Joe Sixpack: The beer Philly's waited 25 years for

Craft Beer in a Can
A boittle of Fat Tire Amber Ale. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

WELL, IT'S about damn time.

Nearly 25 years after New Belgium Brewing started brewing in Fort Collins, Colo., its beloved Fat Tire Amber Ale is coming to Philadelphia.

That makes Pennsylvania the 39th state to get its hands on the brand, behind the likes of Alabama, North Dakota and, I think, Guam.

Fat Tire, of course, is a near-iconic brand in craft-beer circles.

Brewed by a famously green, socially conscious, employee-owned company, it may not be the highest-rated beer in the world, but - thanks partly to its fun, offbeat logo-it is certainly among its most recognizable.

Over the decades, thousands of Philadelphians have tasted the smooth, easy-drinking ale during travel to the Rockies, only to return home and discover that it was nowhere to be found.

One local beer wholesaler told me he remembers that the Foodery - the excellent bottle shop at 10th and Pine streets (now with outposts in Roxborough and Northern Liberties) - once kept an open slot in its coolers labeled, "Reserved for Fat Tire."

"I think that was 17 years ago," he said.

Since then, of course, the region has seen its own phenomenal growth in craft brewing. Neshaminy Creek, Boxcar, Philadelphia Brewing, Prism and Round Guys, among others, all started up in that time. Victory opened a second production facility; Yards, Flying Fish, Sly Fox and River Horse all moved into larger plants.

And that doesn't even account for the soaring number of other out-of-town brands that have already established a foothold in the city.

So, when Fat Tire shows up on local tap lines and beer shelves starting Monday, it will be squeezing in among nearly 9,000 other brands now registered for sale in Pennsylvania.

In other words, that "reserved" slot at the Foodery is long gone.

How will New Belgium, the nation's eighth-largest brewery, find a niche in Philly's highly competitive market?

Largely, by pounding the pavement.

Months ago, the company hosted 100 representatives of the state's wholesalers who will carry the brand (Penn Distributors in the city, Gretz Beer in the suburbs), and put them through intensive training at its own beer school, in Colorado. They toured New Belgium's state-of-the-art brewing facilities and its massive barrel room; they learned its corporate identity (do-gooder sustainability, 100 percent employee ownership, bicycling cred); and they tasted beer, from Slow Ride Session IPA to its unusual Lips of Faith series.

These wholesaler reps will be on the front lines, selling Fat Tire to bars and bottle shops.

Meanwhile, New Belgium put its own fulltime team into the state, with a sales director, an area manager and a corps of so-called Beer Rangers who act as sales reps. (Most out-of-town craft brewers, by comparison, have a single local rep who's often responsible for sales in several states.)

By pricing their 12-packs in the $19 range, they'll position their brand against some of the other aggressive out-of-towners who've done well in the city lately-Lagunitas, Deschutes and Sierra Nevada.

And they'll go heavy on events, including its Tour de Fat cycling exhibition.

The bar owners I've spoken with agree that the brand faces tough competition for tap handles - especially from beloved local breweries. Several noted that Fat Tire had lost some of its aura with age, as craft-beer drinkers "graduated" to more complex, hoppier flavors.

Indeed, it has become fashionably hip in beer geek circles to bash Fat Tire as too pedestrian.

Nonetheless, New Belgium's early effort in Philadelphia is already paying off.

On Monday, Penn Distributors hosted a welcome reception for New Belgium at the Academy of Natural Sciences, inviting scores of area bar owners. The place was packed, and Penn was busily taking orders amid the museum's dinosaur bones. It has reportedly sold more than 200 kegs to be tapped in New Belgium's first weeks in town.

John Bouillon, a manager at Old City's Irish Pol, told me that he was uncertain how many of his bar's 40 taps would go to New Belgium.

"I expect we'll be pouring it, though," he said. "We've got guys just champing at the bit for Fat Tire."

No wonder. We've been waiting 25 years.


"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, download Bar Talk with Glen Macnow and Joe Sixpack, and sign up for his weekly e-mail update at joesixpack.net. E-mail: joe@joesixpack.net.