make Fat Tire 27 years later.
We heard these and other stories at the second tap stop along the tour, a small bar set up in front of a large picture of a Belgian pub called 't Brugs Beertje, which provided the inspiration for the Jeff Lebesch, the founder, to start a Belgian inspired brewery in the United States. New Belgium's flagship beer (and second official beer of company) is called Fat Tire, named after this inspirational trip. An avid mountain biker, Jeff took his bike to the flat country of Belgium to tour breweries across the Maryland sized state. The Belgians on their skinny tired road bikes mocked the American on his fat tires. New Belgium's number one selling beer was born. These tap handles featured distinctly Belgian beers, including a trippel and a dubbel (and New Belgium's first beer, Abbey). There were also two sours. New Belgium was the first craft brewery in the United States to begin experimenting with sour beers, thanks mostly to their Belgian head brewer, and they are the leading producer of sour beers today. These beers taste fruity and well, sour, but there is no fruit in them. The flavors come almost completely from the yeast strains and their aging one to three years in large barrels called foeders. While all of the sours are currently still made in Colorado, there is debate about bringing some of the sour production to Asheville.
Heading down the hall to the last stop on the brewery tour, we passed a tasting room. While New Belgium does test all of their beers in a lab for flavor content (equipment accurate up to parts per million), the brewery still tests all of its beers by palate with certified tasters, because the human palate is accurate up to parts per billion. New Belgium trains any of their employees who wishes to become a certified taster over a few months until they are cleared to taste the beers for official purposes.
The last stop on the tour was another small bar in a room overlooking the bottling line. The bottling line produces up to 480 bottles per minute. We watched in awe as bottle after bottle ran through the automated system. And Asheville is currently only producing to demand. As fast as those bottles move out the door, Americans are drinking them. Turning to the last tap handles on the tour, we were introduced to New Belgium's hoppy series of beers called Voodoo Ranger. The original New Belgium IPA was made at the demand of the New Belgium sales crew (called Rangers) who wanted an IPA offering when trying to sell New Belgium beer. The Belgian brewer resisted, because Belgian beers typically do not have a lot of hops, but he reluctantly produced an IPA that he was not proud of to satisfy the sales staff and called it Ranger. It did not do well. The brewery then reinvented the Ranger IPA as Voodoo Ranger, complete with uncharacteristic mascot, and with several variations including Imperial, Juicy Haze, and 8 Hop Pale Ale.
With the tour over, we were escorted back to the Liquid Center along the Greenway, an Asheville initiative to install bike and walking paths all over the city. New Belgium donated a portion of land along the river back to the city to kickstart the project, and it now currently runs for five miles along the river up to New Belgium's taproom.
After returning to the Liquid Center, we couldn't resist hanging around for the rest of the sunny afternoon. We got a snack from the food truck parked outside and sampled from the about 20 tap handles in the Liquid Center and sat on a bench in front of the brewery to catch the last of the sun. The lawn slowly filled up with families coming to spend the evening at the brewery, and almost every single one of them had children with them. Only serving beer does not stop the brewery from being family friendly. As parents sipped on every variety of beer, children from infants to six year olds ran around on the front lawn with all manner of bikes, scooters, and balls. We watched toddlers patter around for hours and their parents chasing them and continued to get excited to begin our own journey into parenthood.
Thank you to our tour guides, Mark, Katie, and Preston!
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