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20 Years After Introducing Mainers to Cloudy Beer, Rob Tod Still Loves Allagash White

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Welcome to a Classics Week edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the industry for the better part of their lives.

Rob Tod, founder of Allagash Brewing Company, in the wild barrel room, where the company's funkiest experiments take place.
Rob Tod, founder of Allagash Brewing Company, in the wild barrel room, where the company's funkiest experiments take place.
Courtesy of Allagash Brewing Company

classics week logoAllagash Brewing Company turns 20 in July. Over the course of two decades, founder Rob Tod has grown the company from a single man with a single beer to a craft behemoth. According to figures tracked by the Brewers Association, Allagash was America's 47th largest craft brewery in 2013, and Maine's second largest after Shipyard (the "craft" designation excludes such giants as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors). Representatives for Allagash predict the brewery will produce 70,000 bbls of beer this year, or over 2,000,000 gallons (a barrel, or bbl, is equivalent to 31 gallons of beer). The company racks up accolades the way some obsessives collect beer caps.

But things weren't always so sunny. Tod popularized Belgian beer styles in a region stuck on clear German, British, and "Lite" beers. Allagash White is one of the best known, and now most awarded, American examples of Belgian white or wit beer, which is intentionally yeasty, cloudy, fruity, and spicy. But it was once a beer he could barely give away because it was so bizarre to the untrained palate. Because of his dedication, White is now nearly ubiquitous in the northeast and is distributed in 17 states. Its success has allowed Allagash to expand its Portland-based operation repeatedly and to innovate with time- and resource-intensive specialty beers, like those in its Coolship program of wild fermented styles that can take years to mature.

In a special Classics Week edition of Lifers (unfiltered but edited slightly for the sake of clarity), Tod reminisces with Eater about how difficult it was getting started, explains how he falls more in love with Allagash White each year, raves about the exciting craft beer scene, and even busts a brewery-based myth about his preferred mode of transportation.

When you started the company in 1995, legend has it you couldn't give Allagash White away in bars because of the public's and the industry's unfamiliarity with Belgian styles. What was the worst response you got?
I used to walk into bars and restaurants with samples and the first thing they said is, "What's wrong with it?" That was the common response. I got used to it. You just spend time trying to educate people: "Hey, this is a traditional Belgian style beer. It's supposed to be cloudy 'cause it's unfiltered and that contributes a lot to the quality of the beer." Even if I could talk someone into a draft line it was generally the worst selling one. Accounts weren't familiar with the beer and neither were customers. It was a long slow grind, the first ten years. Probably the first twelve years, really.

When was the last time that was a problem? Does it ever happen to your sales team nowadays?
We don't really get that anymore because people know the white beer style now. It's our flagship beer, it occupies a huge chunk of our production. We kind of get the opposite now that people do know that style of beer. There's a big movement toward session craft beers, too, beers that have a lot of flavor and are drinkable and low alcohol, or "sessionable." White perfectly fits that bill. There's so much going on flavor-wise, but it's a session beer and always has been.

Some of the tour guides at the brewery like to tell audiences that when you were a long-haired young entrepreneur, you delivered beer in a van with a shag carpet and a chandelier. Is that true?
[Laughs.] That was actually a little while before I started. And it wasn't shag, it was an Oriental carpet. But it really did have a chandelier, a little 12 volt. I sold that van a couple years before starting here. I miss it!

Allagash continues to expand rapidly. How does the company stay sharp despite steady growth?
We have great people here. Honestly, we're sharper and more on our toes and better able to effectively go through these expansions today than we were two years ago, and two years ago we were better able to go through these expansions than we were for the one two years prior to that. I'm more confident than ever with our crew here. Our mechanical team and our brewing crews are amazing, our administrative team, and so on.

Of course we're seeing more and more people visiting the brewery. We welcomed about 40,000 people in 2014 to the brewery, and will welcome more in 2015. People are coming to see it and I feel like they're having a better experience with each passing year. We've got great people here. That's always been a big value here, to try to make this a great place to work. We've attracted some great people as a result. It keeps getting better. We're able to juggle a lot of balls effectively.

