Much has been made in the last week of New Belgium Brewing’s unexpected decision to revamp its iconic former flagship, Fat Tire Amber Ale, following years of dwindling sales. Particularly thanks to the brewery’s odd decision to let the redesigned beer begin hitting store shelves in various markets weeks before officially announcing the change, there was a period of rather chaotic uncertainty that ensued, with fans of the classic amber ale haranguing the brewery over social media, asking what exactly what going on. Earlier this week, the brewery clarified things: Fat Tire is indeed now a new recipe, in a new style, with new packaging and a sales ethos that aims to highlight the beer’s environmental friendliness and lifestyle connections more than the actual liquid in the cans.
Personally, although I certainly admire the environmental consciousness of the New Belgium brand, I’ll always be more interested in the beer itself. And so I was certainly curious to taste this new version of Fat Tire, a beer that was extremely important to the craft beer awakenings of so many drinkers in the 2000s in particular. And because the old, original Fat Tire Amber Ale is still available on many store shelves at the moment, I thought this would be an obvious opportunity to taste the two versions side by side. And what I ultimately found is that this evolution really isn’t quite as dramatic as one might expect. In fact, the whole thing sort of comes down to shades of gray … or amber.
In truth, Fat Tire has always been something of a stylistic quandary. The original version was made with clean-fermenting American ale yeast, but at the same time there was always a semi-widespread perception among drinkers that the brand was meant to be a “Belgian amber ale,” an assumption that made more sense in the early day of New Belgium’s production. Back then, a large chunk of the brewery’s portfolio actually was represented by classic Belgian abbey ales, before the market’s evolution in the 2010s drove the brewery increasingly in the direction of IPA, which now makes up the vast majority of its production and has long-since supplanted Fat Tire as flagship. New Belgium muddied the waters further by putting the words “Belgian-style ale” on Fat Tire cans and bottles in 2017, before reverting back to simply “amber ale” in 2019. It’s safe to say that there’s always been some confusion among drinkers as a result, but I personally thought of the brand as a lighter-bodied American amber ale.
The new Fat Tire, meanwhile, seems to be going out of its way to avoid stylistic comparisons at all. Reflecting a belief, perhaps, that beer drinkers are increasingly disinterested in “beer styles” and instead are interested in lifestyle branding, the new cans don’t make any particular claim about what this new Fat Tire is supposed to be. In reality, though, it seems to be an American blonde or golden ale. The brewery states that “Fat Tire Ale is easy drinking, with a medium body, crisp finish, and deep gold color. The bright flavor profile offers subtle caramel and floral aromas and light bitterness.” Amusingly, the newly designed landing page for the beer on the New Belgium website labels it as “classic ale,” whatever that means. It retains the same 5.2% ABV as the previous version of Fat Tire.
All that’s left, then, is to pour these two versions of an iconic, former craft beer flagship and see how they compare.
Taste Off: Old Fat Tire vs. New Fat Tire
The truly striking thing, as I poured the bottle of the original Fat Tire recipe into a glass last night, is that it doesn’t really look much like an American amber ale in the first place. In the years since I’ve previously had a Fat Tire out of a glass, I’d forgotten that this beer is just about the lightest approximation of “amber” on the market. Calling it amber at all is almost generous; it’s more like a very light copper if anything. Certainly, it doesn’t visually evoke the way a homebrewer would probably expect an archetypal American amber to look. That appearance, with more of a reddish hue, is best encapsulated in other classic commercial amber ales, such as Alaskan Amber or Bell’s Amber Ale. Actually, has Fat Tire always been this light? Or has it already been lightened over the years in an attempt to match changing tastes?
Likewise, the new Fat Tire wasn’t as light a shade of gold or yellow as I expected to see from a brewery trying to broaden the appeal of an old-school amber ale brand. Rather, it’s more of a dark gold hue, which leaves a surprisingly subtle difference between the two versions of Fat Tire. One would likely expect a dramatic departure; this is more like a reinvented version that is three or four shades lighter. It dropped the copper highlights, but kept everything else about the appearance.
The aroma and flavors, meanwhile, are also more of a subtle reinvention than I was expecting. Whereas the original Fat Tire Amber Ale presents itself with a rounder profile that evokes mild flavors of toasted bread, caramel and hints of floral hops, with slight bitterness, the new version retains many of the same dimensions. Its additions are more of a crisp cereal grain note, and a texture that is less rounded and sweet, and more angular, crisp and dry. The floral and herbal hop component is still there, and if the bitterness is more pronounced in this version it didn’t really register to me. If the color and packaging had remained unchanged, I honestly wonder what percentage of the Fat Tire drinkers would have noticed the shift in flavors. I can fully believe that some less discerning tasters would have happily gone on drinking the brand without realizing that things had changed.
All in all, the main takeaways here are twofold. First, there’s the reminder that Fat Tire, even when labeled as an “amber ale,” was always a pretty light beer rather than a big, malty-sweet, chewy style of American amber. Second is the realization that this reinvention of Fat Tire is ultimately more of a dramatic marketing shift, rather than a huge evolution in beer styles. Yes, the beer has absolutely changed, but perhaps it hasn’t changed quite as much as you would assume. Or it may be more accurate to say that it didn’t need to change all that much, to get where New Belgium was planning on taking it.
At the end of the day, I still don’t necessarily see how redesigning a brand like Fat Tire will ultimately help the company bring in more lapsed drinkers than they would potentially lose from the die hards who will be outraged to see a 30-year-old beer recipe changed. That strikes me as a very tough balancing act, but I will freely admit that I am not an economist, an MBA, or a business operator. We’ll see if this change to the Fat Tire brand ultimately allows it to stabilize, or establish a new niche of its own. Lovers of the old Fat Tire, meanwhile, will want to take the classic out for one last spin while they still can.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.