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SaveOnBrew Exclusive Interview: New Belgium Social Media Nerd Michael Bussman

09.24.2013 11:54 AM

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes New Belgium so darn wonderful. It could be the story of a boy and his bike pedaling through Belgium, inspired enough by the beer he came across to take his homebrewing to the next level. It could be the fact that the boy’s wife would go on to become the current CEO of the company. It could be that they found a Belgian brewmaster who came over from Rodenbach to develop more sour beers. Or maybe it’s the fact that one sip of their beer speaks volumes about the passionate people involved in its creation.

La Folie, Le Terroir, the Lips of Faith series, Ranger IPA, Love, Red Hoptober, Snow Day – take your pick. They’re all fantastic. To beer aficionados, Fat Tire seems like a distant dream from the newer batches these guys are capable of; and yet, you’re bound to stumble across the Amber Ale cans at several summer picnics. From new packaging and awesome corporate culture, to fundraising film festivals and their Tour de Fat bike event, New Belgium is a well-managed, progressive craft brewing behemoth that represents the right way to do things. In this exclusive SaveOnBrew interview, we bring you a few colorful behind-the-scenes stories from New Belgium’s “Social Media Nerd,” Michael Bussman.      

SaveOnBrew: Tell us a quick history of your beer.

Michael Bussman: New Belgium Brewing was founded on a bike trip through Belgium while our co-founder pedaled his way through Europe on a beer escapade. His love of Belgian styles and brewing traditions lit a fire to take his passion for homebrewing to the professional level. And in 1991, New Belgium sold our first bottle of Fat Tire.

SOB: It looks like you guys have a LOT going on right now – with distribution expanding into Utah, Florida, Delaware and Canada. We hear the goal is to have New Belgium beer in all 50 states by 2018. It seems like such a massive undertaking to expand so quickly and do it right. Can you tell us more about how you prepare and execute such an ambitious plan?

MB: There’s a lot to that expansion, everything from supply chain to hiring more people in sales and production to figuring out what the tastes of these new markets are… not to mention, finding distributors in all the states and trying to develop those relationships, as well as trying to effectively get our beer pouring with the quality measures that we’re used to! It’s going to be quite an undertaking, but we are looking forward to it and we have lots of really great people in place to make it happen.

I think keeping positive about it helps too… and realizing that bringing great beer to all these people is a really good thing! We are lucky to be making a product that enhances people’s lives and when we get the opportunity to spread that joy, we want to take it.

We have been fortunate in that, up to this point, we have a lot of new state roll-outs under our belts. We can take the things we’ve learned into new markets with a motivated team and things should (hopefully) go our way. In a lot of ways, we’ve been very slow to grow – there are many smaller/newer brewers in more states than we are because we’ve taken a very measured approach to growth. The new facility coming online in Asheville (2015) will allow us to fill out the map and we’ll do that in order to maximize efficiencies in running two breweries.

SOB: There is this perception that to be an ‘authentic’ craft brewer, you have to be small, local and family-oriented. Is it a challenge to maintain your street credibility with the craft beer crowd, despite tremendous growth and success? How do you squash this idea that the big breweries are out to destroy competition and drive up prices?

MB: Craft brewing is at its best when we are all working toward common goals and that’s the perspective we see out there. All of craft is still collectively less than 7% of the beer sold in this country, and it’s the fastest growing segment of alcohol consumption. Established brewers like Boston, Sierra and New Belgium are bringing new drinkers into the segment and we believe a rising tide floats all boats. So, ‘You’re welcome’ on that count!

As an employee-owned culture, I’ve never worked at a place that is more family-oriented and tight knit. One of our core values is to balance the myriad needs of work and family. We pay a better-than-average-living wage, have outstanding benefits, and we make sure we have people living in -- and deeply connected to -- all the communities where we do business.

On the brewing front, we’ve been partnering with brewers like Allagash, Bruery Vivant, Wicked Weed, etc. because it’s fun, we learn from each other, and it’s a great way to introduce each other to our respective audiences. So, I guess I don’t know where people get the idea that breweries with more volume are looking to ‘destroy competition and drive up prices’ because that’s not the reality I see around me.          

SOB: Can you share a funny behind-the-scenes story about the brewery?

MB: We have a twice-a-year contest, just for co-workers, in which three beers are mixed into one pitcher and we try to guess, upon tasting, what three beers are in the mixture and at what percentage. The closest answer wins, and the winner gets to brew the beer of their dreams!

Our pal, Sarah won and decided to brew a beet beer. When she was brewing it, there were many gallons of beet juice being poured into the kettle and some spilled out of the containers. Beet juice looks like blood… like, a lot… and there was Sarah covered in the juice, with the juice all over the floor, smeared on handrails, it was everywhere.

I happened to walk by with a tour of 25 guests onto this grisly scene and Sarah was just standing there, giggling, as if she was guilty of some horrible offense. It was straight out of The Shining. The tour group looked on in absolute horror. It was pretty funny!

SOB: Do you get any interesting fan mail?

MB: Someone sent in a model clipper ship made entirely out of Fat Tire cans. That is super awesome.

SOB: Fat Tire (which makes up roughly 65% of total sales) is obviously a fantastic beer. Yet, there seems to be huge demand for newer offerings like Lips of Faith (up 74%) and Rampant Imperial IPA (the #3 best-selling IPA in the U.S.). What types of beer are next for New Belgium?

MB: We are always experimenting with new styles, and ingredients. And our wood-aged, sour beer program is just getting bigger. I would say that more approachable sour beers with interesting fruit additions are coming through the pipes. And we have had some pretty great success with Ranger and Rampant, so our hoppy line is bound to keep expanding as well.

SOB: Did you ever brew any beers that didn’t turn out so well?

MB: Sure, that beet beer was pretty weird. 

SOB: What are 3 things most people don’t know about the world of beer?

MB: 1. Cows and pigs love eating spent brewing grain. 2. Brewing beer is really fun and very hard. 3. The three-tier system of beer distribution in the U.S. is excruciatingly complicated. 

SOB: We think that much of what makes a person’s ‘favorite beer’ depends upon the circumstances surrounding the enjoyment of that beer at a particular moment in time. Can you share with us one of your most enjoyable beer memories where it was a matter of ‘the right beer at the right time?’

MB: There are a few of us around the brewery that ride bikes together pretty regularly. And at one point, the brewery was testing putting Blue Paddle into cans. We were all riding on a very hot summer afternoon and one of the fellas pulled some all-silver, unlabeled, iced-down cans from his bag. Turned out they were Blue Paddle test batches! It was so crisp and refreshing for that moment that it made the rest of the ride happen even faster.  I just wish Blue Paddle actually ended up in more than just test cans…

SOB: If a beer lover were in your city for 24 hours, where do you recommend they go?

MB: There are 11 craft breweries in Fort Collins. I would say that people visiting should grab a bike from the cities Bike Library and pedal around until they find their favorite beer. I bet they find it.

SOB: What’s next for New Belgium?

MB: We’ll start site work on our Asheville site in January and will have our second brewery up and running in late 2015. We’re super excited about that. You mentioned growth and size earlier; we’re looking to create more than 100 jobs in Asheville, so with growth comes opportunity. I don’t know a single brewer who does not want to get their beers to a wider audience and bring new folks into good beer culture. It’s part of what makes our culture. If you have something cool that you’re passionate about, don’t you want to share that with other folks and get ‘em turned on?

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