Mid-Atlantic Brewing News August/September 2006
A-B Purchase of Rolling Rock Puts Brewery Future in Doubt
By Rich Wagner
There probably is no other Pennsylvania beer that achieved the kind of cult status that Rolling Rock did in those 7 oz. returnable “Little Nips” in the painted label bottles. The number 33 developed mythic proportions, and the meaning was endlessly debated by devotes and detractors alike. I recall one rathskeller bar in State College where it was de rigueur for tables to be served those little bottles by the case.
When I first visited the brewery in August of 1980 they were on strike, but a guy named “Mike” who had been brought in to help mediate said he’d show us around. I was a little reluctant to cross the picket line, which consisted of brewery workers sitting in lawn chairs, but they said it was all right “as long as you’re not going in there to brew beer!” Mike extolled the virtues of the brand explaining it was known as “The Coors of the East.” This, at a time when the Rocky Mountain brew was unavailable in Pennsylvania and had developed quite a mystique.
As we entered the brew house the brewmaster put down his newspaper and told us to have a look around. This was the first brewery in Pennsylvania I’d seen with a stainless steel kettle! Everything seemed modern and very impressive, and Mike even took us into the cellars where we saw the venerable “Glass-Lined Tanks of Old Latrobe.”
One of the remarkable things was that the brewery only made one product; Rolling Rock. And when they came out with Rolling Rock Light in 1982 I remember thinking, “how could they make it any lighter?” Owned by the Tito family, who introduced the Rolling Rock brand in 1939, it was one of nine breweries left in Pennsylvania, a state that once had more breweries than anywhere else in the nation. In 1987 they sold out to LaBatt Breweries which continued operating the plant, but somehow we all knew Rolling Rock would never be the same. After all, LaBatt’s was Canada’s largest brewer and had been producing Budweiser for the Canadian market since 1980. In 1995 LaBatt’s was purchased by the huge international cartel InBev.
The plain sad truth in all this is that had LaBatt’s not bought Latrobe Brewing Co. the brewery may have gone out of business twenty years ago. The fact that Canada’s largest brewer took the reins probably did more to bolster the company and make it successful than anything else. But as the global economic aspects of manufacturing and marketing become ever more complex, economies of scale become ever larger. As someone who has studied what happened to Pennsylvania breweries after the repeal of prohibition, I find it mind boggling to see the exponential rise in the magnitude and speed of the market forces shaping the industry.
When I heard that A-B was purchasing the Rolling Rock brands, a number of things came to mind. The first was, that the nation’s largest brewer was employing the same strategy Schmidt’s did when it bought up failing regional brands like Duquesne, Erie, Reading Ortlieb and Rheingold thirty years ago in order to increase market share. Secondly, after I read the price paid for the Rolling Rock brands, I read where A-B spent about half that much just to be the official beer sponsor of the World Cup! And lastly, will all this really make any difference in the beer and who consumes it?
Of course, this leads us back to the people who will be most affected by the sale; the 180 union and 70 non-union workers employed by Latrobe, as well as distributors of the Rolling Rock brand and its many loyal drinkers.. There’s talk of boycotting Rolling Rock, and who can blame people whose livelihoods are jeopardized. When the sale was first announced there was a scramble to find a company big enough to buy the brewery and keep the jobs in town. U.S. Rep. John Murtha stepped in to try and broker a deal with Pittsburgh Brewing Co. but that company is having enough trouble staying afloat. The few people I talked to were pessimistic, the brewery was just too big (it has a capacity of 1.2 million barrels per year) and there was no company in a position to buy it. If only Yuengling hadn’t just bought a brewery in Florida and built one in Pennsylvania! They would have been the most likely candidate had this happened a few years earlier. I was heartened when a friend from California told me Sierra Nevada was taking a look at the site as a possible east coast manufacturing location, but that didn’t pan out.
The latest news has been that the City Brewery in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, has shown an interest. I truly hope for the people in Latrobe that something happens to keep the brewery open. I’ve heard that A-B purchased the name Latrobe Brewing Co., so “City Brewery” could be a perfect fit.