During its twenty-seven-year history, Allagash Brewing Company has won its fair share of accolades and honors while developing an almost cult-like following with its Belgian-focused beers. Their signature brew, Allagash White, has won four gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), and they were named the Brewery of the Year in 2021 at the GABF. Yet, for most drinkers, finding their beers can be challenging if they are not located in one of the nineteen states they are distributed in, most of which are in the Northeast.
Operating out of Portland, Maine, they have grown into the 23rd largest craft brewery in America while resisting the urge to chase the trends that have swept across the craft brewing industry over the last few decades-IPA, seltzers, over-expansion. A big reason for their success has been the steady hand of their founder Rob Tod. He brewed the first batch of beer and grew his one-person shop into a company with over 160 employees today.
His commitment to brewing the finest beers possible led to his winning the 2019 James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer producer. Only three other brewers have ever been recognized with the award. Known for its leadership in sustainable brewing, inclusivity, and positivity, Allagash is regarded by many as the model craft brewery. To find out more about how he guided his brewery through its lean first days, to being the icon it is today, we reached out to Tod. His responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Allagash has always focused on Belgian-inspired beers; even when other styles took off, why not change?
I think it’s just kind of how I’m wired. I mean, if everyone’s going in one direction, I want to go in the other direction. Why not do something additive that gives people a unique, different experience with beer? I look to the Belgium tradition to do that. We probably could have sold a ton more beer in our first ten years if I hadn’t been so focused on selling a white beer style at the time.
It was the mid-nineties, and very few people had even seen a beer like it. It was cloudy, spiced, and fermented with a traditional Belgian yeast strain. I used to walk into accounts, and the first reaction I usually got when I poured it was what’s wrong with it? Why does it look like this? Why does it taste like this? They would put it on tap and tell me it wouldn’t sell, and often they were right.
The first ten years were a battle. It’s the only reason we’re in nineteen states. I never intended to be outside of Maine and definitely not outside of New England. Still, I had to open other states just to sell enough beer to survive. Luckily over time, we’ve been able to go deep into those states and develop them.
I can’t tell you how many times people, even friends of mine that are in the business, said, Rob, why don’t you do something more accessible? Why don’t you make something that can sell? I just didn’t feel like giving into that, I believed in what we were doing, and it finally got traction. I don’t see the point in doing something other people are doing and following trends.
Our continued spirit of innovation has kept us relevant, keeping things exciting for the crew and me here at the brewery. I also feel like there are still many people out there who haven’t discovered the traditional white beer style, and there’s still a ton of opportunity for us to reach customers with that style. We will stay true to ourselves, which has made us loyal fans.
You recently just put your beer into cans and hit the retail package market hard; why change now?
Until Covid hit, it was difficult to get our beer outside the restaurant and bar channel; that was our bread and butter, and it served us very well for years. We really grew that channel and were a mature brand in the states we were in.
We had understood for a number of years pre-pandemic that we did have this huge undeveloped opportunity on the package side of the business. We had decided to put in a state-of-the-art high-speed canning line about a year-and-a-half before the pandemic. We just finished installing it three weeks before the lockdowns happened. Overnight we lost the lion’s share of our business in one day.
I looked at the crew that reports to me, basically the heads of each department, and said, I think we’ve got a couple of choices here given how fast we’re going through cash and how much of our sales went away. We can either lay off 30% of the company, or we can take this four-year plan (to roll out package beer) and make it happen in four months. I gave them the choice because I wasn’t sure if it was doable, and it was going to be a huge lift on everyone’s part. They came back to me a week later and said, not only can we do this, but we also feel like we can do it in three months. And they were the ones that made it happen. I was unsure really if we could pivot that quickly.
While other brewers your size have seemed to rapidly expand over the last decade, many to their regret, you have kept things smaller; why?
I mean, growth for the sake of growth is it has never been something that’s motivated me. I’m a believer in growth, and we’ve been blessed with a lot of growth, but really what inspires me about growth is the ability to do things better. We have been able to add higher quality equipment and grow our philanthropy programs tremendously. We’ve been able to make tons of progress on the sustainability front, and we’re able to improve the employee benefits here at the brewery as we grow. I’m a believer in measured, thoughtful growth.
We’ve grown from our first year’s production of about 250 barrels to around 130,000 barrels this year. We’ve had to go through several years of fairly significant expansion, but we’ve always just tried to be measured and thoughtful about it. We’ve never committed to a huge amount of capital expenditure or growth in a short amount of time that requires two or three years of 30 percent volume or revenue growth to justify it. Whenever we take a step, we try to be incremental about it. We try to take a step where if, for some reason, there is a huge disruption in the economy or the industry, we’re able to weather things just fine.
That’s kind of what happened with Covid. We had just finished a pretty significant expansion with our packaging line. Then a lot of our revenue went away, but we weren’t way out over our skis when that happened. Our growth curve has been a lot more gentle than many breweries that started around the same time we did. We’re, we’re still family-owned, and we’ve just been cautious not to take on too much debt or take on too much leverage. I like to be able to sleep at night. There certainly is debt, but it isn’t so much that we’re in an unhealthy position if something disruptive and unexpected happens.
How does Allagash find new beer ideas?
We’ve got a really cool pilot beer program here. It’s a little 10-gallon system that anyone at the company from any department can go to the team managing it and suggest a beer style. They will then work with them to create it and roll it out. We run that system about a hundred times a year, and that generates so many new beer ideas. You multiply that over the last five years, we have had it up and running, and we have a huge quiver of beers developed that we can reach into to roll out to see what the consumer thinks. That’s where many of our limited releases and our Little Grove line came from. We find brews that people really like that are relevant and that match up to our beliefs through this program.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own brewery or business now?
I couldn’t imagine sitting here looking back on 27 years and not loving the journey regardless of where it took us/me. If you’re going to get into something, get into something you love doing, keep it simple, and do it with integrity. I’m just a huge believer in these three things. You can see that in a lot of our beers.
We have a beer called the Tripel, and when you drink it, it seems like one of our more complex recipes, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s quite simple. That’s what makes it so good. It’s one hop variety, one malt variety, candy sugar, which is traditional in Abbey beers, and the Belgian yeast strain, that’s it. This simple backdrop of items brewed well gives the Belgian strain an opportunity to express itself. That’s what I have strived for here. To make beer, I love, to not overcomplicate it, and to always do things the best way I could. It has served me well so far.