Massachusetts Beverage Business


Rogue is Different

Article By: Lew Bryson

This Oregon brewery is perhaps the smallest brewery that you will find in beer stores and bars across the country - widely scattered high-end beer stores and bars, but national nonetheless. Being national certainly hasn't hurt them, as they get picked in more "best of" lists than almost any other beer: simply being there is half the fight in most of these contests. Rogue inspires great loyalty in customers, loyalty you won't see with many other craft brewed brands.

The person most associated with Rogue is their brewer, John Maier. The Rogue mythology has Maier walking into the brewhouse on the day of the first brew and becoming the destined brewer. Maier's heavy hand with hops is well-known throughout geekdom. Rogue - Maier - brews big beers, bitter beers, a lot of them, and they package them in striking silk-screened 'bomber' bottles.

Maier would be a great interview if you could get him to talk. But he's a quiet man, almost shy, so if you want to get much, you're better off going to Jack Joyce, the guy who runs the place - although he'll tell you that all he does is let John make beer. I got hold of Jack while he was in Hawaii, spending a little morning time by the pool.


LEW BRYSON Aloha! I wanted to start from the beginning. You started Rogue in 1988 with two partners, Rob Strasser and Bob Woodell. Are they still around?
JACK Oh, yeah.

LEW How come we only ever see you?
JACK Well, they've never been involved in the business.

LEW What did you do before?
JACK I practiced law for 15 years, probably got bored after 1O. I worked for Nike for 6.

LEW Doing law?
JACK Oh, no, no, no. Doing marketing, management, stuff I knew nothing about, of course. So getting into the beer business and not knowing anything wasn't a handicap.

LEW Good point. Why did you get into beer?
JACK We were actually looking for an Oregon food product business. We thought that there was something appealing about Oregon. What we said back then was that Oregon products would sell at Macy's on Herald Square, which then was the epitome of retail. One of my partner's CPAs was a homebrewer, he's down in Ashland and looking for money. So we started as investors.

LEW What was the beer scene like in Oregon in 1988?
JACK Obviously, because we all lived in Portland, Bridgeport was going on, Portland Brewing was going on, Widmer was going on, Full Sail was going on, Deschutes was just getting started.

LEW And you figured you'd fly right into these guys?
JACK No, we're not that bright. We just thought we'd have a brewpub, you know, guys always want to own a bar. Taking the Herald Square example, we figured we could sell it across the border in California - in Redding and Red Bluff. That's as far as we thought. We never started out to build this nation-wide distribution network, as we call it.

LEW What was the pub like in the early days?
JACK It was small. We actually started in Ashland, a town of 15,OOO. It certainly was fun, and the people who appreciated the beer appreciated the beer, but they didn't actually adopt the brewery. They have a Shakespeare festival there, and that's about the only thing the town is capable of adopting. And there was a lot of pot, and a lot of wine competing back then.

LEW There wasn't really room for another intoxicant at the time.
JACK Yeah. And the quote, movement, unquote, hadn't gotten that far south. Or coming up that far north from Anderson Valley or Sierra Nevada.

LEW When did you move to Newport?
JACK We opened Newport in May, 1989, and hired John Maier at that point in time.

LEW I wanted to ask you about that. There's this almost mythic thing about how John Maier walked into the brewery as you were brewing your first batch and just kind of took over. Is that true?
JACK No. You don't want to ruin the myth, but I met him in an airport. We were both stranded in Denver. What do John and I do when we're stranded in an airport? We go to the bar! He was working for Alaskan Brewing, and he was from Oregon. Just in the conversation, I recall him saying that he'd like to get back, that it's a little cold up there. When we decided to open in Newport, I just called him; I'd saved his Alaskan Brewing card. I told him to "come home", and he's been brewing for us ever since.

