Bold New Territories

Jim Miller

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One of New Belgium’s major players, Rich Rush, offers some insight into the brewing giant’s operations—and suggests a few beers you should sip this summer

 

One of New Belgium’s major players, Rich Rush, offers some insight into the brewing giant’s operations—and suggests a few beers you should sip this summer

Rich Rush knows more than his fair share about beer. In just 12 years at New Belgium Brewing Co., Rush has worked his way up from representing the product in a handful of Southern California counties to overseeing sales in nearly half a continent.

For someone who covers that much territory—19 states, plus D.C., and, oh yeah, the entirety of Canada—you might be surprised to hear that Rush lives happily in the quaint suburbs of Middletown, Delaware. According to New Belgium’s sale director for the East Coast & Canada, living in the First State is both comfortable and convenient.

In fact, as we speak on the phone, Rush is driving to Philadelphia Airport to take an easy 45-minute flight to Toronto, where he recently closed what he calls a “pretty big deal.” “As far as I know it’s the first of its kind deal,” Rush says, with almost youthful zeal.

He’s being humble. Turns out it’s a giant deal.

“We’ve kind of become a local beer up in Canada now,” Rush says. “So there’s a lot of advantages. We’ll be priced cheaper than other American crafts, who are paying tariffs to get over the border, paying an agency fee, paying additional freight just to get the beer from the U.S. to Canada.”

“Plus, there’s also the advantage of the beer hitting the market being just a week old instead of three or four weeks old by the time it gets up there,” he says. “So, we think it gives us a major advantage.”

Sounds like an incredible advantage. It also sounds like a magic trick. Just how did Rush and Colorado-based New Belgium manage to work around all the red tape and become a “local beer” north of the 49th parallel?

Call it a creative partnership.

Rush and New Belgium outmaneuvered the competition by selling New Belgium’s licensing rights to Toronto’s Steam Whistle Brewery, which brews a pilsner that just happens to be the single largest craft brand in Canada.

Turns out Steam Whistle just bought a new brewery and was looking to fill to its capacity—like many brewers are doing nowadays. In short, Steam Whistle needed to brew more beer to justify its recent purchase.

“I’ve known these guys for about two years now,” Rush says. “There are a lot of synergies and common philosophies between the companies: environmental, renewable energy, water conservation and purification.”

It sounds like a match made in heaven. The deal gives the brewing giants on either side of the border a big win: New Belgium gets the licensing fees bolstered by a local Canadian sales force that took Steam Whistle’s pilsner to the top-selling spot in the country, while Steam Whistle expands its portfolio by gaining a popular American craft it can sell cheaper than all other U.S. imports.

It’s this kind of clever forward-thinking that has been a trademark for New Belgium since the brewery opened in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1991. From social issues and environmental causes to simply making consistently memorable beer, New Belgium has been, in a word, smart.

Similarly, we asked Rush to use just one word to describe the New Belgium beers you should try this summer. And in a few more words, he elaborated on the spirit of New Belgium and its legacy.

Here’s what he had to say:

O&A: So let’s talk about some summer beers that New Belgium offers in Delaware. Can you describe the following beers using just one word, then explain why you chose that word?

Rush: Sure

O&A: Let’s start with the most obvious: Fat Tire Amber Ale. What word would you use to describe that beer and why?

Rush: I’d say versatile just because it’s for any occasion; it pairs well with any kind of food you’re going to eat. It’s a warm weather beer; it’s a cold weather beer. Fat Tire, for me, is a staple that’s always in my fridge year-round. It goes with any occasion, any food, any time.

O&A: That’s a good answer. We’re off to a good start. Let’s go next to the Citradelic IPA.

Rush: I’d say dangerous. It drinks so easy. I know for me, personally, I tend to forget that its 6 percent ABV. It’ll sneak up on you. It’s that delicious.

New Belgium’s Mural Agua Fresca Cerveza. Photo courtesy of New Belgium Brewing Co.

O&A: Let’s talk about one of the new ones: Mural Agua Fresca Cerveza. That’s a 4 percent ABV, and it says here that it features hibiscus, agave, watermelon and lime. What word would you use to describe that one?

Rush: I just think fun. It’s such a fun beer because, obviously you can drink it by itself, right? But it’s also an amazing mixer. I like using it to make margaritas instead of sweet and sour mix. And that’s delicious.

There are a lot of cocktails you can make using Mural. My wife will make mimosas with them, so instead of orange juice with the Champagne or Prosecco, she’ll top it off with Mural. There’s so much more you can do with that beer than anything else we’ve ever done. Had I not said versatile with Fat Tire, I would have said it for Mural.

This beer—everyone seems to like it. Women like it. Younger drinkers like it. And, like I said, cocktail drinkers like it because they use it as a mixer for cocktails. You can just do so much with that beer.

O&A: What about the Voodoo Ranger Juicifer IPA?

Rush: Juicifer, whew! Yeah, that one is trouble. Even more so than Citradelic. Just another big tropical, juicy IPA that does not drink as it should for as high as its ABV is. I actually had one of those in my cooler when we went to our pool a couple of weekends ago. Fat Tire you can drink any time of day, but I don’t recommend drinking Juicifers out on the boat or by the pool when it’s 90 degrees.

O&A: It says here its 7.7 ABV.

Rush: Yeah, delicious beer, but you gotta watch that one or it’ll get you in trouble. That’s more of an evening beer for me.

O&A: What is it about Fort Collins that made it a suitable fit for New Belgium? It seems to me what’s happened with New Belgium isn’t unique in the sense of a brewery becoming bigger, but it is unique in that is was ahead of the curve in some of the social aspects, including community outreach and their environmental initiatives. Is that fair to say?

Rush: I think so. You see it today with Budweiser, for instance. They’re really getting behind solar. They now have the largest solar installation of any brewery. You see a lot of breweries getting behind it now or within the last five years. But that was something that from day one, back in 1991, when we first started that Kim Jordan, our founder, made a priority.

The other thing that I give Kim a lot of credit for is that she got behind the ESOP [Employee Stock Ownership Plan] thing very early on. I believe 38 percent of the company was owned by employees up until 2012, and that’s when Kim sold the entirety of the company to the employees. So now we are 100 percent employee owned.

I think the sustainability aspect, the philanthropy aspect, and the employee-ownership aspect—all those things—really resonate with people. If you talk to any of our fans, they seem to get very excited about those three pillars for sure.

O&A: It is interesting to see how the company was started and was an early adopter of all these important initiatives, not to mention having a founder who is a female, which may be more common nowadays, but probably wasn’t happening a lot in the early ‘90s.

Rush: No, and Kim talks about that a lot—the early years— how she’d be at the Craft Brewers Conference or the Brewers Association Conference and, literally, she’d be the only woman there. And there was a long time then where she sat on a lot of those boards, and again, she was the only woman out of 30 people on the board representing the Brewers Association.

She was definitely ahead of her time. She’s been a trailblazer for sure.

O&A: What is it in the DNA of New Belgium that you feel will help you achieve continued success moving forward?

Rush: As far as what we’ve done well, I think we’ve done a good job of keeping a singular focus on brewing good beer. Some companies I think spread themselves too thin with other products branching off of beer, whether it be seltzers, ciders, teas or maybe they get into craft spirits. But I think we’ve kept a singular focus. From day one our mission statement has been to brew world-class beer, and I think we’ve stayed true to that.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.