After taking out a second mortgage on their home, Kim Jordan and her then-husband, Jeff Lebesch, started a brewery in their basement. Little did they know at the time that they were taking the first steps towards becoming craft beer pioneers and that their basement brewhaus would become the New Belgium Brewing Company.
New Belgium is now the fourth largest brewer of craft beer in the nation, and Kim Jordan is the Executive Chair of the company after stepping down as CEO in 2015. In December of 2015, New Belgium became 100% owned by its employees, an arrangement Jordan feels helps contribute to the company’s success. Kim believes that employee ownership encourages New Belgium’s employees to care, work hard, and make great beer.
The brewery’s footprint has gone through some major expansion as of late, most recently venturing into Pennsylvania in September and its beers will soon hit shelves in New York and New Jersey. Along with expanding its footprint, New Belgium completed construction in 2015 on a production brewery in Asheville, North Carolina and have plans to sell Asheville-brewed beer in early 2016.
New Belgium offers its customers several beers of Belgium derivation, including many innovative style varieties, but brewing beer is not the only thing the company is about. With the vision and leadership from Jordan, New Belgium has helped provide an example for the craft brewing industry in areas of sustainability, responsibility, philanthropy and equity.
For example, New Belgium’s brewing operation has been recognized by B Lab, a nonprofit organization that administers the B Corp certification process for businesses who regard rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. B Lab presented New Belgium with a “Best for the Environment” award for cutting-edge monitoring practices and reducing the company’s brewing impact on the environment. New Belgium relies on its Natural Resource Management Team, consisting of people from throughout the company, to brainstorm new ways to reduce energy and water use. The brewery has on-site wastewater treatment and also uses wind power to supply electricity in its brewing operation.
In addition, New Belgium has been a longtime advocate of cycling, something made evident by the iconic bicycle on their flagship beer, Fat Tire Amber Ale. In the brewery’s nearly 25-year history it has awarded more than $4 million for bicycle advocacy and was recently recognized, again, as a platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Business (BFBSM) by the League of American Bicyclists.
I recently had the pleasure of asking Kim Jordan a series of questions about the craft beer revolution that she is very much a part of. The following Q&A contains edited excerpts from our conversation.
Eugene J. Arlotta: What is your favorite beer/style?
Kim Jordan: I tend to drink IPAs more than any other particular style. Although there are a lot of styles I love, and fortunately, I get lots of opportunity to drink among them.
EJA: Describe the perfect meal with a beer/food pairing.
KJ: I have had wonderful meals where the dishes are very elegant and complex, and the beer is a perfect pairing for them. I admit I also think a big IPA and some ribs is a really great combination, or drinking New Belgium’s Fat Tire amber ale and a pizza with mushrooms, basil and green onions on it. I love Saisons, as well, and sour beers. A beautiful fish with a Saison is a wonderful combination. I admit that sometimes I gravitate more toward classic beer paired food just because I think it’s delicious.
EJA: Where do you think the craft beer industry is going?
KJ: Well, I think it used to be that people would ask if this is just a fad, and I think those days of wondering if craft beer is here to stay are over. I do think that the kind of growth that we had as an industry just naturally has to level out some because it has been at a pace that has been just kind of crazy, but I also think a lot of people are going to continue to want to drink more flavorful beers. So, whether that’s big complicated intricate beers or more just something with a maltier backbone or a good hop variety used in it, I think it is still to be determined, but we will continue to see local breweries across the U.S. and continue to see big brewers making beers that they try to hope makes them look like craft brewers. I think it will continue to be a part of a lot of people’s go to choice beer, craft beer will.
EJA: Do you fear that as the founders of the modern beer movement age and retire microbreweries will increasingly sell to macros?
