By Michele Chan Santos
Green Right Now
Green-minded visitors to northern Colorado should consider a tour of the New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins. New Belgium, best known for its Fat Tire Amber Ale brand, is one of the most environmentally progressive breweries in the world. The brewery has used wind-powered electricity since 1999, and green-design methods have been incorporated throughout the company. I visited the headquarters on a recent trip and discovered that many aspects of company life are dedicated to sustainability.
New Belgium sponsors a charity bike-and-music event called “Tour de Fat” in eleven cities in the United States, including Austin, Chicago, Minneapolis and Portland, that encourages people to trade their car for a bike, at least for a day. At Tour de Fat events, beer is served in compostable cups, and performers take to a solar-powered stage. (A Tour de Fat schedule is online.)
Cycling has long been part of New Belgium’s corporate culture. Before he founded the company, Jeff Lebesch went on a tour of Belgian breweries, traveling through Europe in 1989 on a mountain bike, a rarity at the time. Many people commented on the “fat tires” he used, which inspired the name of Fat Tire Amber Ale. Today, employees of New Belgium each receive a mountain bike on the one-year anniversary of their hire date. They are encouraged to use the bikes to commute to work, thus reducing their carbon footprints. Outside the headquarters, dozens of bikes are lined up, looking well-used.
Tours of the brewery are free, and they are offered several days per week. One of the first things visitors notice is the beautiful pine wood used throughout the building, on ceilings, walls and floors. The wood has a bluish tint, meaning it’s “beetlekill” wood. Throughout Colorado, thousands of acres of lodgepole pines have been lost to a pine bark beetle infestation. The beetle injects a fungus into the trees, which tints the wood blue. Using the wood is a way to utilize these dead trees, the tour guide explained.
The most impressive sight on the tour is the gigantic “Merlin” brewing kettle, the size of a school bus. Traditional brew kettles heat the wort (unfermented beer, the liquid that comes from mashing grains) in a giant kettle that heats from the bottom, similar to how you heat a pan of water on the kitchen stove.
The Merlin, made by the Germany company Steinecker, has a huge cone-shaped heating element standing inside the vast cylindrical kettle. The liquid heats more quickly than in a traditional kettle because the heating surface is much larger, and the wort heats from the center out. Since the wort heats faster, the brew kettle uses less energy than traditional methods.
Every brewery produces a large amount of wastewater as a result of the brewing process. New Belgium built its own water-treatment plant, which includes anaerobic digestion. The company also uses the methane produced by the plant to generate electricity and heat. As it continues to work on new ways to save energy, New Belgium plans to install a solar photovoltaic array.
Best of all for visitors, each brewery guest 21 and up can sample four types of beer for free, in the first-floor bar called the “Liquid Center.” Most visitors start with the Fat Tire, and then move on to try other flavors, like Sunshine Wheat, Skinny Dip and Blue Paddle.
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