LEW He's become almost synonymous with the brewery. He's in a lot of the website, his dog's in the website. Did his beer became the character of Rogue's beer?
JACK I don't think we ever thought it was about us. Too many investors think it's about them. It's not about them. I don't know how to make the product. It seems to me that if you're going to be honest, it needs to be about the guy that's making the product, not about the business guys. You need both, but it's about him making the stuff. If he made average beer, we wouldn't be where we are today.

LEW It's not average beer. Your beer was hoppier and bigger than most right from the beginning. What started that? Was that John, or was it your idea?
JACK Not me! One thing Jeff Larsen told me, from Alaskan Brewing, when I hired John he says to me, "Watch your hop inventory!" I didn't even know what a hop was. I've just always let him make great beers, and we'll figure out how sell 'em.

LEW You've got a lot of them, too. You're maybe best known for the Shakespeare Stout, but you're really one of the biggest craft breweries that doesn't have a flagship. What is the biggest seller?
JACK Probably Dead Guy Ale, which we couldn't sell when it was called Maierbock, even though it was a preferred pub drink. But as Dead Guy, it's probably our top seller. But our model, at least as I learned the business, was the Samuel Smith line. If you went to the right places, they would have five or six of them. I thought that was a good idea, because it keeps your brewers fresh, otherwise it's just a production job.

LEW You talked about wholesalers coming to you. You're still relatively small, but your beer's all over the country, even in Japan. Why so far flung?
JACK A couple reasons. One, on a practical level, you're flattered when somebody on the East Coast wants your beer. It's hard to turn down. Newport's got a thing called the Hatfield Marine Science Center, which isn't Woods Hole, but a lot of the Woods Hole people would come out to it. And they'd take a pony keg back East. I mean, it weighed 75 pounds, and they'd ship it. That was then, shipping a metal container like that these days might be a little more challenging in an airplane.

We thought, because we were 6th in Oregon, and obviously in a remote location, that we'd like to be the first somewhere else. Because our beers have such a high ingredient quotient, they travel well. It was sort of like Sissy Hankshaw in "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues"; if you've got a handicap, use it. Hers was elephantiasis of the thumbs. So what'd she do? She hitchhiked. And if she stayed anywhere for any amount of time, she'd be a typist, back in the days when you hit the spacebar with your thumb. So if hoppiness was our handicap, which is what everyone told us when we started, how do you turn that into an asset? Well, you ship it abroad because it's bulletproof.

LEW How much of the beer is sold in the home market, in Oregon?
JACK Probably 25%.

LEW That isn't much, is it?
JACK That's actually high, it's between 2O and 25%.

LEW You seem to be moving more to 12oz. bottles. That's probably popular with the retailers. Why do that now?
JACK I don't think we're doing it, that's just what you're maybe seeing. We've had five six-packs for probably five years. Our business mix is only a third six-packs. Draft and 22oz. bottles are each a third. Our theory is that we can distinguish ourselves in 22s, by the package and the screen-printed labels. Our six-pack carrier is good, but it's not that much better, if it's better at all, than anybody else's. It's just another six-pack, no matter what you do.

LEW Is beer and food a big thing with Rogue? Is that something you lean on in your education efforts?
JACK More the matching than the cooking with beer. With the Soba that doesn't have to be the case, but our beers generally are so hoppy, and in cooking, especially if you're sauteeing, it's really hard to control the hops. But because of our packaging, and our variety, we'd like to have more business - all beer companies would - in white tablecloth restaurants. It took American wine a long time to get there, and it's going to take beer a long time to get there. I think we have the tools to wage that battle.

LEW "We" meaning Rogue in particular, or "We" meaning craft brewing?
JACK I think craft brewing in general, but us in particular, because of our packaging. Probably we've got a better chance now, because the Belgians have sort of broken a barrier that our industry, perhaps outside of Fritz Maytag, has been singularly unsuccessful in crossing.

LEW I don't think they've put in enough effort.
JACK Yeah, for some reason the wine people are better organized.

