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'It's Been A Fun Run:' Former Brewmaster Talks New Belgium Sale, Future Of Craft Beer

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Brewtography Project

When Peter Bouckaert started at New Belgium in the late 1990s, the company was a small, boutique brewery making its way in Fort Collins. He was employee No. 33. During his time there, Bouckaert crafted some of its most beloved brews, including La Folie, French for "the folly."

Now, he and hundreds of other current and former employees face a decision: to sell or not to sell one of the largest independent craft breweries in the country.

In the deal made public last month with Australasian brewer Lion Little World Beverages, co-founder Kim Jordan said more than 300 employees would receive $100,000 each in retirement money. The total amount paid to employees would be nearly $190 million.

New Belgium is 100% employee owned, which means a majority of worker-owners have to approve the sale for it to go through. Voting is expected to wrap up Dec. 17.

"If it was purely a financial decision, it's an easy decision," Bouckaert said. "But it's the emotional part — that is my hesitation."

Bouckaert no longer works at New Belgium, but retains shares from his 21 years at the company. We recently caught up with him at his current venture, Purpose Brewing and Cellars in Fort Collins.

Bouckaert didn't want to disclose exactly how he was voting. But he did share what it's like for him ahead of the pending sale.

On making his decision:

It is an emotional one and I really want to chat with some other people about it because I still have a lot of shares. I'm not going to sway it, but I have an influence. It has been a great company to work for, so I hope that it continues to exist to the extent that it was. And so for me, that's a key decision factor.

On what employees are getting out of the deal:

It's a huge factor. I talked to the people in Asheville because it's mostly younger employees that are there and they don't really benefit that much. The nice move, what the buyout does is that everyone with vested shares in this deal — everybody gets 100% payouts.

But for one-year or less-than-one-year employees — they don't have stock. My wife still works with a lot of them because she works in the taproom (in Fort Collins). So a lot of those people don't have any shares, but they're also less than a year in this company.

On what the sale says about the craft beer world today:

I mean, it's definitely a maturing industry. It's been a fun run. I've been here now 23 years in the U.S. and it's really been an incredible run. But it was unsustainable. We don't want to become the Starbucks of brewing — to have basically a brewery across the street from here would be kind of Starbucks-y.

I'm still surprised that so many breweries want to open. A lot of homebrewers want to open, but they don't really understand what this business is about. It's a business, you know. It's fun making beer, but you need to understand what the business is about. How do you work with a distributor? How it's taxed. Because it's a whole different taxation model because it's alcohol and a lot of people just don't realize that.

On New Belgium's culture after the sale:

I've been staying in touch with them closely enough to kind of saw that something needed to happen. In the end I was really happy that it was actually Kirin and their Australian subsidiary who bought it. Kirin doesn't really have any production capability here in the U.S. yet, so that probably will make New Belgium more viable as a brewery and be an active player again in the industry.

But my hope is that I can still go to New Belgium and feel like I'm in New Belgium as I was working there. I think there's a decent chance of it in this sale to this buyer. But you never know, of course.

 

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Credit Peter Bouckaert
Former New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert is now the co-founder of Purpose Brewing and Cellars in Fort Collins.

On the Fort Collins beer scene:

I get people from all over the world and all over the U.S. here visiting Purpose. And they wouldn't come to Purpose if it wasn't for Odell and New Belgium. Those people have really brought Fort Collins on the map. And so a lot of the smaller breweries around here really benefit from having those big local breweries around here.

I think Fort Collins is still a mecca for brewing. It's a small town, but a decent number of breweries. I may be biased, but I think our breweries have way more diversity than you'd see in other beer towns as such. We have really a good, vibrant culture here.

On Purpose Brewing:

My hope is just to lay low to the grass. You know, there's a storm out there as you see in this interview here. It's not a moment to grow in my eyes. It's not a moment to distribute heavily. You need to stay very focused on what you do. And in my case, just have fun with it while you're doing it. And if the weather changes, maybe I'm going to do something different.

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