This week marks a major strategic shift in one of America’s most prominent sour beer programs as New Belgium introduces a new live-culture series of rare, small batch wild and sour ales as the first step in a complete restructuring of their specialty portfolio.
Just more than a year ago, New Belgium brought Good Beer Hunting's studio team onboard to help newly appointed Specialty Brand Manager, Andrew Emerton, devise a strategy for re-establishing the brewery's leadership role in American wild ales. While we’re proud of the results of this project, we’re also excited to debrief with Emerton on the process of getting there together.
“When I took the position of Specialty Brand Manager at New Belgium, I was basically the first full-time designated 'Brand Manager' to exist in our company,” he says. “We didn’t have a Marketing Director at the time, and I was really trying to find my footing. So that’s when I reached out to GBH. We had this Specialty portfolio that was really difficult to navigate and didn’t really connect as a portfolio for the drinker. One of the first things GBH focused on was that we had these amazing, small-batch sours that were the top of our top. But people didn’t know that. They weren’t in bottles, and that made them impossible to discover. It seems like such a small, 'no shit' kinda thing, but sometimes we get so intrinsically caught-up with what our current capabilities are, that we don’t look at what our capabilities could be.”
The initial vision GBH helped draft included multiple scenarios for formats, pricing, design language, and positioning for a new tier that would positively affect the rest of the set both in terms of brand awareness and sales opportunities. The outline of what was desirable came into view:
“The overall vision with this new series was to finally highlight these beers that we’d been producing for years but never actually put into a bottle,” Emerton explains. “Often called “Love” kegs or NBB Apple Felix or Oscar Kissed Cherry, for example. They show a depth of creativity, but often times a ton of restraint. Highlighting one single foeder’s expression after it’s lived a life of 30 years at a vineyard in France and worked 20 years in our wood cellar is like drinking history. Or experiencing our golden sour, Felix, matured in Leopold Bros. Apple Whiskey barrels delivered two hours after emptying at the distillery is just something most breweries can’t bring to the table. This new series also acts as a new platform for experimental, small-batch sours and leaves the door wide open for other barrel-aging experimentation in the future.”
Desirability was the first step. What’s possible would be the real challenge. The strategy needed to align with internal capabilities for producing really incredible beers, as well as packaging and conditioning procedures that hadn’t been part of New Belgium’s operation since its earliest days. We needed new production and packaging capabilities that would isolate these live-culture beers from the rest of the operation. In other words, defeating the very limiters that ended this program in the first place many years ago.
“We knew there were two factors that we’d like to steer the ship: 100% live, sour beer and 100% bottle refermentation,” Emerton says. “We’ve got this bay back near our shipping docks at the brewery. It’s always been called warm storage, but it was just used for staging grain and other raw materials. Back in the mid-'90s, however, it was used for refermenting Abbey and Trippel. Our production was so low on those beers that we were able to 100% referment those beers in the bottle using this room that was custom built for proper air flow and bottle conditioning temperatures. The room can only hold about 10 pallets tops, so it was ideal for clearing out and using for bottle conditioning once again.”
That storage unit, and a new wood-cellar-only bottling line, enabled the team to isolate the live-culture beers from New Belgium’s larger operation, an incredible threat to a nationally-distributed craft brewery operation. But after years of explaining the vision for pasteurization (locking in flavors, protecting the shelf-stability) New Belgium needed a mental shift as well.
“For the longest time, we haven’t really encouraged the idea of cellaring our beers,” Emerton says of the brewery’s long-standing position. “We always say that our blenders, like Lauren Limbach (formerly Salazar), do that for you. That’s their job and they’re some of the best in the world. They expertly age and blend when they're perfect so you can enjoy La Folie or Le Terroir straight away—and making them fairly available in most major cities is incredibly cool. However, we know our own drinking habits. We know sour beer connoisseurs. We helped launch this whole thing in America. We know you save special things for special occasions. Change and risk in the bottle are all part of the romance, and we’ve got something really special in our wood cellar that’s taken almost two decades of painstaking love and attention to maintain—the oldest continuous souring culture in America.”
The wood cellar team has always been comfortable not knowing exactly what’s going on in the foeders. Now they’re once again extending that trust to the bottle.
“We honestly have no idea what the entirety of our house culture is made of. Every test has resulted in 'too numerous to count' when identifying the strains of Lacto, Bretta, Pedio, etc.," Emerton says. "Hell, this house culture contains what we believe to be the very first strain of Brettanomyces to be introduced in the United States. Peter Bouckaert, our brewmaster, had to source a Bretta strain from the University of Berlin back in 1998 to inoculate our first wine barrels. We think that was the first intentional Bretta strain to be used in brewing in America. Anyway, this all proposes one major problem: unintended attenuation and potential off-flavor development in the bottle. This is really difficult for a brewery our size to navigate. We’ve got one of the best Quality Assurance programs in all of beer, with six labs on-site at the Fort Collins brewery alone. When you ship beer, you’re always letting go and crossing your fingers it's treated properly all the way to the glass.”
“But with this series, we’re really letting go," he continues. "We spent about one full year just understanding what would happen to these beers in the bottle. We also spent over a year working to get a custom-built filler, corker, and labeler that would fit in the tiniest space possible in our wood cellar. We're even still putting those damn wire hoods on one at a time with a little air-powered peddle wire hooder thingy. And one of the people doing it, Eric Unger, is the dude who used to do it back in 2008! We still don’t think we’ll ever have all the answers, but we know these first batches are tasting absolutely amazing. The first beer will be a brewery-only release (FTC and AVL locations), and it’s called Le Kriek Noir. It’s reserved 2016 Oud Beersel Kriek, used to blend 2016 Transatlantique Kriek, blended with single-foeder Oscar and aged in our original wine barrels that began our sour program back in 1998. The first two beers to hit the market will be Single Foeder Oscar #65 (Oscar aged in the first turn on our Foeder Crafters barrel) and Felix Aged in Apple Whiskey Barrels from Leopold Bros Distillery. Those will be out around August 14.”
At GBH, we were honored to have been a catalyst for the strategy that helped restore one of our most advanced and important brewing cultures to its proper glory. These new live-culture beers are the tip of a new spear for New Belgium, one that we hope will create numerous opportunities for the rest of the re-designed specialty portfolio to follow. (Which is to say: keep an eye on New Belgium's future.) Because it’s not just about the most ambitious beers getting made that makes a specialty range of beers work. For us, it’s about creating movement in a portfolio for many different kinds of beer drinkers that may find their ways to New Belgium through many different entry points.
“Not only was GBH able to point out that blind-spot,” Emerton agrees, “but they were able to scope a new range of our Specialty Portfolio. How the drinker could cycle up and down, in and out of the spectrum. Craft beer is really hard right now, but specialty craft is really fucking hard right now. The work we did with GBH brought this whole new level of clarity to things for us and truly acted as a launch pad for what our new Specialty Portfolio has become, which begins to debut mid-August of this year. Sometimes you really need an outsider to tell you the hard truths and shake you of your intrinsic patterns. And, for us, that wake-up call meant going back in history. Digging into our roots. Taking massive risks and delivering some of the best beer we’ve ever shipped. There’s that really good Steve Jobs quote that applies here: “Real artists ship.” Everyone has great ideas, but the real artists put in the work to make them a reality.”
New Belgium Brewing