Interview: Bryan Simpson of New Belgium Brewing Company

Beer makers who support cycling across the US

The New Belgium Brewing Company are well known across the US for their Fat Tire amber ale, and their financial donations to the bike-focused non-profit and advocacy world have further endeared them to cyclists.

New Belgium’s official mission statement reads: “To operate a profitable brewery which makes our love and talent manifest.” This proclamation is followed by a list of 10 core values and beliefs that begins with creating a product that enhances people's lives and ends with having fun.

Somewhere in between is a fundamental aim to kindle social, environmental and cultural change. One way the New Belgium Brewery have chosen to reach this goal is through cycling. “It's always been a part of who we are,” says Bryan Simpson, the company's media relations director. “We try to minimise our impact at every turn and cycling, beyond being healthful and fun, has a positive impact on communities and the environment.”

New Belgium have been based in Fort Collins, Colorado since 1989 when Jeff Lebesch, along with his wife and CEO Kim Jordan, rode a fat-tyred bike through Belgium collecting ingredients that would later be used to create one of the most established and profitable craft breweries in the US.

Today, they not only make some of the best brews in the nation but have maintained their two-wheel heritage by giving back to the cycling community. They have supported a series of non-profit organisations since 2001 through their ‘Tour de Fat’ – an 11-city philanthropic fundraiser that has raised more than $1.5 million – and recently expanded their giving to larger grants of up to $10,000. Last year, they donated $490,000 to non-profit programmes in 20 states.

The Tour de Fat has raised more than $1.5 million for cycling communities throughout the US

Furthermore, the company have earned platinum status with the League of American Bicyclists’ Bike-Friendly Businesses for their work with local and international advocacy groups through donation, event sponsorship and local grant programmes.

At the end of 2009 there were more than 100 companies included in the Bike-Friendly Businesses. Only four were added to the highest platinum ranking: the New Belgium Brewery Company along with Bicycle Sport Shop in Austin, Texas, Bike Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and Quality Bicycle Products in Bloomington, Minnesota.

”We believe you can make change in your community one bike at a time,” Simpson said. “We review grant submissions and allocate funding based on need and mission of each organisation.”

New Belgium recently became sponsors of One Street, a global bicycle advocacy organisation whose Social Bike Business Program serves to build new cycling centres in Nevada and Arizona. The scheme is designed to offer and create well-paying jobs along with schooling and training to people struck by poverty.

They also gave Trip for Kids a $30,000 capacity-building grant. The non-profit is based in Marin, California and has expanded to 65 chapters throughout the US, Canada and Israel. It organises day-long cycling trips for disadvantaged youths.

New Belgium's brew house

United States Bicycle Route System

Another recent grant was the $30,000 awarded to the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA), to be spread over two years and put toward the United States Bicycle Route System (USBRS). The proposed network will be the largest of its kind in the world, next to the European Cyclists’ Federation's EuroVelo, and will promote cycling as a primary and not an alternative form of transportation.

“We appreciate the fact that this national effort will have great local impact as well, making cycling safer by connecting communities and designating best routes,” Simpson said. "Adventure Cycling's US Bicycle Route System proposal stood out because it works to connect communities and create a safer, more bike-friendly environment nationwide. We're excited to be able to contribute in whatever way we can to make this project a reality."

The Montana-based organisation have been working on the structure of the cycling network for four years. They propose a series of well marked and signed routes that are a combination of roads, trails and paths. The network will allow cyclists to ride their bikes across the country and between states.

“Some routes will be on existing routes, on and off road, and some will involve construction of new routes,” said Winona Batman, Adventure Cycling Association's media director. “It’s not a centralised process. Cost is state by state and depends on what its existing infrastructure looks like and what improvements each state decides to make. It will be like the inner-state system we have for cars; it will be an inner-state system for bikes going from urban, suburban and rural networks.”

Striving for environmental stewardship and being ‘alternatively empowered’

The New Belgium Brewery make nine year-round beers and many more seasonal tipples but their passion is for more than just beer. They pride themselves on being environmental stewards and 'alternatively empowered'.

“These are critical, they are our core values and beliefs,” says Simpson. “They are a big part of our decision making and they always have been to minimise impact. So long as you are making something that has waste, you have a responsibility to minimise that waste and that has been a driving factor for us.”

As well as the Tour de Fat, they are well known for their Team Wonderbike, Urban Assault Ride and Bike-In Cinema campaigns. These encourage the public to consider new ways to take care of the environment, use natural resources and reduce dependence on coal-fired electricity.

New Belgium's staff have a strong commitment to green practices

“Tour de Fat is adding two new cities this year, Los Angeles and Milwaukee, so that will continue to grow,” says Simpson. “Commuter cycling has made great inroads in the last couple of years and hopefully we won't see backslide as the recession ebbs, such as everybody jumps back in their cars because gas is cheap again and trucks and SUVs become cool again.”

The New Belgium Brewery describes itself as 'alternatively empowered', which according to its website means "making business decisions based on minimising environmental impact, encouraging the growth of our employee ownership and being a socially responsible contributor to our community".

“Alternatively empowered is a new phrase for us and we liked how those two words together sounded,” says Simpson. “It means thinking outside the box. You can make decisions that are small on a day-to-day basis but cumulatively it has a big impact. As an individual you can make small changes on a daily basis and when a lot of people are doing that together then its accumulative effect has great benefits and we see cycling as a big part of that.”

The brewing process is now more efficient following the installation a new brew kettle called the Steinecker Merlin that boils twice as fast and saves energy. Green design is used throughout the building, which features wood from pine trees killed by mountain beetles, environmentally friendly lighting and evaporative coolers instead of air conditioning compressors.

Other examples of alternatives include treating waste water and on-site energy production in the form of wind-powered electricity. New Belgium donate one percent of their revenue to environmental non-profits and host sustainable events that use solar panels for energy and compostable cups made from plant materials, the most earth-friendly form of plastic, to serve beer.

The brewery’s commitment to the environment does not stop there. They have a series of environmentally friendly projects in the works that include a database to track the source of all their packaging, plans to implement more on-site energy generators, a no-idling policy at their docks and plans for a 30 percent reduction in substation feeders.

So the next time you’re picking up a six-pack in the US, think about the brewers with a social conscience who care about bikes. It’s an obvious choice – they’ve got one on the label!

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