Kim Jordan: The Woman Behind Fat Tire Beer

New Belgium’s CEO is changing the way Americans drink beer.

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It doesn’t matter that the CEO of New Belgium, Kim Jordan, is 1,200 miles away from the company’s headquarters in Fort Collins, Colo. Willdfires in Colorado have destroyed the homes of three employees and displaced 15 more, and New Belgium is rallying to help.

Using the company’s intranet, employees are offering homeless coworkers a place to stay and giving clothes to fire victims. The brewery is donating money, HR is allowing workers to donate directly from their paychecks and a refrigerated truck has been made available to keep food from spoiling.

It’s a testament to the company that Jordan has built – one that reflects her values – that she doesn’t need to direct the effort so much as monitor it.

New Belgium, maker of Fat Tire, is notable for all kinds of reasons.

It’s phenomenally successful – the third-largest craft brewer in the US and the largest American brewery run by a woman. Its annual gross revenue is more than $120 million, and in 2015 it will expand east with an $80-100 million brewery in North Carolina.

But it’s also a caring company – the 400-plus employees have equity in the company. And it’s a proud environmental steward.

When Jordan launched the company in 1991 with her then-husband Jeff Lebesch (who has since left the company), all she wanted to do was sell Belgian-style beer to people in Colorado. As it was, she spearheaded a revolution in the way Americans drink beer.

Today, the beer industry is going through huge changes.

Giants like Budweiser are watching sales slip as some 2,000 craft brewers gain market share by introducing new, flavorful, sometimes off-the-wall beers. Five percent of Americans over 21 have had a craft beer in the last 30 days, a number that might sound small at first, but represents explosive growth in the stodgy beer world. And the fastest-growing market of craft beer drinkers? Women.

DAME raises a glass with quite literally, the biggest woman in beer.


The Kim Jordan Interview

On behalf of the world, thank you for Fat Tire.


How do you explain Fat Tire’s popularity?

We started early in the craft beer timeline, so there was that. I think one of the things I’ve come to understand is the iconic power of the bicycle (logo). I think Fat Tire is exceptionally well-balanced. It’s not overly hoppy, and it’s not overly malty. And I also think, phonetically, the name, it rolls off the tongue.

Do you see New Belgium as spearheading a revolution in American brewing?

We have our shoulder to the wheel along with a lot of other great brewers.

You not only complete with craft brewers, you compete with Budweiser and Miller. They’re sneaky. Their “craft” beers such as Shock Top and Blue Moon don’t say Budweiser or Miller on the label.

Shock Top has big billboards in Fort Collins that say, “Shock Top Belgian White Ale, Made in Fort Collins, Colorado,” because there’s a Budweiser plant in Fort Collins. Its logo looks a little bit like ours. We use a round logo and a round mark for all of our Fat Tire and friends beers. Shock Top is round. It’s kind of a similar color scheme. A lot of people don’t know that Blue Moon is made by Coors, and they want it that way.

Why do the big brewers hide their identity when they release a craft style beer?

They think, and they probably have good reason to, that there is a move towards smaller and local and more craft and they think if it’s Shock Top by Budweiser, that people are going to say, “Oh, I want to buy something from New Belgium instead.”

How did being a social worker and a mother prepare you to run a brewery?

Social work is a very generalist discipline and it has roots in systems thinking. It’s probably so ingrained that it’s hard for me to tease it out. The mom part is really more about having empathy for people that I work with, balancing the myriad needs of the company, our coworkers and their families.

What is it like being one of the few women in such a male-dominated field?

I think in the craft segment, most men are modern in their thinking about women. The one area is balancing being a mom. I go to industry events with my nine male coworkers and they’ll say, “We came in yesterday and we went golfing and we’re staying an extra day to golf on the other side.” I say, “That’s nice. I’m leaving on the redeye so that I can put my kids to bed. And I’m coming back the minute this thing is over with so I can be there when they wake up.” It burns a lot of energy. I don’t regret any of it. I’ve been able to manage it all with the support of my coworkers, but it is a challenge sometimes.

Where does your passion for beer come from?

I have always been a beer drinker. One of the things I love about beer is that it’s just, on a very pragmatic level, it’s something that you can drink and you don’t get out of control if you’re being moderate. As a brewer, I like that we are part of an ancient craft, one of the oldest industries in mankind’s history. We make something that can’t be offshored and it gives people an opportunity to ply a trade and use their heads and their hands and their hearts. I really didn’t understand that in the beginning, but I’m really delighted by that.

What do you say to the notion that men drink beer and women drink wine?

That’s gone by the wayside. Women are the fastest growing segment of the craft beer marketplace and there are lots of women beer-drinking groups that get together now because there are all kinds of different flavors. So people can have Jasmine IPA or the whole spectrum of beers. I’m not trying to imply that women would only want flower beers, but craft beer has a spectrum of flavor that allows something for everyone. It is a local artisanal endeavor and I think that appeals to women as well.

As a brewer, I like that we are part of an ancient craft. We make something that can’t be offshored and it gives people an opportunity to ply a trade and use their heads and their hands and their hearts.Kim Jordan

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