Image credit: Sami Grover
When I got stranded in the mountains of North Carolina last weekend, we checked into a motel to wait out the storm. Fancying a beer, I trudged through the snow to the gas station. Sitting among the Bud Lites and the Millers was a large bottle of New Belgium's Fat Tire. I was surprised (and a little excited). Not being used to finding a TreeHugger favorite in the gas station beer fridge, I figured this was a one off. But on arrival in Indiana—which as I mentioned earlier this week, involved stepping outside our political comfort zone—we noticed that Fat Tire was everywhere here too. Conservative and liberal friends alike arrived brandishing the aforementioned brew, and more than one strip-mall bar had Fat Tire on tap. So what's going on? And is this a good thing for green beer lovers? New Belgium Brewing Company has long been in our good books—from turning waste water into cash, to wind-powered energy efficient beer brewing, to working to bike more—these guys are serious when it comes to sustainability.
And it's nice to see a company like this doing well in venues across the country that are not just frequented by your traditional, environmentally-aware beer lover. Undoubtedly, the company's success is due in part to a broader interest in sustainability. While most folks are unlikely to buy a beer because it was brewed using wind-power, it is still an interesting point of differentiation from the competition. As my friend and colleague Jerry Stifelman said in a guest post some time back, just because it saves the world, that doesn't make it popular—but all else being equal, it does make it more interesting.
Mostly, Fat Tire is just a really good beer. In that sense, New Belgium has joined a small but growing rank of mainstream brands that create popular, widely available product, and just happen to also be deeply and profoundly mission driven. From Ben and Jerry's to Patagonia to Clif Bar, there are plenty of brands out there that appeal to mainstream consumers, many of whom don't even realize they are buying green.
And while shopping alone will not stop global warming, or reverse our unsustainable ways, as long as we live in a consumer culture, those consumers may as well be buying from organizations that promote renewable energy, slash energy use, support sustainable agriculture, and encourage greener transportation.
As this market segment grows, these brands also provide an increasingly vocal counterbalance to the dinosaur "business as usual" contingent, and inspiration for business leaders looking for a better way. As witnessed by the International Chamber of Commerce distancing itself from the US Chamber's climate antics, businesses everywhere are realizing that inaction on climate change is not an option. The success of brands like New Belgium can only help hasten this transition.
Of course it should be noted that the national availability of Fat Tire doesn't mean it's always the greenest option out there. Given the availability of some great local beers here in Indiana, I'd usually choose a local microbrew over a case shipped from Colorado—wind-powered or not—but increasingly, as my experience at the gas station shows, the choice is between the kind of beer that Monty Python described as "like making love in a canoe" (if you don't get the reference, ask a Python fan. This is a family-friendly website...) or a flavorful, delicious beer from a mission driven company. I know which one I'll be drinking to...