This essay is part of a series this month, coinciding with the concept of Flagship February, wherein we intend to revisit the flagship beers of regional craft breweries, reflect on their influence within the beer scene, and assess how those beers fit into the modern beer world. Click here to see all the other entries in the series.
There’s no denying that classic amber ales have had a rough go of it in the modern craft beer landscape. As we’ve expounded on in the past, this is a style that was once completely ubiquitous among American breweries—before the mid-2000s, you could reliably make the assumption that almost any distributing brewery (and especially brewpubs) was going to have a non-adjunct amber or red ale on tap, just as assuredly as they would have a pale ale or porter/stout. For both drinkers and brewers, they were one of the safest plays that existed in craft beer, but as tastes moved away from seeking balance, amber ale flagships tended to feel the pinch.
In some cases (as in another beer in this series, Alaskan Amber Ale), the flagship endured despite hardships as the face of its company. In other cases, as at Bell’s Brewery, the flagship amber ale gave way to a new flagship (Two Hearted Ale), settling into a less lofty place in the company’s portfolio. But what happens when the amber ale is synonymous with the entire brewery? Well, that was the case for New Belgium Brewing Co. and the venerable Fat Tire.
Fat Tire, as if it needs saying, is the beer that built New Belgium into one of the country’s largest craft breweries—#4 in the country according to the Brewers Association definition, prior to their sale to Kirin-owned Lion Little World Beverages at the end of 2019. First brewed in 1991, its branding and bicycle imagery were so successful and iconic that an entire generation of beer drinkers grew up with probably more awareness of the “Fat Tire” brand than New Belgium itself. I certainly remember entire years of drinking it in college bars in mid-2000s Illinois, surrounded by people who thought it was a product from the nonexistent “Fat Tire Brewery.” It informed the look and feel of every other New Belgium product, even in collaborations such as the Fat Tire & Friends sampler box.
That somehow feels fitting for Fat Tire, though, because despite its popularity and status as a gateway beer for so many first-time craft beer drinkers over the decades, it always seemed to be surrounded by misconceptions. Chief among them was the idea that Fat Tire was a “Belgian amber ale,” presumably due to New Belgium’s roots in the Belgian brewing tradition. In reality, Fat Tire was never a “Belgian ale”—it was always made with clean-fermenting American ale yeast, and homebrew clone kits are sold with neutral American ale yeast to this day. It’s perhaps best described by the company’s media relations director at the time in a 2013 profile, wherein he said the following:
“Fat Tire won over fans with its sense of balance—toasty, biscuit-like malt flavors and hoppy freshness,” explained Bryan Simpson, media relations director at New Belgium. “We try to emphasize moderation and balance. We feel that amber ales should not be overly malty, hoppy, bitter, alcoholic or sweet.”
That quote, however, also captures exactly why it became so much harder in the 2010s to continue selling a beer that had never declined in quality: If craft-curious beer drinkers were originally drawn to Fat Tire for its “sense of balance,” then those same drinkers today have increasingly conditioned themselves to seek out anything but. When every hype style in the beer world encourages extremes of flavor, you’re almost better off being “overly” malty, hoppy, bitter, alcoholic or sweet. And of course, competing against more than 8,000 other breweries in 2020 doesn’t exactly help either.
As such, you have perhaps seen New Belgium throwing more weight behind new IPA projects in recent years, as the Voodoo Ranger line has become increasingly core to the brand’s identity, but my personal appreciation of Fat Tire remains the same. It was one of the first craft beers I drank with regularity, in a time when I might very well have cited “amber ale” as a favorite style. Revisiting it in recent years, I found it reliably unchanged and comforting—let’s see how it reads to me now.
Tasting: New Belgium Fat Tire
One of the first words that comes to mind, sticking my nose into a glass of Fat Tire, is “round,” which is always a slightly confusing thing for some readers to see. When I say that, it’s essentially classifying this beer by the mental picture it generates in your mind—the visualization of that beer, like a music visualizer would create lines and patterns out of your favorite song. In this case, it implies a beer where nothing “sticks out” at you as disproportionate in terms of intensity with its other notes—they’re all quite harmonious. That really is the ethos of Fat Tire.
On the nose, this is malt-forward, with the suggestion of mild sweetness, light caramel and gently toasted bread crusts. There’s also a nuttiness as well, though—a slightly cocoa-y character that, if you were blindfolded, would give you a clue to that deep amber color.
On the palate, flavors are quite mild and smooth. Fat Tire is not a high-volume or loud beer in terms of assertiveness—it’s a very pleasant one that prizes balance and a lack of rough edges over intensity of flavor. I get toasted bread crusts again, along with a bit of clover honey sweetness, which are met by the slightest hints of floral hops—not enough to denote it as a “pale ale” in my mind’s eye, which is right where an amber ale should theoretically be. It is, as the brewery representative once put it, not assertively sweet and not assertively bitter. It is, in fact, extremely drinkable, or even chuggable. I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to say that it comes off as expertly constructed.
Drinking a Fat Tire in 2020, though, you find yourself being able to see both why this beer propelled New Belgium to its status as one of the country’s biggest craft breweries, and why it’s much more difficult to sell today. It feels like an amber ale that was built to convert those who had never experienced the world of “full-flavor” beer, but it’s also easy to see how those same people could eventually feel like their taste buds had outgrown it. It suggests that “moderation and balance” are a double-edged sword, in terms of consumer appeal.
But when you just want that round, malty smoothness, Fat Tire is still there for you, dependable as it’s ever been.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.