Joe Sixpack: Fat Tire is rolling slowly toward Pennsylvania

Posted: August 23, 2013

SOMEDAY, Fat Tire, the enormously popular amber ale from Colorado, will be available in Pennsylvania. Not this year, and probably not next.

But soon enough, New Belgium Brewing Co.'s flagship will shoulder its way in among the 6,229 brands already registered for sale in the Keystone State.

First, it hits the shelves next door, in Delaware.

Its slow, deliberate rollout this week in one of the nation's smallest states underscores the challenge that the brewery faces as it tries to establish a foothold in the heavily populated Northeast.

Namely: How to encourage beer drinkers to focus on a newcomer when so many other brands already have their attention.

Now, Fat Tire is not one of those trendy, new-age hybrids made by some dude in a garage.

It's a well-regarded brand from a brewery with a very solid, progressive reputation. New Belgium is huge on conservation, and it's now 100 percent employee-owned.

It's no pipsqueak, either. The brewery is bigger than Goose Island and Deschutes and Shiner, to name three out-of-towners who recently made big splashes when they jumped into the local pool. The label is the fifth-biggest craft seller in America, behind only Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and three Sam Adams varieties.

And that's despite sales in just 33 states.

So, it already has a very loyal following out west. And now it's eyeing the East.

The company is building a second brewery in Asheville, N.C., that is slated to open at the end of 2015. Its president, Kim Jordan, told the craft-beer business website Brewbound.com that she expects Fat Tire to be in all 50 states by 2018.

First, the First State

According to Tim Donnelly, president and CEO of N.K.S. Distributors Inc. - the New Castle wholesaler that is handling sales in Delaware - New Belgium conducted a "white-glove market survey" before it decided to enter the state.

He said that two or three teams from the brewery's headquarters in Fort Collins visited the area for two weeks, conducting interviews with retailers and beer drinkers while mining sales and demographic data.

Like any new brand, New Belgium will find an instant audience among the curious. Indeed, many Easterners have already enjoyed Fat Tire during travel to the Rockies and have been itching to buy it locally.

"I've been in the business 27 years, and I have never seen a new product with this much excitement," Donnelly said.

New Belgium is capitalizing on that excitement with commemorative labels in each state it enters. In Delaware, bottles of Fat Tire declare, "First Time in the First State."

Rather than flooding Delaware with suds, according to N.K.S. craft and specialty manager John Leyh, New Belgium will initially deliver only six of its more than 25 brands: Fat Tire, Ranger IPA, Rampant Imperial IPA, Trippel and a pair from its Lips of Faith series in 24-ounce bombers, plus Shift Pale Lager in cans. No draft or seasonal flavors until October, and no 12-ounce bottles until after that.

"Their philosophy is that $3.99 for one bomber is not as much of an investment as $8.99 for a sixpack," Leyh said.

With a brewery as large as New Belgium, however, the trick is to turn ever-fickle craft-beer lovers into loyal, repeat customers.

That's a tough row to hoe in the Northeast, where the shelves are already groaning with strong regional brands, including Victory, Dogfish Head, Flying Dog, Harpoon, Saranac, Brooklyn and Magic Hat. Meanwhile, Sierra Nevada and Oskar Blues (with new breweries in North Carolina) and Lagunitas (in Chicago) are pushing eastward, too.

New Belgium spokesman Bryan Simpson says his company can attract a following by "being true to who we are and hoping that resonates." That means emphasizing the corporate image as an iconoclastic do-gooder while producing "playful" beers, including hop monsters, quirky Belgians and barrel-aged varieties.

But those styles represent only a small fraction of New Belgium's sales. For a company that's spending $100 million on East Coast brewery construction, success rests on its top seller, Fat Tire.

So get ready for billboards, neon signs and that rarity among craft brewers, TV commercials, because Fat Tire is rolling up I-95. But it can't get to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and beyond without rolling through Delaware.


"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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