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Will Locals Lose Their Taste For New Belgium After Sale To Beer Giant?

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Matt Bloom/KUNC
New Belgium beer sits inside refrigerators at Wilbur’s Total Beverage in Fort Collins. The locally-owned store says it plans to keep the beer in its locally-made section.";

Mary Collins, a lifelong resident of Fort Collins, didn’t expect to feel so nostalgic. During happy hour at Road 34, a local bar just west of Colorado State University, she sat down at a long wooden table with a group of friends and a glass of New Belgium Citradelic in her hand.

“Figured I’d get some in before they sell out and I end up buying Odell,” Collins said.

Growing up here, Collins thought of the company as a fixture of the community. Fat Tire, New Belgium’s signature brew, was what put Fort Collins on the map, she said. Now, with the company’s sale to an international beer conglomerate looming, Collins’ view was changing.

“It’s going to be really sad for me,” she said. “I probably won’t buy New Belgium as much anymore.”

 

Beer drinkers in Fort Collins and across Colorado are questioning their loyalty to local brands as more craft brewers give up independence in order to stay afloat in an increasingly competitive market.

New Belgium is just the latest example. In late November, the company’s co-founder Kim Jordan announced plans to sell to Australaisan brewer Lion Little World Beverages, a subsidiary of Japanese beer giant Kirin.

The move, Jordan said in a letter to the community, was about balancing the cash demands of the company and the need to grow the brand.

“There are a lot of competing priorities and it has been difficult to do all of them as well as we’d like,” Jordan said. “As we surveyed the landscape over the last several years, we found that options to raise capital while being an independent brewer weren’t realistic for us.”

Reaction from the community was swift and mixed.

“Oh well, one less brewery to buy beer from,” read one Facebook comment.

“This kind of feels like a slap in the face to Colorado, a state that has proudly supported and overseen New Belgium’s success,” read another.

Others were more optimistic.

“I have mixed feelings about this but I doubt it will change the quality and mission statements you all have,” one commenter chimed in.

“Congrats New Belgium employee owners, you have earned the right to financial success and freedom!” another said.

The sale is still pending approval from the company’s employee-owners. A majority must vote yes in order for it to go through. Voting is expected to wrap up by Dec. 17.

 

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Credit Andy Thrasher/Public Domain
A glass of New Belgium Fat Tire.

While Collins and other locals say they may shift their buying habits if the sale happens, other consumers aren’t as worried.

Across the crowded room at Road 34, full of local bicycles and college students, Drew Kaiser ordered another glass of beer.

“I’m more driven by what flavor I’m in the mood for,” Kaiser said.

Drinking a locally-made craft beer does matter to him. But sometimes other factors outweigh that.

“This is Coors,” he said, raising his glass. “So it’s still at a price point that competes with other things too. So that’s another factor.”

Ingredients and freshness are the two largest factors craft beer drinkers consider when making a purchase, according to a recent Brewers Association poll of more than 1,000 regular consumers. In the same survey, more than 50% of beer drinkers also listed “locally made” and “made by an independent brewer” as very or somewhat important.

The factors outweighed other seemingly important characteristics, like alcohol content.

Bart Watson, the chief economist at the Boulder-based Brewers Association, said a change in ownership of a craft brewer as popular as New Belgium could have a big sway in local consumer choice.

“It may shift the buying patterns for those who value independence and who want to buy from an independent brewery going forward,” Watson said.

Meanwhile, it’s getting harder for many of those breweries to stay viable.

One of Colorado’s first craft breweries, Boulder Beer, announced earlier this year it would end national distribution due to increasing competition. It then reversed that decision after a local contractor stepped in to handle the company’s retail operations. Other independent breweries, like Oskar Blues, have had to join a collective to handle the cost of doing business.

“Sales require lots of money,” Watson said. “Capital investments in the brewery require lots of money.”

 

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Credit Courtesy Brewers Association
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Courtesy Brewers Association
A slide from a Harris Poll/Neilsen survey of more than 1,000 regular craft beer drinkers. The chart shows the importance of specific factors consumers consider when buying beer.

New Belgium says the pending sale won’t hinder its ties to Fort Collins or Colorado. Its brewery and taproom will remain open. Events like “Tour de Fat,” the company’s annual beer festival and parade, won’t go away either.

“I’m hopeful that people take a look at that and say, you know, it really wasn’t just about the money,” said Leah Pilcer, a spokeswoman for New Belgium. “It really was about making sure that we could take care of our people and continue to take care of our beer and grow.”

Pilcer said the company looked for an owner that wouldn’t compromise the quality of the beer or New Belgium’s mission.

“We still have the same process for innovation,” she said. “We’re still local to the Fort Collins and Asheville brewery.”

The only difference being the company will no longer be employee-owned. If workers vote to sell, they’ll receive a collective payout of around $190 million.

 

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Credit Matt Bloom/KUNC
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Matt Bloom/KUNC
A New Belgium sign and branded bicycle hang from the ceiling of Wilbur’s Total Beverage in Fort Collins.

In the crowded beer aisle of Wilbur’s Total Beverage in Fort Collins, several miles away from the New Belgium brewery, customers pace back and forth, deciding which purchase to make.

Mat Dinsmore, the store’s owner, is arranging bottles of New Belgium on sale.

“This is the prime spot,” he said, pointing to a row of refrigerators holding cases of Fat Tire, Voodoo Ranger IPA and other New Belgium brews.

Dinsmore has dealt directly with the brewery and its owners for more than two decades. For him, news about the sale isn’t surprising. It’s more personal.

“Kim Jordan shops with us on Saturdays,” he said. “We've catered their kids’ wedding.“

The company has grown a lot over the years, becoming one of the largest craft brewers in the country. They’re no longer the small, local boutique they once were.

“But they’re still our friends, they’re still our neighbors,” Dinsmore said. “They still make great beers.”

Despite that, he’s sure some of his customers will make different decisions once the company’s sale goes through this month. It’ll take years to measure whether it has any real effect on sales at his store, he said.

“There’s some people who are really upset about this,” he said. “And there's also people who go, if I was an employee of New Belgium and I was going to walk away with six figures in my retirement account and still have a job — okay, where do I sign?”

Regardless of the company’s decision, he doesn’t plan on moving New Belgium out of his local, Colorado beer aisle.

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