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The Rockies' rival to Rodenbach

Wooden tanks

The Beerhunter seems to have something in his sights...but the really impressive sight is behind. Ten tuns makes for an impressive tally - and very special beers.

The magnificent, ceiling-high, oak tuns in my picture began their lives in a winery, but are now maturing beer in a brewery. Which one?

Knowledgeable beer-lovers may jump to the conclusion that this is the Belgian brewery Rodenbach, the most famous producer of beers aged in wood. It is not.

Nor does my picture show any of the half dozen other Belgian breweries that use, on a lesser scale, such wooden tuns. Nor even the British brewery Greene King, which recently added a third tun.

The tuns shown here are in the United States: in the New Belgium Brewery, of Fort Collins, Colorado. The vessels, six at 130 hectolitres and four at 60, were bought from wineries in the Napa Valley of California. Together with about 70 barriques acquired in the same way, they are used in the production of New Belgium's La Folie, Bière de Mars, and other specialities.

La Folie, which I have already reviewed, is a wonderfully complex beer broadly in the style of a sweet-and-sour red ale such as those produced by Rodenbach and other brewers in West Flanders.

Bière de Mars is loosely based on an extinct style that was a low-strength springtime beer in the Lambic family. I have tasted something similar made as a component of a blend in a Belgian Lambic brewery. New Belgium's interpretation captures to perfection the slightly iridescent onion-skin color and the earthy hop-sack aroma of the semi-wild yeast Brettanomyces. I found the beer more syrupy in texture than I expected, with a bitter-orange character and some medicinal notes.

Both beers are made by blending from various tuns and barriques. A barrique was tapped when the brewery had an open day during this year's Great American Beer Festival. This "single-barrel" version, called Love, had a reddish chestnut color. It was hugely aromatic, with a sharp attack, a firm middle, development of vanilla flavors, and a late, spritzy, acidity.

The brotherhood of brew was much in evidence. New Belgium's Abbey Grand Cru was tasted alongside the "Quadruple" Reverend, from the Avery brewery, of Boulder, Colorado, and the famously strong Worldwide Stout, from the East Coast brewery Dogfish Head. Each was sampled in a variety of vintages: this was the annual vertical tasting organised by RealBeer.com. It was also an opportunity, at New Belgium, to introduce some brews from the old country that will be available via this website in the coming months. (See The Great Beers of Belgium.)

New Belgium exterior
Destination "Special": Mountain brewery, but the style is "Prairie Industrial". The Belgian brewers' patron, St Arnold (right) has taken up a position in the garden. The "mystery brewers" above are founder/brewer Jeff Lebesch and head brewer Peter Bouckaert.
Saint Arnold

The discussion of products that can mature for several years in the bottle, not to mention those aged in wood - the slowest way of making beer - seemed incongruous in America's fastest-growing brewery.

As I am always keen to claim credit for good things in the world of beer, let me confess a huge error of judgment regarding this venture.

Twelve years ago, visiting new small breweries in Colorado, I was driven from Denver to the original Breckenridge brewpub by Jeff Lebesch, who was at the time an electrical engineer and home brewer. The road climbs into the Rockies, and, at 11,990 feet, crosses the Continental Divide. My recollection was that we pulled over at this point and cracked a bottle of Chimay.

While we had our celebratory drink, Jeff told me he was a nursing an idea. He wanted to establish in the United States a micro-brewery specialising in Belgian-style ales. At the time, no one had done this. Nor had anyone even thought of it, as far as I a can recall. I told him that it was a great idea - but that America was not yet ready for such a venture. I am glad to have been proven wrong.

A couple of years later, Jeff and his wife Kim started brewing commercially in the basement of their home, on a system of slightly less than five barrels. They subsequently installed a 20 barrel system; in 1995 went to 100 barrels; and will shortly be doubling that. This year, New Belgium will produce 200-250,000 barrels. Its volume is dominated by Fat Tire, an amber ale that seems to me less spicy, and more malty, than I remember. It is not emphatically Belgian in character, but has some resemblance to Palm.

Today's brewery is on a 50-acre, landscaped, site that not long ago was grazing land for goats. New Belgium was "Brewery of the Year" in its size category at the GABF. This was reflected in its tally of medals.

It won two golds: for La Folie (in the category Belgian-style specialities) and for its oddly-spelled Trippel. In the latter category, I was a judge in the medal round. I admired this beer's spicy, vanilla-like, aroma; creamy palate; and powerful, dryish, finish. I also enjoyed the fruity, cherry-like, flavors in a spritzier beer to which we awarded a bronze. This turned out to be New Belgium's Dubbel. The brewery also won a bronze for its firm, dry, well-balanced, Blue Paddle Pilsner. Again, I was a judge in the medal round.

Perhaps my judgments (arrived at blindfold) went some way toward compensating for my properly-ignored advice of ten years past. I was not quite right about the beer at the Continental Divide, though. It was not actually Chimay, but Jeff's attempt at home-brewing something similar. He reminded me of this, and I checked. According to my notes from June 7, 1990, the beer was brewed from pale malt extract, Klages two-row, Munich, Crystal and Chocolate Malt. It was bittered with Willamette and Chinook hops, and finished with Cascades. The beer was six months old, and I found it hoppier than Chimay.

At about 11.30, a marmot ran across the road...


Published: OCT 24, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

Brewery Review - Brew Travel - Beer Review

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