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Did Beer And Bikes Build Fort Collins' Innovation Culture?

Luke Runyon
Nick Frey, owner of Boo Bicycles, says Fort Collins' mix of wide roads and laid back culture made it a good fit for his bamboo bicycle business.

Which came first, Fort Collins’ enviable innovative culture, one that’s put the city in a Smithsonian Institution exhibit about inventive places, or the beer and bike industries that have helped put the city on nearly every “Best Of” list in the country? It’s a classic question.

The city’s brand is tied to beer and bikes, boasting more than 15 breweries, with 5 more in planning stages, and more than 20 businesses devoted to bicycle fabrication and manufacturing. Their successes are intertwined.

It’s a marriage that shows up everywhere in this city of 150,000, from the label of a New Belgium Brewing Company bottle of Fat Tire, to the brewery map handed out at the Fort Collins Bike Library, to the bars built of bike frames, to the beer bar that doubles as a bike shop.

While it may be easy for naysayers to dismiss craft beer brewing and biking as inconsequential or niche, the city’s top economic health official, Josh Birks, says it’s serious business. Both play a huge role not just in giving the city an economic boost, Birks says, but they’re also integral to spurring new ideas and sustaining innovation in other sectors.

“I think Fort Collins is clearly a bike and beer town,” Birks says. “It’s interesting that both are growing aspects of our economy at the same time.”

Birks’ office has identified beer brewing as an established and growing sector in the city, and bike manufacturing and design as an emerging one, grouped right alongside technology giants like Woodward, Hewlett-Packard, and Avago.

How did these two complementary industries wind up thriving in Fort Collins? Would Fort Collins be considered a “Place of Invention” without its thriving craft beer culture and emphasis on biking?

Let’s start with the infrastructure, and for beer and bikes that means taking a closer look at the city’s roads and waterways.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC
Boo Bicycles builds bike frames out of stalks of bamboo and calls Fort Collins home.

Thanks to its Western beginnings, back when roads needed to accommodate wagons and buggies, Fort Collins’ streets, especially in its Old Town core, stretch wide. Flash forward to 2009, when a young entrepreneurial cyclist named Nick Frey needed a home for his new business, a brick and mortar design shop that builds bikes out of bamboo called Boo Bicycles.

“When I visited Fort Collins, I remember really distinctly going down one of the streets, and it was like 60 feet wide,” Frey says. “Then I saw the bike lane, and the bike lane was wider than the car. And then I saw this really laid back atmosphere.”

Then he saw the cheaper commercial real estate compared to the East Coast, where Frey went to college, or to Boulder where he worked for an aerospace engineering firm. A mix of population density, ease of entry into the marketplace, quality of life, and readily available mentors made Fort Collins an easy pick for Frey to settle his business in.

"There's enough people and enough resources to do something important and you're not just out in the wilderness, but not so much that it's overwhelming and you can't focus on just the task at hand."

Just like that, Fort Collins became the home of one of the only bamboo bicycle fabricators in the country.

“There’s enough people and enough resources to do something important and you’re not just out in the wilderness, but not so much that it’s overwhelming and you can’t focus on just the task at hand,” he says.

Ask any brewer why they settled in Fort Collins and one of the first reasons they’ll likely give you is the Cache La Poudre River, and the quality of water that flows within its banks. That’s certainly the case for one of the largest craft breweries in the country, New Belgium Brewing Company. Owner Kim Jordan started the company in the early 1990s with then husband Jeff Lebesch, and says the city’s water made for the perfect beer ingredient.

“The soil was fertile for the kind of innovation that we were interested in, in bringing Belgian style beers to the United States,” Jordan says.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC
New Belgium Brewing Company's focus is on the funkier flavors in Belgian-style beer.

As craft brewing proliferated in Fort Collins during the 90s and 2000s, the city’s booming breweries needed a place to serve all this new beer, leading to sections of town packed with beer bars, tasting rooms and brewpubs. There were enough watering holes, and the patrons to fill them, that a Smithsonian historian included them as a key factor in what makes the community inventive.

“I would venture to guess that a lot of businesses have been incubated right downstairs on bar napkins and coasters,” Jordan says.

The breweries themselves have been noted for being particularly experimental in both the types of beer rolled out into the market -- saisons, sours, wet hopped and IPAs -- and the processes used to brew. More breweries are focused on energy efficiency, water conservation and waste reduction. That emphasis landed Jordan and New Belgium into the Lemelson Center’s final exhibit.

“That’s the expectation here, is that we are going to continuously be looking at: how can we do things differently? What new things can we take on? What things can we stop doing? We’re not so great at the stop doing part,” Jordan says.

New Belgium, along with several other breweries in town, has earned honors for being bicycle friendly, the only “Platinum” level business in the state, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC
Zach Yendra used his expertise in metalworking to fabricate The Bootlegger, a cargo built to haul beer.

The ongoing love affair of bikes and beer in Fort Collins is no better represented than in the workshop of Zach Yendra, owner of YendraBuilt, a custom fabrication shop right in the heart of what’s colloquially known as the city’s “brewery triangle” northwest of Old Town.

In Yendra’s metal-working warehouse sits the Bootlegger, a cargo bike originally built for the expressed purpose to haul beer.

“You can haul 500 pounds on it. So you can haul multiple kegs, you could go get groceries, or dog food or beer. I haul my 2-month-old around in it and she loves it,” Yendra says.

"Whatever ideas you come up with having a beer with a friend or a fellow business owner, make those ideas happen whenever you can. The beer lubricates your creative process."

The Nebraska native custom built the original bike for friends at Equinox Brewing Co. who wanted to deliver their kegs across Fort Collins using human power versus a gasoline-powered truck. Yendra sat down -- over a few beers, of course -- and sketched out what would eventually become the Bootlegger. You’d be hard-pressed to find a start up business in Fort Collins that doesn’t include a beer or two in its origin story, Yendra says.

“Whatever ideas you come up with having a beer with a friend or a fellow business owner, make those ideas happen whenever you can. The beer lubricates your creative process,” Yendra says with a laugh.

As for whether the innovation culture was borne out of biking and beer drinking or the other way around, Fort Collins economic health director Josh Birks says the two feed each other.

“Innovation has been a long term cultural and genetic aspect of Fort Collins,” Birks says. “The beer and bike industries are born out of a great and innovative place, and they’re adding to it, and strengthening it.”

Fort Collins’ genetic code is imprinted with a desire to change the way things are done and created, Birks says. Beer and bikes just happen to be the current expression of those genes.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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