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Posted: July 01, 2009

State of the state: Fat Tire on a roll in 25 states

The country’s third-biggest craft brewer has ambitious plans for its small-batch brews

Jay Dedrick

Fat Tire’s tracks are stretching farther beyond Fort Collins than ever.

Earlier this year, New Belgium Brewing began first-time distribution in five states – Georgia, Indiana, Wisconsin, South Dakota and North Carolina — with a sixth, South Carolina, joining the lineup June 1. That makes a total of 25 states where New Belgium offers its brews, including the flagship amber ale Fat Tire.

With half the states in the country accounted for, the country’s third-biggest craft brewer looks to have big plans in store for its small-batch brews. And in the craft-brew world, there’s always a question of whether too much, too fast is a danger.

“On the outside looking in, the growth seems fast,” says Bryan Simpson, media relations director for New Belgium. “But we take a measured approach to growth. We always want to make sure the markets we’re already in are being serviced. Before we made this recent push, we brought on our new packaging line, which gives us an 850,000 barrel capacity. This year, we’re on target for 500,000 barrels.”

That increased production capacity was put in place two years ago, Simpson notes. So it’s not as if the brewer immediately leapt at the chance to blanket the country with beer.

“We tend to look at markets we’re adjacent to, so we’re not hop-scotching states,” Simpson says. “We look at markets where there’s interest. As people become more enlightened to craft beer, they also become more curious about the different brands that are out there.”

Fat Tire is the brewery’s greatest ambassador, but 1554 and Mothership Wit are making the trek into these new markets, too. And the brands’ reputation clearly preceded the products arriving on store shelves and at restaurant bars.

“North Carolina was surprisingly strong, way ahead of our forecast,” Simpson says. “That was our first time hitting the Eastern seaboard. Sometimes you don’t know if a brand still resonates in a geographic area, but that validated it for us. People who are aware of the brand will rally around it when it arrives.”

Despite excitement over New Belgium’s reach now stretching from coast to coast, Simpson says brewery brass will continue to engage in conversations aimed at determining, “How big is too big?” One model that New Belgium is big on: teaming with other independent craft brewers to brew each other’s products – and collaborate on new ones – while gaining entry into new markets. The first such team-up came last year with Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Co.

“We feed off each other’s creativity while minimizing our footprint,” Simpson says. “Those are the ways you can still gain market without sacrificing values.”

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