Not three years have passed since the Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing Company hit Georgia shelves with Fat Tire, its popular amber ale. Hard to believe that what has become a staple for many Atlantans was once a coveted, cult favorite hailing from the West. When the beer with the cute, vintage red bicycle label hit local stores, introductory cases had “Georgia on My Ride” scrolled across the top. Judging by its increasing availability, those red-framed wheels are here to stay.
It’s an everyday beer — easy, drinkable, and lovingly balanced. The hop highs and malty lows get along well with each other to make for an enjoyable experience alone or paired with food. It just feels so nice. But is it just the beer that gives me and so many others that warm, happy feeling? What’s up with that bike?
I admit, when I first saw the label in person, the image tugged on my heartstrings a bit. I have never owned a red bicycle, never grew up wanting one. And yet I felt connected to that imagery, way back in my subconscious. The bike might as well have been a Cabbage Patch Kid; the chord it struck was so right on. New Belgium likes to say that the company was “conceived on the seat of a bike,” which is how one got to be on the label for its most-consumed brew. As a young man, co-founder Jerry Lebesch did a bike tour through Europe in the 1980s and had some inspired beer and conversation along the way. He began homebrewing Fat Tire after his trip, named in honor of his long-distance cycling experience. A few years later, he took his homegrown operation commercial.
On their website, New Belgium says that they lucked into the marketing angle, and even doubted whether it was a good idea to name an ale after a Colorado slang term for mountain bikes. But they stuck with it and it worked. And so I wonder, after all this time, what it is we love more — the beer or the bicycle?
If you are like me, you noticed the grand unveiling of Fat Tire throughout the city with much fanfare. The stocky 22-ounce bottles made an impression, and in an effort to focus new customers’ attention, the brewery withheld other brews for several months. Later, Mothership Wit and 1554 Enlightened Black Ale shared shelf space with the flagship, along with the Ranger IPA and Trippel. But that nostalgic, illustrated bike reins supreme. New Belgium says they think people like the bicycle because it references the simplicity and fun of being outdoors. That’s probably true.
But I also think it goes deeper. Most of us tend to associate bike riding with childhood and most of us tend to think of childhood as an innocent time in our lives (at least on a good day, just work with me here). A time when we were free of major responsibilities, full of wonder and enjoyment. Easy to please. Good-natured. A roaming spirit — or least by my mom’s rules, I could roam to the end of the cul-de-sac.
Regardless of your upbringing, New Belgium’s red bicycle taps into a history we all want to have had. We all want to have had the quiet autonomy of wandering on that bike. If you take that undercurrent and add it to the gratifying experience of drinking a nonchalant ale — buying a six-pack that might be shared with friends, family or just sipped solo — you’ve got a pretty intensely packed center of pleasure.
Part of what made Fat Tire so big in Atlanta was its low supply — unavailability increases demand. Most of the beer’s PR had been done years before it got here. But something else in low supply got uncorked at Fat Tire’s 2009 unveiling. New Belgium took that rusty old door to memory lane and busted it wide open. We may not want to relive our childhoods as much as we want to acknowledge they were once there. And just in case you forget, Fat Tire’s got a bright red bike keeping that door ajar.
New Belgium’s Fat Tire can be found just about anywhere in Atlanta.