Meet the Fort Collins brewer who turned America sour
January 8, 2017
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — On a snowy September day 20 years ago, Peter Bouckaert arrived in Fort Collins.
American craft beer would never be the same.
"I want to turn the whole U.S. sour," Bouckaert said with a smirk. "Bud Light sour is my end goal in life."
His opus as New Belgium Brewing Co. brewmaster — the oak barrel-aged sour brown ale called La Folie — ushered sour beers into the mainstream.
La Folie won a bronze medal in its debut at the 2000 Great American Beer Festival for Belgian and French style ales, back when there was no sour category. The beer claimed gold at the 2001 and 2002 GABF.
"Peter is a godfather of sour and wood-aged beers in this country," said Dick Cantwell, co-founder of Seattle-based Elysian Brewing Co., who also co-wrote a book with Bouckaert. "He has as much experience brewing as anyone in the world."
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Flash forward to 2016: There were 142 GABF entries in the American-style sour category. Nielsen reports sales of sour/American wild ale-style beer were up 73 percent in 2015. There are even some breweries dedicated solely to producing sours.
The rise of the beer style started with Bouckaert's bold move to leave his native Belgium for the brewmaster role at fledgling New Belgium Brewing.
"My husband thought New Belgium was like a castle that was building its foundation," said Frezi Bouckaert, who moved with Peter. "Belgians really don't leave their country. But everyone told us we were an adventurous couple that could do it."
Peter gave Belgian credentials to a brewery named for the country and also brought experience to the operation that in 1996 was rapidly ramping up production thanks to the popularity of its amber ale, Fat Tire.
"Peter helped us understand how to make beer that was very consistent from batch to batch," said Kim Jordan, New Belgium co-founder and executive chair of its board of directors.
Jordan and her ex-husband, Jeff Lebesch, were inspired to create the brewery after a Belgian biking trip.
By 1995, the year before Peter arrived, New Belgium had emerged from the couple's basement, distributing throughout Colorado and Wyoming, and producing 31,770 barrels of beer.
Now, with two decades of Peter as brewmaster, New Belgium has grown to the country's fourth-largest craft brewery, producing more than 900,000 barrels a year and nearing distribution in all 50 states. The brewery is still well-regarded for its sour program.
"He enabled us to grow to that next level," said Brian Callahan, one of New Belgium's first employees and the brewery's current director of fun. "Peter was an important piece of the puzzle."
Apprenticing in Belgium
Beer was plenty present for Peter growing up in Belgium.
Low-alcohol table beers were served daily at school lunches in middle and high school.
"It was completely normal," Peter said. "Although it wasn't very good beer."
While initially he went to college to study bioscience, he quickly changed his major after walking past his university's brewing department. Peter was one of seven students in his class, obtaining the equivalent of an American master's degree in brewing science.
His thesis project was to develop a beer for an existing brewery. So he cultivated yeast from an existing beer. He later fermented the beer again with the same yeast.
"The base beer we had to work with was so bad," Peter recalls. "But after we fermented it again, it actually became a good beer."
Peter later landed the brewmaster job at Rodenbach brewery, well-regarded for its sour-style beers.
He first met Lebesch when the New Belgium co-founder came to visit the Belgian brewery. Cantwell remembers hearing about Peter's two-hour brewery tours from impressed tourists who visited Rodenbach.
"At the (Rodenbach) company Christmas parties, all they'd serve were sours," Frezi said. "Slowly, I adapted to the sour beer. Now it's the only thing I like."
Little did they know, Peter would make his mark at an American brewery.
Recruited to Colorado
By 1996, the small but growing American craft beer industry had almost exclusively German and English influences. So New Belgium funded Peter and Frezi's flight to share a Belgian perspective with the industry at a Boston conference.
"At the same time, we were looking for a new head brewer," Jordan said. "Jeff Lebesch understood he had taken the company as far as he could with expertise as a homebrewer.
"I decided I would mention it to Peter just in case he was interested."
Peter had little initial reaction. Lebesch went off to entice German brewers to be his successor.
But after sharing the news with the late Cambridge Brewing brewer Darryl Goss a few days later, Peter was encouraged to explore the up-and-coming Fort Collins brewery.
"When we first set out, we had no idea where Colorado was," Peter said. The couple drove to Fort Collins in a rental van, stopping at sites like Niagara Falls and Chicago along the way. "I arrived in ripped-up jean shorts, but we started the interview right away."
Peter wrote a resume the night of the first interview. He interviewed for two more days, sampling all five of New Belgium's beers at the time: Fat Tire, Old Cherry, Abbey Dubbel, Tripel and Sunshine Wheat.
"I was most surprised by Fat Tire," Peter said. "I had traveled in the U.S. before and everybody was doing the same Cascade hop pale ales. … So to have a balanced beer like (Fat Tire) was a big surprise."
Peter, also enticed by the company's plan for employee-ownership, was offered the job before returning home to Belgium. He decided to accept the offer after consulting friends and family.
Peter's boss at Rodenbach broke down crying at the news.
Helping New Belgium grow
Peter and Frezi immediately felt a culture shock.
"In school, I learned British English," said Peter, who also grew up speaking Flemish as his first language. "It's quite a different language. A lot of people would nod at me but I could tell they didn't understand me."
Any disconnect over Peter's accent wasn't felt in his adjustment to the new brewery. Peter quickly became the cheerleader for weekly volleyball games between staff at the brewery.
Early on, Peter oversaw the entire beer production process, even cleaning keg lines and hand-capping and corking bottles. He also started developing seasonal releases, including the pilsner that would become Blue Paddle — New Belgium's first lager that required Peter to toy with the brewery's then ale-specific equipment.
"People that are great (brewers) are usually analytical, engineering types or artsy, creative, wacky types," Callahan said. "But Peter is fortunate to dance in both of those categories."
Peter was also saving a "zoo" of Belgian sour yeast strains while also collecting different wood for aging.
While his first attempt at a kettle sour at New Belgium failed, he eventually mastered a sour with La Folie — a French phrase meaning "the folly" — with the name stolen from a previous one-time collaboration beer made between New Belgium and the now-defunct Redfish Brewhouse of Boulder.
"I remember the first time tasting it and thinking, 'I don't know what people are going to think about this,'" Jordan said. "And people were challenged at first with sour beer."
Just as tastes have changed, so has Peter's daily work as New Belgium brewmaster.
He carries a backpack that he jokingly refers to as his office. Some days he's on the road sniffing hop varieties at farms, tasting grain at malting companies or meeting with distillers about barrels. Other times he has beer quality tastings and meetings scheduled in the Fort Collins office.
Most of the physical brewing he does today is limited to collaborations with other breweries.
He spent about two years traveling the world with Cantwell, Jordan's boyfriend, for the "Wood & Beer" book.
"In order to appreciate someone like Peter, you must have some experience with Belgians," Cantwell said. "He really makes you feel like every inside joke is a gift others aren't privy to."
Fort Collins has become the Bouckaerts' New Belgium. Peter and Frezi are raising two teenage boys here, living in their fourth northern Colorado home. Frezi, who helped out with numerous tasks at New Belgium in the past, is back working three days a week in the New Belgium liquid center.
And Peter's impact is being felt throughout the American craft brewing industry.
"It was a big step for two young people to move that far," Peter said. "We didn't really know what we were capable of."
Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, coloradoan.com.