Beer Man

What is it about Fat Tire that drives East Coast beer drinkers wild? has declared Fat Tire Amber Ale America's Next Top Beer. The web page - a New York City-based AOL men's interest site - had held a voter-driven contest to determine what beer should be in coolers from coast to coast.

Fat Tire won in a landslide, beating out second place San Diego County-based Stone Brewing's pale ale in a landslide.

It was a strange designation for a number of reasons:

*Fort Collins-based New Belgium Brewing is already the country's third largest craft brewer, and Fat Tire is its flagship beer, so it became a "top beer" years ago.

*New Belgium currently distributes in 26 states and has no plans to add more in the near future, says New Belgium's liquid center manager Tyler Foos. "We're already coast to coast," he points out, adding that the brewery was nevertheless honored.

*The contest included several beers that are much more challenging to drink - including Lagunita IPA, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA and Surly Brewing's Furious Vote -- and some that are distributed so locally - like Akron, Ohio's Hoppin' Frog B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher Oatmeal-Imperial Stout and Cigar City Brewing Jai Alai IPA -- that they could never become the nation's next top beer - at least not in the next year.

*And lastly, said Fat Tire was an underdog. "A write-in candidate buried amidst a field of expertly selected gold medal brews, Fat Tire was brought to the table by user comments, and carried through the nomination round by its ardent fan base."

This last point about the beer's "ardent fan base" brings up an interesting phenomenon when it comes to Fat Tire: its status as a cult beer.

Though some call it a "gateway beer" for drinkers switching from mass-produced pilsners to craft brews, and others take issue with New Belgium's earthy flavors - I've heard its beers described as tasting like dirt or dirty socks - there's no denying demand. (Click here for Westword's list of 50 Colorado Beers to Drink Before You Die, and a discussion of Fat Tire in the comments.)

In fact, Washington Post blogger Fritz Hahn recently called it "the most fetishized beer on the East Coast." While it's as common as yellow labs in Colorado, you can't buy Fat Tire anywhere east of Indiana or north of North Carolina, and beer lovers in Fat Tire-less Florida constantly badger the company with demands for distribution in their state, Foos says. They crave Fat Tire as much as Coloradans crave Trader Joe's.

The devotion of fanatics to their Fat Tire is astounding. And this enthusiasm is reminiscent of another Colorado beer with an unusual flavor.

In 1981, Coors finally began distributing east of the Mississippi. But in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, demand for Rocky Mountain Spring Water inspired near-fervor on the East Coast and in the South. Beer lovers there would set out for Colorado with empty car trunks and return with case upon case of yellow-canned Banquet Beer.

In a 2007 press release, the company itself touted this phenomenon: "Coors built a cult following, with Presidents, movie stars and consumers toting the beer back from Colorado or making special trips to buy the uniquely crisp and drinkable beer."

"I grew up in Wisconsin, and I was told stories about that from my father's friends," Foos says of Coors. Now people tell Foos similar stories about Fat Tire. "A few summers ago, when gas prices were so high, people were still talking about how they'd driven 1,000 miles to go find it or detoured 400 miles out of their way," he says.

"When we rolled out Minneapolis a couple of years ago, a little old lady was sitting on a cooler outside a liquor store at 4 a.m. knitting, waiting for us," he adds. "We get guys who show up at the brewery and want to buy a palette of beer. And we find out they are from a state where we don't distribute. Every time I hear it, it's still humbling."

Fat Tire plans to hold steady - for now - at 26 states, primarily because it doesn't want to grow too fast. "We're doing as much as we can to supply all the beer that our current footprint can handle. We want to be sustainable," Foos says. New Belgium added distribution in six new states just last year: Indiana, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina, South Carolina and the Atlanta area.

The company is even flirting with the idea of opening up a second production facility - in California! - although Foos says no decisions have made regarding that path.

So why do people love Fat Tire so much? Foos, who is in charge of "tastings and tours, and inspiring people overall" at New Belgium, says it's simply style. "Fat Tire is an amber ale, but it's a Belgian-style amber ale." Plenty of U.S. breweries make amber ales, but most of them are closer in style to IPAs, he explains. Fat Tire's strength comes from the way it balances malt characteristics with the hops, giving it biscuity flavors.

America's Next Top Beer? Maybe, but Florida will have to wait.

Find Westword's Beer Man on Twitter at @ColoBeerMan.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes

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