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Beyond Fat Tire: On New Belgium’s First Year in DC

Let’s not pull punches. I was a New Belgium skeptic. Sure, DCBeer wrote a bunch of posts, because a brewery with the size and reputation of New Belgium’s coming into your market is a big, big deal.

But I was a skeptic. I thought for sure that New Belgium coming to market would mean that I would be seeing the widely known Fat Tire everywhere. Fat Tire is a tasty beer, and I enjoyed it the first time I had it on a trip to the west coast, but I can’t say I was looking forward to seeing it at every craft bar in my regular rotation. I know there were others in the #dcbrews scene who concurred.

And then a funny thing happened: Fat Tire wasn’t at every bar I frequented. Instead, New Belgium put out a bunch of beers for retail and draft. Far beyond Fat Tire, I saw Ranger, Trippel, Clutch, and Kick. Later, more beers from the Lips of Faith series made appearances: La Folie, Biere de Mars, Cocoa Mole, Prickly Pear Saison, etc. For the most part, these beers are at a really solid price point, too. For the price (and for my money), Ranger IPA is one of the better ones out there, rivaling even Lagunitas’ venerable take on the seminal craft style. Yes, these economies of scale are the benefits of being the third largest craft brewery in the country, but it’s worth noting that those savings are not always passed on to the customer.

Nearly a year after New Belgium’s launch, I feel pretty differently about the Fort Collins brewery than I did when they were coming into the market. Some of that must be laid at the feet of their DC Beer Ranger, John Gartner, who has been all over the place and done a good job of sponsoring events locally. A lot of the reason I feel differently though is due to decisions regarding distribution (presumably by the brewery and their local distributor, Premium Distributors of DC, but I don’t profess to have a thorough knowledge of the brewery-distributor relationship).

The aforementioned John Gartner, DC’s New Belgium Ranger, offered us this comment about their movement into DC via email: “It has been an exciting first year! As to our portfolio strategy during rollout, we’re very happy that the success of our flagship, Fat Tire Amber Ale, has allowed us to build a diverse portfolio of styles and flavors. Beers like Ranger IPA and Tart Lychee would not exist without Fat Tire paving their way. When you enter a sophisticated beer market like DC, you want to have breadth and depth in the portfolio, so did not hesitate to bring the more challenging beers knowing full well they would finds an audience.” Gartner also gave credit to Premium Distributors of DC for the successful launch of New Belgium.

My bottom line here is that New Belgium could’ve played it safe and flooded the market with Fat Tire.  Maybe a lot of non-craft spots have had that experience. From what I’ve seen in craft bars, picking up Fat Tire hasn’t been a pre-requisite for access to the rest of the New Belgium portfolio. Kudos to the folks from Fort Collins for a good first year here in DC, I hope other breweries that expand into our market are taking notes.

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