Mug Shots: If you tap it, they will drink

Sep 30, 2009 at 5:00 am

In the spring of 2006, my pal Graham and I embarked on an old-fashioned Great American Road Trip. In addition to a few changes of clothes, the trunk of his late-model Crown Vic was packed with barter ballast: two pony kegs of NABC beer, a 5-pound CO2 tank and tap, and two cases of empty growlers.

A merry pathway across the country was vaguely charted and mostly followed, taking us through Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock and Oklahoma City, then Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Flagstaff and the Mojave Desert. When we hit the Pacific Ocean at San Luis Obispo, the Crown Vic abruptly veered north for three delightful days of coastal California before crossing the Oregon state line en route for Portland.

Whenever possible, our daily meals, evening watering sessions and overnight stopping points were carefully calibrated to coincide with the presence of locally brewed beer, and this is where the growlers truly carried their weight. Filled with Thunderfoot or Hoptimus fresh from our secret trunk tap, we’d negotiate with the waitstaff or off-duty bottling line tenders in brewpubs and at micros, and receive comparable craft-brewed delicacies in return.

In due time, we arrived in Newport, Ore., and occupied our rooms on the second floor of the Rogue Ales Public House, located adjacent to the town’s commercial harbor, and the spiritual epicenter of Rogue Nation.

Rogue Ales is a successful microbrewery that started small at its original inland location more than two decades ago and has grown ever since. It is now the 36th largest brewery in the country. Rogue’s main production brewery is situated across the bay from the Public House, and the company has a handful of satellite on-premise outlets and pub breweries in the Pacific Northwest. Rogue’s ales (and a few lagers) in bottles and kegs are available throughout the United States and have been exported internationally for many years, with Japan a prime destination.

Rogue’s core group of founding visionaries still works together as a team. Brewer John “More Hops” Maier has perfected a house character that is simultaneously inimitable and flexible. In terms of flavor, each beer style he brews is demonstrably singular, and yet at the same time immediately identifiable as a Rogue.

The same aura of integrity goes for Rogue’s packaging and graphics, and for its promotion acumen. There is a palpable sense of community in everything Rogue does, whether across the street from one of the company’s buildings or embracing its adherents nationwide. You’ll never mistake Rogue for any other craft beer — or any other craft brewer.

I thought about Rogue the other day when I heard a comment from a fellow Metro Louisville pub owner, who said, “I’d like to carry a microbrew or two, but really, our customers just don’t want that.”

That’s a cop-out.

I started selling “unwanted” beers in 1984 at a liquor store in downtown New Albany, and Rogue’s three founders followed suit when they commenced brewing in Ashland, Ore., in 1988. Back then, there were fewer than 100 breweries in the United States. Now, both Rogue and Roger own more than one brewing facility, of which there are 1,525 in the country at last count, and craft beer is the only segment of the brewing industry overall that has grown during the recession.

Yes, local pub management can passively choose to satisfy customer demand as it misperceives that demand. Conversely, it can pro-actively create and nurture customer demand by offering a few well-chosen craft beers. It only takes a few craft beer fans to justify the up-front investment, and they’ll return the favor with word-of-mouth — still the most cost-efficient means of advertising.

Where to start? Louisville’s own craft brewers are an obvious choice, but so are industry veterans like Stone, Dogfish Head and Bell’s. Recently I learned of a small-tavern owner who has decided to devote three or more of his five taps to Sierra Nevada’s line. That’s excellent, and I look forward to the addition.

But if I had the time, you’d probably see a Rogue Public House in Louisville.

Gee, how did they ever succeed when no one wanted their beers?


Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit for more beer.