Brewery grows from Fort Collins basement to national presence
Columbus has Victoria’s Secret, Hershey has Hershey and Fort Collins has Fat Tire.
Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan, founders of New Belgium Brewing Company Inc., are the first couple behind the Choice City’s most famous export.
Fat tire, as well as New Belgium as a whole, began in the mind of Lebesch during a ride through the Belgium countryside on, what else, his fat-tire mountain bike. It was on that bike trip through beer country that Lebesch, an electrical engineer by trade and beer appreciator by hobby, decided to pursue his dream of opening a home brewery once he got home to Colorado.
He did just that, having friends taste test his creations.
“The system worked pretty well,” he said. “Although it’s hard to get an objective opinion when you’re giving away free beer.”
Lebesch, a social worker by training, and Jordan met in 1988 and got married in 1990. The new arrival, New Belgium, wasn’t far behind.
“I think the seminal moment was during a hike on Easter Sunday 1991,” Jordan said. “We talked about our purposes and objectives and who we wanted to be as a company.
“That was the beginning.”
The couple came down from their hike on Horsetooth and headed for the basement, where New Belgium Brewing Company capped its first brews in June of 1991. The couple had a neighbor paint the watercolor artwork that would serve as labels, Jeff brewed and Jordan and son, Zack, bottled.
Jordan would work all day as a social worker, pick up Zack from school and head out in the family station wagon to deliver New Belgium brews to local liquor stores.
After 14 months, the couple knew it was time to expand.
“We had beer stacked everywhere,” Jordan remembers.
Sixteen months after capping its first bottles, New Belgium moved to a former railroad depot.
“At first I didn’t have a vision beyond the basement,” Lebesch said. “I was really just out for the personal satisfaction.
“I’m passionate about beer.”
The timing of starting the brewery was one of the factors behind its success, Lebesch said.
“We were the only ones brewing in town that bottled our beers,” he said. “It allowed us to serve a market that wasn’t being served.”
In 1995, New Belgium moved into a state-of-the art brewery facility that includes two quality-assurance labs, a one-of-a-kind yeast propagator and 6 miles of stainless-steel piping.
Lebesch, with his background in engineering and love of detail, is most involved in the technical aspects of the brewing process. Jordan, with her people skills and outgoing personality handles marketing, personnel and other business operations.
“There is a clear difference in personalities,” Lebesch said.
Differences that complement each other, Jordan agrees.
“We have very complementary skills sets,” she said.
But she is quick to point out they didn’t get where they are alone. Where they are is at the top as one of the most successful microbreweries in the nation and Bravo! 2000 entrepreneurs for Fort Collins.
“We’ve been fortunate to find people who share our vision and who are willing to work hard to make it a reality,” she said.
Jennifer Vervier is one of those people. Now the company’s chief financial officer, she started out on the bottling line.
“They’re both quick to recognize the contributions of others, reward hard work, work very hard themselves and constantly seek out the advice of their co-workers,” Vervier said.
There is no question that whatever the entrepreneurs are doing, they’re doing it right.
After just eight years in the business, their microbrewery is the largest in the state and the sixth largest in the nation. Last year New Belgium produced 150,000 barrels, a 41-percent increase over the year before.
“We just feel lucky to have fulfilled our purpose of having a profitable brewery that allows our love and talent to manifest itself,” Jordan said.