The Colorado brewery, whose Fat Tire Amber Ale has acquired a buzz reminiscent of Coors back in the 1970s, will officially enter the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia market on August 22. After hearing pitches from 40 area distributors, New Belgium has cobbled together a network of 17 to handle the new territory, including nine Anheuser-Busch InBev houses, seven MillerCoors affiliates and one independent wholesaler, Richmond-based Specialty of Virginia. Premium Distributors of Washington D.C. will sell New Belgium brands within the city.
“It’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle,” admits New Belgium’s mid-Atlantic regional director Neil Reeve, who’s relocating from the Bay Area to Charlottesville. “But we have no affinity with a large umbrella network. We do have the luxury of choosing whatever distributors we believe serve the market best.”
New Belgium will lead off with 22-ounce bottles, adding kegs on Nov. 1 and 12-ouncers at the start of 2012. The initial product mix will include Fat Tire, Ranger IPA and the fall seasonal, Hoptober, a hoppy golden ale made with barley, rye, oats and wheat. Urban areas with a strong craft following (the District, Northern Virginia and Baltimore, for instance) will also see New Belgium Trippel (a coriander-spiced, abbey-style ale) and the Lips of Faith series of single-batch, small-production beers.
Lips of Faith releases scheduled for this fall include Kick, a pumpkin-and-cranberry ale, and Clutch, a strong, dark, roasty ale with chocolate and coffee overtones, named after the Maryland-based rock band. Both are blended with a wood-aged sour ale that New Belgium maintains in its barrel farm for experiments like these.
Reeve also promised to squirrel away some of New Belgium’s 20th anniversary beer, Super Cru, for the mid-Atlantic market. A pumped -up version of Fat Tire augmented with Asian pear juice and fermented with a Belgian saison yeast, Super Cru actually made its D.C. debut at the SAVOR festival earlier this month.
This might be a blow to local egos, but the D.C. area will not be New Belgium’s first East Coast outpost. New Belgium beers are already available in North and South Carolina and Georgia. Asked why his company was beginning with less-developed markets before hitting the major metropolises (there are no plans yet to enter Philadelphia or New York City or Boston), Reeve answered, “We want to be sure we can offer enough beer to stay in the market.” Several craft breweries, including Dogfish Head and Flying Dog, have been forced to withdraw from outlying territories to supply their home turf.
Reeve admits that there will likely be one gap in New Belgium’s mid-Atlantic distribution: Montgomery County. That county is unique in being the sole distributor for all alcoholic beverages sold within its borders. Reeve cites several reasons for his employer’s reluctance to do business with the county. First of all, it’s New Belgium’s policy to keep all its beer refrigerated from brewery to retailer to ensure its quality. Montgomery County, says Reeve, will guarantee refrigeration of kegs, but not packaged beer.
Secondly, he adds, “the county takes orders and delivers beer, but we’d have to partner with a neighboring distributor to provide the services that the county doesn’t offer.” That includes building displays, keeping fresh beer in stock and educating retailers. Adding another middleman to the sales process would kick up the price and make it harder to sell beer profitably, notes Reeve.
Eventually, New Belgium will work out some deal, he hopes, but adds, “It’s a challenge.”
A sad note to end on: Boston Beer Co. has announced the death of Charles Joseph Koch, father of company founder Jim Koch, at the age of 88. A brewmaster in his own right, the elder Koch worked at several Cincinnati-area breweries, including the Hudepohl-Schoenling plant that his son purchased in 1996 and turned into the Samuel Adams Brewery. When Jim Koch (a Harvard grad with a lucrative position as a management consultant) announced he wanted to become a beer maker, Charles reportedly rummaged through an old trunk to come up with a family recipe that provided the basis for Samuel Adams Boston Lager. The elder Koch subsequently served on the board of directors of Boston Beer Co. Asked how his father viewed his son’ success, Jim Koch replied, “He was more than proud — he was amazed!”