KJ: Yes, we are seeing that already, and I think there will be a certain percentage who will. Such as Lagunitas, it was able to sell, which was really a full-sale deal. Fifty percent was purchased and the other fifty percent is under contract, so you know within the next three years you’ll see they are completely owned by Heineken. It seemed some people cared, but my sense is the vast majority of people didn’t and I think that will signal to some craft brewers that this is a strategy that is acceptable. It is a tough thing because you want to reap your rewards of your hard work and you know the market is hot. I also think there will be a lot of us who will stay making sure that we continue to be deeply immersed in the world of craft beer which is important to us and so I don’t think that craft brewers as a community will go away, but I do think it is going to evolve over the next five years.
EJA: So, that would be your answer to craft brewers selling off. Some brewers will sell off and some won’t?
KJ: Yes, I think that would be, but you will still have other brewers coming into the space, so there will be a wider acceptance for craft brewers being bought by the big two or the big five international brewers. I find myself wondering if there will be a tipping point where people will say now I’m mad. I don’t know — we’ll see.
EJA: How important do you think home brewing is to the craft beer industry?
KJ: I think a lot of people even now start in the industry as home brewers, and it is another very social part of the largest beer culture in the U.S. You find home brewers who are really passionate about what they do and that informs the professional brewers side. When professional brewers meet with homebrewers or taste their beer somewhere or agree to do a Pro-Am brew with them and find this incredible use of ingredients they never thought of. I think it is a wonderful part of the beer scene in the U.S.
EJA: What regret, if any, do you have about your involvement in the craft beer movement? (What could you have done differently?)
KJ: I’m not a big fan of regrets because whatever it is it is over. I’m not sure it is worth spending a lot of time regretting it. Would I have done anything differently? Oh, you know, this has been wildly fun and the community of people that I know through being a craft brewery are some of my closest friends, and we’ve had a lot of really good times together. So, no, I wouldn’t necessarily say there is anything I regret or even that I would change. It has been fun.
EJA: What do you think the craft beer culture will look like 10 years from now? (Local and/or worldwide)
KJ: Well, I think worldwide you will see more of what you see in the U.S. I think that is already starting to happen, and they have a lot of room to grow in that regard. I believe you will see more culinary programs that are including craft beer within them and more of the places that have been a little bit slow to sort of embrace craft beer. If you don’t have any craft beer in your fine dining restaurants, that would seem like a real miss. It already seems like a real miss in the United States. Also, we should see more sour and wood-aged beer, which will be really fun, and overall I believe market share will grow.
EJA: Any advice to aspiring nano or micro brewers?
KJ: I think focusing hard on quality and reinvesting in getting better equipment. When you make some money it is also important to pay people, but it is also important to make sure you’re also upgrading your lab and quality capability. One of the things this industry is sometimes hung up on is branding. Some thinking is my beer sells itself, and I don’t need to worry about branding. My boyfriend said a few years ago that saying a brewery shouldn’t have a brand story is like saying people shouldn’t have a personality. I think it is important to have a brand story. That does not replace kick ass beers, by any means, but it’s not like you can have one and not the other. They are not mutually exclusive and that would be the other thing that I would remind inspiring nano and micro brewers.
EJA: What is your perspective on women in the industry?
KJ: I have been part of the craft brewing movement for 25 years, and I think craft brewers specifically are very warm and accepting. We are all from a variety backgrounds and there are a lot of husband and wife combos, and I also think that the profile of women in the industry has grown over the years, which I think is great. For me personally, I was always trying to make sure I was being an involved mom and running a brewery at the same time.
EJA: How is New Belgium Brewing doing now and can you give us any prospective on its future?
KJ: We got a temporary certificate of occupancy for our brewery in Asheville, North Carolina, so, that is very exciting because that means pretty soon we will be getting that brewery up and running, and by sometime in the first quarter of this year we will be making saleable beer. Over the years we will be working to partner with other craft brewers, I would describe it like a cooperative, where we have distinct and separate beers regionally, but we work together. Brewing is capital intensive business and in order to make it possible for people to have production capacity in other parts of the country I see us partnering in developing a plan with friends for a different kind of model for craft brewers. It would be combined equities between the groups, brew in each others breweries, and buying raw materials collectively.
So there you have it, another American success story within a revolution, a craft beer revolution. Cheers to the leader of a mega-successful, environmentally active and employee-owned brewing company.