Thinking Small: Former New Belgium Brewmaster Peter Bouckaert Embraces ‘Artful’ Brewing One Barrel At A Time In New Venture Purpose Brewing
By pursuing their ambition and following their heart, Colorado’s Purpose Brewing and Cellars (and the thousands of small and independent breweries like it) play a crucial role in keeping the “craft” in craft beer.
Tom Wilmes 6 months ago
“I’ve never seen art repeated,” Peter Bouckaert says in the course of describing the intent behind Purpose Brewing and Cellars. “Whenever you come in, we want you to be surprised by what’s on tap. Maybe you’re going to love it, maybe you’re going to hate it, but that’s okay because art comes in many forms.”
Given Bouckaert’s twenty-one-year tenure as brewmaster at New Belgium Brewing Company and his influence as a vanguard brewer in the craft-beer movement, odds are that customers will find plenty to appreciate among the beers created at Purpose Brewing, a newly opened nanobrewery in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Bouckaert and his wife, Frezi, are partners with husband-and-wife Zach and Laura Wilson in the venture. As Bouckaert transitions from his high-profile role at New Belgium, the country’s fourth largest craft brewer, he is looking forward to rekindling a more direct connection with the brewers’ art. Rather than striving for scale, repeatability, continuous growth, and market penetration, Purpose Brewing is wholly dedicated to the celebration of beauty—and fleeting beauty, at that.
Batch sizes are miniscule—Bouckaert and Wilson are brewing on a 4-hectoliter system—and distribution will largely be limited to the beers that pass across the bar to customers in the small tasting room. When the lease is up on their current storefront location, the partners plan to establish more permanent roots for Purpose Brewing on a small farm on the outskirts of town where they can grow more of their own ingredients and patrons can enjoy a bucolic atmosphere as they sip beers inspired by the natural setting.
“When you pick up a 6-pack of beer from a liquor store, you’re not necessarily thinking or concerned about what ingredients went into it and where the ingredients came from,” Wilson says. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, but we’re trying to do something that’s maybe a little more similar to a winery, in the sense that it brings the customer just a little bit closer to nature.
“We want to make beers that represent the moment,” he says. “We’re not so much focused on style as on interpretations of what we feel in our hearts. We really hope that we can do justice to the ingredients that we use by turning them into something that’s purely and truly unique. It’s art; it’s not something we can re-create, and we’re okay with that.”
Thanks to Big Beer
In many ways, small-scale resolutely artisanal breweries such as Purpose Brewing would not exist without big beer. The craft-beer movement began with a handful of ambitious homebrewers who built businesses around offering more flavorful and diverse alternatives to mass-produced light lagers. As those breweries grew and helped change consumers’ perceptions about what constitutes American beer, many of those early pioneers grew into the cornerstones of what would become the craft-beer industry. And as craft beer continues to mature and gain market share, much of the focus has shifted to the growing creep of big beer’s influence and investment interest in the industry and the increasingly blurred boundary that distinguishes “craft” from “beer.”
It’s an important distinction to make clear and one that the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade organization dedicated to promoting and protecting small and independent American brewers, is wholly invested in defending. And while the often divisive moves happening at the pinnacles of craft garner the lion’s share of attention, there’s also continued movement happening among the industry’s much broader and dispersed base—among the thousands of small and independent craft breweries that have since appeared in the space opened up by these bigger brewers. That movement illustrates the complicated relationship between commodity and craft and why independent ownership matters.
Consider coffee. For many years and in many American households, coffee came in a vacuum-sealed canister and one brand was more or less interchangeable with the next. Then, as Americans became more affluent and access to more and varied types of coffee increased, tastes changed and became more discriminating.
This shift happened across almost every type of food and beverage as small producers offered up alternatives to the status quo. Some recognized opportunity in this trend and found ways to replicate a more craft-like approach at scale, reaching a much wider audience and accelerating change in the process. But as what was once unique became commonplace, many consumers grew thirsty for new and novel expressions. This in turn has helped create a receptive audience for the next generation of small, independent producers, many of whom are exploring increasingly niche directions and a hyper-local approach as they seek to further differentiate themselves and their craft.
Says Bouckaert, “If you consider when craft beer started, we had gas station coffee. We had Wonder Bread. The pendulum had swung toward something that was perfected and utilitarian—but it didn’t have anything to do with taste.
“Now, thirty or forty years later, we are in a whole different era where we have wines in the United States that people dare to compare on a worldwide scale. We have beer in this country that can easily out-compete anybody in the world. Coffee is probably there. Chocolate. We’re so lucky. We could never have done something like this if Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada were not around, if this whole environment hadn’t changed,” he says. “And now I think about beer in a different environment. Who do we want to be? What is our craft?”
The Hallmarks of Craft
That spirit of constant innovation and reinvention is one of the most important hallmarks of craft and why a diverse base made up of many small and independent brewers, each exploring different facets, will always better serve and support the industry as a whole. Many craft-brewery owners are also inspired by what they appreciate in other breweries when determining their own reason for being, which is another way that a diversity of small and independent breweries helps support a more robust community.
The founders of Purpose Brewing mention their appreciation of brewers such as Casey Brewing & Blending (Glenwood Springs, Colorado) and Scratch Brewing Company (Ava, Illinois), for example, and especially Jester King Brewery (Austin, Texas) as inspiration for creating beers with a sense of place and purpose. In turn, Jester King Founder Jeffrey Stuffings cites Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales (Dexter, Michigan), as well as Belgian brewers such as Fantôme, Cantillon, and de la Senne, as helping to inspire his approach. Although they’ve just opened, the founders of Purpose Brewing say they have no ambition of growing the brewery much beyond its current size.
“Our intent is to stay tiny,” Wilson says. “You can’t do on a large scale what we want to do. It’s just not possible. You can’t go pick cherries off the most beautiful cherry tree in Fort Collins and make 10,000 gallons of beer, or 1,000 gallons for that matter.” But by pursuing their ambition and following their heart, Purpose Brewing and the thousands of small and independent breweries like it play an inspiring role in defining and making relevant the “craft” in craft beer.
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