HOW ALLAGASH WHITE CONQUERED THE WORLD

by WILL GRUNEWALD
Illustration by PABLO IGLESIAS

_________

Top-secret ingredients and MacGyvered dairy equipment. Old world wisdom and cutting-edge tech. Hollywood celebrity and cult cachet. It's all part of the long, heady history of the curious beer that put Maine suds on the map.

HOW
ALLAGASH
WHITE
CONQUERED
THE
WORLD

by WILL GRUNEWALD
Illustration by PABLO IGLESIAS

_________

Top-secret ingredients and MacGyvered dairy equipment. Old world wisdom and cutting-edge tech. Hollywood celebrity and cult cachet. It's all part of the long, heady history of the curious beer that put Maine suds on the map.

Rob Tod
With a full complement of brewers on staff, Tod doesn't spend as much time on the brewery floor anymore — but that doesn't mean he doesn't want to. All photographs courtesy of Allagash Brewing Company.

IN 1995, a greenhorn Portland brewer named Rob Tod started making a beer called Allagash White — today, one of Maine’s most recognizable exports — but his quintessentially Maine success story actually starts 30 years before, in a small Belgian village called Hoegaarden. White beer, a traditional Belgian style of wheat ale, had gone extinct, wiped out in its home country by mass-market lagers. Then, in 1966, a decade after the style disappeared, a Hoegaarden milkman and amateur brewer named Pierre Celis decided to bring it back. For decades, his white beer sold like gangbusters in Belgium, until a factory fire and business missteps led him to ditch the brewery — and his home country — and start anew in Austin, Texas, in 1992. Within another few years, a failed partnership with Miller Brewing Company had put that brewery on the rocks too, and it folded in 2000. But before it did, a 23-year-old Rob Tod got his hands on a bottle and fell in love with the style.

When Tod founded Allagash Brewing Company, he staked his whole endeavor on his interpretation of a white beer — it’s the only beer he brewed, initially. But American beer drinkers in the mid-’90s wanted crisp and clean, not spiced and hazy. Fellow brewers scoffed at it. Bartenders balked at serving it. And customers were so surprised, many asked point-blank what the hell was wrong with it.

Fast-forward two decades: A Food & Wine survey of beer-world big shots recently ranked Allagash White the fourth most important brew in the annals of American craft beer. Beer geeks from DC to Los Angeles guzzle it by the kegful, and there’s hardly a brewer in the industry who can’t hold forth on its perfection.

So what happened? We asked a wide cast of veteran brewers, journos, bartenders, and beverage industry heavyweights — from Maine to Chicago to Belgium — to help us tell the story of how a scrappy startup in a Portland industrial park turned an unwanted beer into one of the most celebrated pours in American brewing history. Crack open a cold one and drink in the messy, improbable, irresistible ascent of Allagash White.

I. "THE BOY BREWER"

Rob Tod (founder, Allagash Brewing Company): A couple of years out of college, I got hired at Otter Creek Brewing Company, in Vermont. Initially, it was just a job — I needed to make some money, and they needed a part-time keg washer. Two days after I first walked into the place, I called my parents and said, “I’m going to be a brewer for a living.” And a year later, when I was 25, I moved to Portland to start Allagash.

David Geary (founder, D.L. Geary Brewing Company, Maine’s first craft brewer): The first time Rob walked into my brewery, I was making a hydrating ring out of copper tubing at the workbench. I remember he had a ponytail, and I think he was driving a green Volvo with a “Recycle” bumper sticker. He came in the door and said, “Hey, how you doing? I’m opening a brewery over there and just wanted to check out your operation.” So I told him, “Get the f**k out of here.” He said, “What? I won’t be competing with you, because I’m making Belgian styles, not British styles.” And I said, “If you’re making beer, you’re competing with me.”

Tod: That’s how David likes to tell the story. I had an old Chevy pickup, and I don’t recall if it had a recycling sticker, but I definitely had the long hair. I remember walking in, and he was working, and I said, “Hey, I wanted to introduce myself. I’m starting a brewery around the corner.” He just went, “Then I wish you the best of luck,” and walked off. That was it. He was doing it a little bit in jest.

Geary: We both laugh about it now. Once people got to know him, we called him Boy Brewer. Everybody loved Rob, the Boy Brewer.

Mike Dickson (manager, Portland’s Great Lost Bear beer bar): The Boy Brewer! When he shaved his beard, we didn’t even recognize him. He looked like a little kid.

