After a successful August launch of 22-ounce bottles, New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, Colo., is about to open the floodgates. As of Sept. 19, all 18 of the brewery’s Washington, Maryland and Virginia distributors are carrying kegs, reports Neil Reeve, the brewery’s mid-Atlantic regional director.
“I can’t say I’m the first place in D.C. to have New Belgium on tap, but I’m the first person to get it through a distributor,” boasted Ryan Wolfe, general manager of Thunder Burger & Bar in Georgetown, at a premier party last Tuesday. (Incidentally, the Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan had been self-importing New Belgium beers for several years now.) Wolfe was sipping on a 1554 Enlightened Black Ale, an additional product that New Belgium has thrown into the mix here.
Reportedly based on a 16th-century recipe unearthed in a library in Brussels, 1554 is fermented with a modern lager yeast, resulting in an ebony colored but smooth and easily drinkable brew that Reeve likens to a German schwarzbier. “We do call it an ale,” he admits, but that’s done as a nod to Texas liquor law, which mandates that all beers above 5 percent in alcohol be labeled ales. (1554 clocks in at 5.6 percent.)
New Belgium fans will have an even greater choice of packaging in days ahead. Six-packs of 12-ounce bottles should pop up here during the fourth quarter of 2011, probably in November, promises Reeve. Then in 2012, “at the earliest in February and at the latest in April,” we should see the first New Belgium beers in cans.
Currently, New Belgium cans three beers (Fat Tire Amber Ale, Sunshine Wheat and Ranger IPA) for limited distribution in its western markets. But New Belgium is debuting a new high-speed packaging line that will allow the brewery to fill 450 cans a minute (as opposed to 60 for the slowpoke old line). Once the new machinery is fully functional, New Belgium will supplement its 12-ounce cans with 16-ouncers, says Bryan Simpson, the company’s media relations director.
Incidentally, the Fat Tire in a can differs from the bottled and draft versions in that the canned beer is dosed with a small amount of live yeast. As Simpson explains, the head space in a can contains more trapped oxygen than the head space in a bottle. The yeast gobbles up this oxygen, preventing it from reacting with the can’s contents to give the beer a stale, cardboardy flavor. In an informal taste test a few years ago, the can-conditioned Fat Tire struck me as a little fruitier than the cleaner bottled version. But Simpson claims that in blind tastings at the brewery, the staff couldn’t tell them apart.
Expect a few new labels from New Belgium as well. By November, the hoppy golden ale Hoptober will give way to a new winter seasonal, Snow Day, which is very dark and highly hopped but a little less alcoholic and easier on the palate than many of the black IPAs on the market. We’ll also see two new entries in the brewery’s Lips of Faith series of limited-edition beers: Fresh Hop, seasoned with raw hop cones trucked directly to the brew kettle from the fields of Washington state; and Prickly Passion Saison, brewed with passion fruit and prickly pear to augment the esters from the saison yeast.
Finally, if you attended the inaugural Harvest Beer Festival in Davidsonville, Md., on Sept. 17 and sat in on New Belgium cellarman Eric Salazar’s talk on sour ales, you might have gotten a swig of the brewery’s La Folie. This sour brown ale, a blend of vintages aged in 60-hectoliter wooden vessels called “foeders” for one to four years, is brewmaster Pierre Bouckaert’s homage to the sour ales he used to brew as production manager for the Rodenbach Brewery in Flanders.
La Folie isn’t officially here yet, but Reeve believes it will join the product mix after the next bottling run in spring 2012. “It’s our highest-volume sour beer, so I would think you’ll be getting it sooner rather than later,” said Simpson.
A correction: In my last blog post, I mentioned a collaborative brew called DJ Love, to debut at Smith Commons in November. A PR representative indicated that the beer would be “labeled as ‘inspired by’ or ‘conceived at’ Smith Commons and the restaurant will be heavily involved in the development and launch of the beer.” Brandon Skall of DC Brau wrote back that the beer, which he termed a joint effort solely between his brewery and Stillwater Artisanal Ales, “is yet to be conceived much less named,” although the release party will be at Smith Commons.