I really yearn to like New Belgium's beers. The labels are pretty, the styles are interesting, the company is philanthropic and green, and they have a Belgian brewer. Alas, that makes them a lot like Starbucks*--cool company, poor brew. I've worked my way through most of their beers in the past few years, and I'm always disappointed. They are underwhelming echoes of the classic styles they were inspired by.
But New Belgium didn't found its craft brewing empire on their interpretation of Frambozen or Abbey Ale. It is the company that Fat Tire built, and the company will be riding Fat Tire, good or ill, to the end. In 2005, New Belgium was the 13th largest brewery in the country, and the third-largest craft brewer, making about 33% more beer than Widmer, Oregon's largest. That's a lot of Fat Tire.
Sometime in the past three or four years, New Belgium decided it wanted a piece of Oregon's market, and it spent an enormous amount of money trying to get shelf and tap space. It appears the effort has been only partly successful--after displacing regional ambers for a time, New Belgium has given back a lot of shelf space and tap handles to Full Sail and Mactarnahan's. They may do decent business, but I don't think Oregon is the pot of gold NB hoped.
But before we get to the review, let me confess that I've always found this beer insipid and have, I think far from uniquely, taken to calling it "Flat Tire." I am, nevertheless, a trained beer-tasting professional and when I sat down to taste this beer, wiped my biases clean.**
Fat Tire pours out a brackish amber, with a quickly-dissipating head. The color is honey/amber, but strangely murky, as if by hop haze (foolsgold, of course). I pick up the briefest caramelly malt note in the nose, with possibly a hint of citrus.
Malt is Fat Tire's central flavor, backed by a creamy mouthfeel. Hops add a single flavor note, the same citrus you might detect in the nose, which draw out the sweetness of the malt. That's really all there is. If the brewery is like Starbucks, then Fat Tire is like that Charlie Sheen sitcom--a perfectly mainstream product without the character to inspire love or hate. It is a wholly inoffensive beer. What more to say?
The label promises that the beer's "appeal is in its feat of balance: toasty, biscuit-like malt flavors coasting in equalibrium with hoppy freshness." A friend of mine sitting at the table as I took notes offered a rebuttal: "it's weird and tinny and stale and gross. It would not be a beer I'd be proud of."
The truth lies somewhere between: Fat Tire will satisfy none of the beer drinkers who find delight in robust, characterful, hoppy Oregon beers. (The brewer, Peter Bouckaert, in describing how to brew a clone of this beer to Brew Your Own magazine, cautioned: "don't use Cascade or other overpowering hops." Cascades, gentle and aromatic, are the most common and beloved hops in Oregon ales.) But neither will they dump out their bottle.
It's a beer of a kind that get brewed across the globe: a mainstream product so lacking in character you forget you're drinking it.
Unavailable. Apparently Bouckaert regards his recipe as a state secret. He can keep it.
*Starbucks, for those who think their nine million stores are only a soul-destroying yuppie huts, is actually a cool company. They give their workers benefits and buy coffee from farmers. Sadly, their product is a thin gruel of over-roasted bitterness.
**No, I don't believe it, either.