Good Beer Hunting

Finding His Purpose — Peter Bouckaert Talks Leaving New Belgium and What's Next

In his capacity as New Belgium’s brewmaster over the past 21 years, Peter Bouckaert played an instrumental role in developing the portfolio of one of the craft beer industry’s few true national stalwarts. Not only that, he is also largely credited with introducing the United States drinking community to sour beers christened by wooden barrels, a funky category that has done nothing short of explode in popularity in recent years.
As such, it was a shock to many when Bouckaert announced earlier this month he would be leaving the company to join Purpose Brewing and Cellars, a significantly smaller, farm-centric brewing venture nearby in Fort Collins, CO. And if that weren’t surprising enough, he added he’d be leaving to partner with two relative unknowns in the industry in Zach Wilson and Laura Sickles, then-owners of 1933 Brewing, which is now being converted to Purpose.  
Regardless, in hanging up his hat at New Belgium, Bouckaert now joins a seemingly growing line of reputable brewers leaving their posts at established companies to start new ventures. So GBH caught up with the legendary brewer to learn more about the project. The following Q&A was lightly edited for clarity.

With Purpose, much of the infrastructure is already in place, as the company existed before as 1933. How important was having that when you were thinking about your next step and starting a new venture?
When I researched and decided I wanted to go smaller, I started talking to smaller breweries, looking at different types of ventures. Then suddenly, I had a chance to talk to the owner of 1933, and he wanted to get out. At that point I was talking to Zach and Laura already [who bought 1933, where they worked, from the previous owner], and it was like, “Wow, maybe we should do this.” As we kept on talking, having a location, having equipment from the get-go, it suddenly felt like something that was beneficial.
You’re the latest reputable brewer to leave a larger, established company to start a smaller, upstart venture, joining the likes of Mitch Steele (Stone to New Realm), John Harris (Deschutes to Ecliptic), Jeremy Warren (Knee Deep to Revision), and Garrett Crowell (Jester King to an as-yet-unnamed startup). What went into the decision?
It was kind of a big thing for me having taken New Belgium national. It took 25 years to get to that moment. For me, it was a big moment to be like, “Wow, look what we’ve been able to do.” Then, from there, you look back to yourself and ask, “What else do you want to do now? What would you like to do?” That occurred to me during my sabbatical. Talking to smaller breweries, it made my heart beat and I was like, “Whoa, what’s happening here?” The more I started talking with people about their lives and how their breweries are going, I thought, "This is what I want to do next."
Obviously you can’t speak for the others, but why do you think that broader trend seems to be emerging now, where brewers are opting to leave their posts to start new ventures? Why is now the right time for that?
That’s a funny question. I think it’s actually the wrong moment to do this right now, with so many breweries coming into play and having such a saturated market. I cannot speak for Mitch [or the others]. For me, I’ve always been searching, and I said that from the moment I came out for my ownership in New Belgium, I’m only going to stay as long as I can learn. New Belgium has been amazing, what I’ve been able to learn in different fields and different areas. For me, that’s my drive. There is so much to be learned again that is completely new.
You mentioned the ownership aspect at New Belgium. Is the financing and ambition behind the Purpose plan at all influenced by the value of your ESOP investment?
No, because the ESOP is a retirement plan. To pull money out of it at this point, you get penalized for it because it’s really something meant to be a retirement plan. That money is really not accessible.
So what can people look forward to from Purpose?
We stay purposefully vague for now. We want to open I hope within two months, but what we want to do is bring out creative, small batches. It’s a four-barrel system. It’s something I’ve done for now for the second time in my life, coming from New Belgium. It’s one of those moments, it’s exciting, scary, and challenging.