What are you most proud of after 20 years?
There are a number of core values we have here that I'm proud of on a lot of fronts. As I mentioned one of them is the people here. We spend a lot of time together here at the brewery, but off-site too. We collectively have made this a great place to work. We feel like we've been improving with innovation, creating more and more cool beers each year. Family is a core value; we're making this brewery a better place to work every year. We've become more sustainable.

But probably what I'm most proud of, and probably what the employees would say too, is the philanthropy. Last year alone we gave $240,000 back to the local community. It's through the hard work that we're able to give back to the community that supported us so much. The philanthropy goes to things like local theater and arts, sustainable agriculture, community gardens, the Barbara Bush Pediatric Center. The philanthropy and community we're real proud of.

Who do you consider Allagash's biggest competitor?
We've always tried...this gets back to innovation. We've been innovative from day one. When we came out with White, it was an extremely innovative beer. There wasn't anyone making a white beer. Because we've stayed so innovative and ramped this up, we're doing something pretty unique. We're all competing in the market for draft lines and shelf space, but I think because we're so unique it's tough to point to a specific competitor.

Beer tourists to Maine often ask why we have such a great beer scene, even compared to nearby large cities like Boston. Why do you think?
Tough to wrap that up in one concise answer. A million reasons. There's tons of innovation here. Look at the great restaurants in town. There's all kinds of arts and crafts here. There's cool sustainable agriculture moving into the state. There are the breweries, lots of great ones. A lot of it boils down to this: Maine's a great place to come to and visit, and we've attracted a lot of people who are really involved in a lot of what these businesses are all about. A lot of great restauranteurs are moving up, same with spirits makers and wine makers, because they want to live here. Maine's just a great place to come, so there's a great beer culture as well.

You come here on a Saturday, there are hundreds of people out in this little industrial park. There are people at Foundation, Bissell, Geary's, Austin St., everyone's doing something a little different, which speaks to innovation. Ten years ago no one came out on a Saturday. Now it's cool. There's so much life out here, starting Thursday evening, really. People coming out and experiencing what's going on. It's tough to put a finger on any one thing, but there's so much going on, both in the craft beer business and in the community in general. It's exciting.

What trend in beer has surprised you most over the years?
Probably most striking is this: after 20 years for us, and 25 years or close to 30 for some others like Geary's, after the years of grinding it out, all of a sudden there's this renaissance of interest in craft beer. It's incredibly energizing and exciting. We get so many people through the brewery, it's exciting to see people come out and discover the beers and what it's like to walk through the brewery and see, smell, even hear what's happening. This seemingly sudden interest after grinding for years is really striking and cool. It keeps adding fuel for us to keep it going.

Do you have a favorite non-Allagash beer?
I couldn't...one of the great things about being a drinker, there's so many great places. I visited our friends at Foundation on Saturday morning and had their saison (Eddy), which was delicious. I drank a beer from Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp mix pack last night and it was so good. There are too many to mention. It's a great time to be a craft beer drinker.

If you're not drinking beer, what's in your glass?
I drink craft spirits once in a while. Ned [Wight], who used to be an employee at Allagash, just opened up a great distillery around the corner, New England Distilling. I was drinking his rye [Gunpowder Rye Whiskey] this weekend. I occasionally drink wine, but a lot of my life revolves around beer and I love drinking beer. Probably the thing that worried me more than anything when I was starting, was that if i didn't like the beer I was brewing, I'd have trouble selling it. When I started selling White I fell in love with it, and you know, I love it more now than I did 20 years ago. I still love it and I find myself drinking it at home, here at the brewery, in bars, at dinner, and it never gets old and I fall in love with it more with each passing year. I'l occasionally drink spirits and wine but I end up going back to Allagash White.

What advice would you give to a newcomer trying to start a brewery now?
It's a tough business. Make sure it's something you feel like you'll love doing. The first ten years here at the brewery I pretty much worked seven days a week, or I was at least in the brewery every day. Eight hours a day was a short day, 16 hours a day was not uncommon at all. Don't get in it because it's a hot new thing. Get in it because you love it. You're really married to it the first few years. It's a lot of work. It's gotta be a labor of love. Luckily, I love it.

Allagash Brewing Company

50 Industrial Way, Portland, ME 04103 (800) 330-5385 Visit Website