New Belgium Brewing will let a little bit of air out of Fat Tire this fall when it releases a lower-alcohol version of its flagship amber ale in packages for the first time. The beer will be 4 percent alcohol by volume, or 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, meaning it can be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores in Colorado, Kansas and Utah, and eventually in Oklahoma.
The real impetus for 3.2 Fat Tire, though, was to get it on draft in bars in Utah, which has limits on stronger beer, says New Belgium spokesman Bryan Simpson. “We wanted to provide better access to our beer both on- and off-premise in Utah,” he explains in an e-mail, adding that the state does allow packaged-beer sales of full-strength beer, but only in state-run package stores. “The beer is warm-stored, and there is a considerable markup associated with this.”
Since the company was already brewing the beer, New Belgium decided it made sense to package it for supermarkets. The lower-alcohol version will be sold in six-pack and twelve-pack bottles and in twelve-pack cans beginning October 1.
“We’ve actually made 3.2 percent versions of Fat Tire for festivals where that was required, so we know we can get a good flavor match,” Simpson says. “This helps open up some opportunities in states where 3.2 percent sales are happening.”
New Belgium is opening a new production brewery in Asheville, North Carolina, next year, which will give the Fort Collins-based company enough capacity in Colorado to take on the project, he adds. “It’s pretty much as simple as that.”
Supermarket and convenience-store chains are only allowed to sell full-strength beer, wine and spirits at one location in Colorado. Although these companies have been trying for years to get the laws changed, so far they haven’t been able to convince lawmakers. Next year, they may take the issue directly to voters with a ballot initiative.
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Craft brewers and independently owned liquor stores have fought the effort, saying a change would put many of them out of business or affect them significantly.
In many states across the country, however, supermarket sales are the norm, and most craft brewers value them as a significant part of their business. “We do a lot of business in grocery chains across the country. They are important partners and critical to our planning,” Simpson says. And while most craft brewers in Colorado are outspoken in their opposition to supermarkets and convenience stores being allowed to sell full-strength, New Belgium – the largest craft brewer in Colorado and third largest nationwide – appears to be taking a more measured approach.
“It’s not really our place to decide whether or not full-strength beer makes it into supermarkets,” Simpson says. Still, he points out that “the independent liquor stores in Colorado gave us our start and helped us grow. Those are our partners and friends. Other states have different models and we do quite a bit of business with those folks as well. We are super-appreciative of all our partners’ efforts and hard work over the years.”