LEW I'm hoping that the merger of the Brewers Association of American and the Association of Brewers will do something about that, though I'm probably being overly optimistic.
JACK That's a combination of a lobbying group and an educational group, with both sides venturing into marketing. Now there are going to be more dollars behind it, there will be more of it.

LEW You made a small number of fruit beers over the years, but that seems to be over now. Was that a policy decision, just because they were fruit beers, or did they not sell?
JACK No, we made Rogue-n-Berry, before (Washington DC mayor) Marion (Berry) went to jail. It was made with marionberries, a local berry in Oregon. We were one of the first ones to do it. We started with real fruit, and then we evolved to concentrate, then we were about to go to syrup, and we just said, screw it, we're not really making beer. If anyone wanted to buy that beer, they could go buy it from Pyramid or somebody else.

LEW You've gotten involved in a number of causes. Do you think any small business should get involved in community causes, or do you think maybe small breweries should be even quicker to jump into that because of relations with the community?
JACK Our first landlord was Mo Niemi, a local restaurant owner. We had a tough negotiation over what was a "brewery space". It was a garage where her kids kept their antique cars. I think I wanted to pay her a thousand bucks where she only wanted a couple hundred. But she said, "If you're lucky enough not to go broke, feed the fishermen." And I said, "Hey, I've seen these fishermen, and they have more money than I do." She says, "It's not always that way." Whenever fishing was down, she fed people for free at her restaurants. So I took that to mean to integrate yourself in the community and give back.

Plus, if you think about it, it's a heck of a lot simpler and more fulfilling way to spend your advertising and promotional dollars, than it is to do traditional print or radio. You can never measure that, you've got too many choices to make and people to meet with if you do it right. That was Nike's philosophy. If I had 5% as a marketing budget, we'd give 1% to traditional media advertising, and 4% to what we called promotions, whether that was establishing road races, or basketball camps for kids, giving shoes or t-shirts away. Plus, you can see it, it's right in front of you. Same way with the homebrewer community - we support that. We view our communities as being broader than just where our pubs are. It's wherever our beer's being sold.

LEW In the east, maybe five or six years ago, there were a lot of complaints about old Rogue on the shelves. It's still selling well, and I haven't heard any complaints or had any old Rogue in a few years. Did you do anything, or did things just sort themselves out?
JACK Obviously, because we're so small in this industry, we don't have the power to force rotation of stock. So to some extent, you've just got to rely on it selling through. Six years ago, when the thing went to hell, the shelves that it sat on were in stores that never should have carried it; not just us, but everybody else. At the time, everybody and their uncle was into 22s, everybody and their uncle had a brewery, so after the shakeout occurred, the sell-through took care of it.

LEW What's the most important goal this year for the brewery? Your manifesto says you don't want to be big; what do you want to be?
JACK Oh, we don't have goals like that. We try to do four things - keep making great product, keep trying to make our packaging great, keep trying to integrate ourselves in our communities, and keep creating unique thunder, which means, the world doesn't need another table tent, or another coaster or another neon. We look for educational things to do that promote the sale of the product, whether that be Rogue Nation, or our "just add water" bottles, or our taphandles with grain and hops in them. Then whatever comes, comes. We never try to push things. We respond to pull. We try to buy equipment before we need it, so that we can respond quickly to growth that's unexpected.

LEW Any advice on how to sell the product?
JACK Buy 22s, and buy 64s and buy ceramics. Not six-packs. Rogue does better in those packages in Massachusetts. Those kinds of products can be merchandised. They don't belong on a shelf. They can be merchandised just like liquor. The different character of the Rogue on each package is great for that. You can merchandise our Morimoto product with the Japanese beers. You should probably merchandise what we call our XS line, in black ceramic bottles, with the Belgians. If you're selling tequila for Cinco de Mayo, or the Day of the Dead, stack Mexicali Rogue with it. If you've got a sushi bar next door, put a sign by the Morimoto beers. We're a merchandiser's dream.

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