The cofounder of New Belgium Brewing Company talks to 5280 about the growth of her Fort Collins-based business, her favorite beers, and why Colorado is the center of the craft beer industry.
Social worker Kim Jordan and her ex-husband, Jeff Lebesch, founded New Belgium Brewing Company in the basement of their Fort Collins home in 1991. Under Jordan's leadership, New Belgium has become the United States' third-largest craft brewer. Here, Jordan talks about the growth of New Belgium, her favorite beers, and why Colorado is the center of the craft brewing industry.
Our timing was very good when we started the brewery. Jeff had been a home brewer for many years—New Belgium was his vision. Since I was a social worker, I did the sales and marketing, and he did the brewing.
Craft brewing was just starting to grow then. Our attention to high-quality beer was very important, as was our branding. Very early on, we had codified what we wanted to be as a company and how we wanted it to be run. As we became more sophisticated, we were able to expand that notion.
In the beginning, we had four guiding principles: to produce world-class beer, to promote beer culture, to be environmental stewards, and to have fun. There was no mention of coworkers or customers, because back then we didn't have any!
Anne Fitch, an artist who lived next to us in our first house, has designed all our labels. We wanted her to do some beer labels for our wedding, and then she started designing labels for our brewery. When we put the bicycle on the label of Fat Tire, we had no idea how many people had a deep-seated love of the bicycle. It's become a huge part of our company.
We've grown to 350 employees, and one of the worries my coworkers have is losing the New Belgium community. I always tell them that if they want community, you have to work for it. It's not something that management can do; it's a group process. And they've done a stellar job at it.
At moments when you get really worried about how things are going, remind oneself that where you are is where you are supposed to be. That doesn't mean you can't make significant changes—you've just found yourself in a place where you want to make change. Life is a long-term process.
Being a social worker and a CEO are not really different skill sets. In social work, you learn about relationships within the system. And that's very similar to being a CEO. You have to understand the greater system and to have a little bit of information about a lot of things.
My favorite beer? It kind of depends on my mood and the weather. If it's hot and sunny, I like Mothership Wit. During the winter, I'm a big fan of Abbey. I also really enjoy the seasonals like Hoptober and Mighty Arrow. And, of course, I have a fondness for Fat Tire.
Fat Tire is named for the bike my husband, Jeff, was riding through Belgium when he was inspired to start brewing Belgian-style beers at home. People tried to talk us out of the name, but we're glad we stuck with it.
The craft brewing industry is full of people who tend to be innovative in their approach to business. They like to do things their own way.
Colorado has become a center for craft brewing because we have a highly educated population of people who have visited other places and countries, and who want to try new things.
We also have great water here—that helps to make great beer.