FEATURES • Summer 2002
Alumnus Jeff Lebesch (above) and Kim Jordan are the husband-and-wife craft-brewing dynamic duo of New Belgium Brewing Company. Founded in the couple's basement in 1991, New Belgium now employs 150 people; produces its flavorful blends in a beautiful, environmentally friendly plant in Fort Collins, Colorado; and serves as a model of manufacturing—a lean, green, fun-filled machine.

By Judy H. Watts

Perhaps the quirkiest thing about the exuberant young company in the Rockies is its lead product's name: Fat Tire.

But there's more: The co-founding partner, not yet in his prime, is semiretired (but his Border collie reports to the office each week). The CEO is his wife, who used to be a social worker. The buildings are outfitted with sun tubes and skylights, which will pay for themselves in about 20 years. The manufacturing machinery? It's powered by the wind. Except for salary records, co-workers have full access to the company books. They also sit on the company committees, with pay, at their regular scale. Some days, babies seem to be everywhere. Not only that—in the company credo, only one of the "core values and beliefs" appears in bold letters: Having fun.

In all, it's a rare bouquet that hints at depth and character—but does it really represent the best way to run a business? If you're Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan, partners in the New Belgium Brewing Company—or one of the 150 co-workers (owners, all)—you bet it does. Production at the craft brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado, jumped 38 percent in 2001 as New Belgium rolled out 230,000 barrels of its specialty labels.

"In the category of similar-sized breweries across the nation, ours had the highest percentage of growth," says Lebesch, B.S. '79 (electrical engineering). "Sales exceeded $25 million, and we went right to cellaring capacity (a major expansion project is now under way)." New Belgium's many-medaled brews—including its signature Fat Tire® amber ale—are distributed in 12 states west of the Mississippi. Named for the big tires on a mountain bike Lebesch pedaled through Belgium, the super-smooth brew with its balanced malt flavors and unforgettable name accounts for 87 percent of the company's sales.

 
"We've also been noticed because of the way we treat our co-workers," Lebesch says. "... We have an employee stock-ownership program, open-book management, and Kim is experimenting with family programs to maintain our close-knit feeling."

 

In a sense, such successes are hardly surprising. Achievement follows Jeff Lebesch around, as he makes unerring choices according to a kind of interior global-positioning system. "I follow my passions, always," he says. "In fact, whenever I become extremely interested in something, it's hard to get me to stop working on it. Conversely, if something doesn't interest me, it's difficult to get me to do it!" National-caliber sports-car performance rallies hooked him early on (he developed odometers/computers that performed "10 times better than factory models" and was a driver as well); so did triathlons; electrical engineering; and, eventually, beer-making. Right now he's working from Colorado on a 31-foot trimaran being built to specification in California for a sailing trip to Alaska.

Although being born in Milwaukee and raised in St. Louis may have been prophetic, Lebesch's passion for engineering preceded his interest in beer. At McCluer North High School, in Florissant, Missouri, he loved to build gadgets and deconstruct TVs. At Washington University, he found in his "absolute favorite" teacher, Robert O. Gregory (now professor emeritus of electrical engineering), the inspiration that helped shape his approach to life. "I saw how he solved problems by thinking outside of the box. I wanted to think like that and solve problems as quickly and innovatively."

After graduation, Lebesch worked at McDonnell Douglas and ultimately as chief engineer at Fort Collins' Baker Instrument Company. Meanwhile, the craft-brewing movement was building in California and the Northwest. In 1985, Lebesch discovered Belgium's huge variety of high-character beers during his now-legendary bike trip and began to dream of a commercial brewing venture.

Returning to Colorado with a souvenir strain of brewer's yeast, he experimented with making Belgian beers at home. He married Kim Jordan (sons Zack and Nick are now 16 and 9), and in 1991 they decided to give the business a go. "We couldn't get financing and weren't willing to take on partners, so I designed and built an operation that would fit into our basement and our finances—which meant running our credit cards up to their limits," Lebesch says. Fat Tire was the first beer they capped.

Both timing and execution were flawless: In 16 months the yield reached 70 barrels per month, and the operation physically and financially moved out of the cellar. Production rose in the new location until 1995, when New Belgium built a 28,000-square-foot complex to sustain the climb. Lebesch figured out how to design, build, and program the computerized control system and worked side-by-side with local contractors on the rest. (The current building size is 120,000 square feet.)

In the process he pursued another passion: his commitment to "leaving as small a footprint as possible on the Earth." New Belgium buys 100-percent-wind-generated power and uses recycled materials in carpeting, furniture, and office supplies. "It's the right thing to do," Lebesch says. "We had to really push our building contractors to conform to our sustainability standards. But now they're incorporating practices they learned with us into their normal construction and lobbying others to follow suit.

"We've also been noticed because of the way we treat our co-workers," he continues, "and others are adopting some of these practices, too. We have an employee stock-ownership program, open-book management, and Kim is experimenting with family programs to maintain our close-knit feeling."

Among Lebesch's headiest successes, of course, are the beers, praised by savants ranging from writers at Food & Wine to Celebrator magazine's front man for Marty Jones & the Pork Boilin' Poor Boys. In addition to Fat Tire, the permanent collection of six includes Sunshine Wheat Beer, flavored with coriander and dried Curaçao orange peel, and primo award-winning Abbey Belgian Style Ale, a complex beer including flavor notes of ripe fig, caramel, coffee bean, and cloves. Another is Trippel, made with European Saaz hops; New Belgium suggests it be accompanied by sublime food, passages from Madame Bovary, "blaring Yo-Yo Ma, bonfires, and cherished old friends."

But wait. There are also four-month special releases. Frambozen, for instance—a holiday favorite fermented and seasoned with real raspberries. Or Biere de Mars, with its "trippy orange hue" ...

Which serves to move mind and senses from palate to extensive palette. But as the folks at New Belgium might put it, perhaps it's time to simply drop into a comfortable chair, hit play for some straight-on jazz, and kick back and contemplate life's innumerable blessings.

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beads of Brew Wisdom

· Beer is a mother term encompassing everything from ales, pilseners, and wheat beers to porters and stouts.

· In general, the terms microbrewery, craft brewery, and national brewery pertain to production and distribution. Local microbreweries produce fewer than 15,000 barrels a year; regional craft breweries more than that; and major national corporations as many as 100 million barrels.

· Across the categories, quality is not the defining issue. "National breweries produce a very high-quality American light lager beer," says Jeff Lebesch, "whereas New Belgium's beers have a high-flavor profile. That's the real difference."