Tod: I only had one year’s experience in the beer business, so I wanted to keep things as simple as possible at first. No employees, a spartan brew system, and one beer only: Allagash White. It took months to get the recipe right. I did my first batch in March. Dumped that. Second batch in April. Dumped that too. I brewed the third batch in May and was basically like, “I need revenue, so I have to sell this beer.” I tweaked the recipe till November, when it tasted the way I wanted it to taste.

Dave Evans (owner, Great Lost Bear): Rob was hanging out at the bar and told us, “I’m a brewer. You’ve got to come over sometime.” We went over there and he had this one-building, one-man operation. He gave us this beer, and it was just like, holy shit, this is really good.

Tod: I decided on three spices in White — coriander and orange peel, which are typical for the style, plus a secret one, just to keep a little mystery.

Tim Adams (cofounder, Maine’s Oxbow Brewing Company, opened in 2011): I grew up in Maine, so White was a hugely influential beer for me, and the whole secret ingredient thing directly relates to what’s so great about that beer, which is that you don’t know what’s going on in there. That’s Belgian-style brewing at its finest: You can’t put your finger on exactly what those spices are, yet it all works in harmony. There’s mystery to it, and it’s beautiful.

Tod: I remember sitting down at Great Lost Bear feeling happy about finally being able to drink the first pint of my own beer poured in a bar. I had one, then another, and then it hit me: “I have to get back to work!” So I got up and headed right back to the brewery.

II. "WHAT THAT CRAZY GUY, ROB TOD, IS DOING."

Ned Wight (Allagash brewer, 1996–2001): I was Rob’s first employee. I worked 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. most days, and Rob was there when I got there and there when I left.

Tod: I had a shoestring budget. I cut the drainage trenches in the floor, dug out sand underneath the slab to install plumbing. I did a ton of welding, all the carpentry. I got an old 1960s dairy tank from a scrapyard and refit it for brewing. For a while, I even made the tap handles myself, which was probably not a good use of my time, but it saved $20 a pop. The first year-and-a-half, I took six days off — four Sundays and a full weekend.

Jason Perkins (Allagash brewmaster since 2008): I started in 1999 — literally knocked on the door one day and started work a week later, washing tanks, bottling, all sorts of things. Those were hard, lean years. Rob was probably putting in 100-hour weeks. The original space had no windows. We were doing everything ourselves: piping tanks, running electrical. We didn’t have pitched floors, so at the end of brew days, water pooled everywhere — there was nothing worse after working a 10-hour day, when all you wanted to do was sit and have a beer, than squeegeeing for an hour.

Tod: I remember one Christmas Eve, when my first daughter was probably four, I ducked over to the brewery to quickly take samples, and a pump was leaking, enough so that it needed to be fixed. I was there five hours. The next morning, I opened presents with my daughter for an hour and then went in for eight hours and rebuilt that pump. That’s just what it often took.

Sam Calagione (founder, Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery, also opened in 1995): A tiny brewery starting up in Maine and focusing on what was then such an esoteric style was a huge anomaly. In the mid ’90s, you couldn’t give exotic beers away — drinkers weren’t that adventurous. I remember chatting with a bigger New England brewery owner back then — I won’t say the name — and he was like, “Oh man, we have this really unique pale ale, and that style is going to bring mass-market beer drinkers over to craft — unlike what that crazy guy, Rob Tod, is doing.”

Dickson: British-style ales dominated Maine 20 years ago, all brewed with a British yeast strain known as Ringwood yeast: brands like Shipyard, Geary’s, Gritty’s. That’s all we knew.

Shahin Khojastehzad (co-owner, Portland’s Novare Res beer bar): Everyone else was part of the Ringwood mafia, but Allagash White was completely different. It was the first beer to really start pushing the envelope.

Geary: Rob’s White is designed to have a little haze, and I always joked with him — I’d say, “I can fix that.”

Tod: I’d walk into a bar and pour samples, and the first thing bartenders would say was, “What’s wrong with this? Why is it cloudy? Why does it taste like this?”

Adams: At this point, it’s like urban legend how hard it was for Rob to sell White. When bars wouldn’t buy his beer, he just kept hanging out, kept being Rob, kept tactfully pushing it until, finally, they sold it. It’s really kind of inspiring: like, don’t just expect that a bar is going to put your stuff on — you have to work hard for it.

Tod: No one wanted to put it on. And honestly, they were probably smart, because if it went on, it didn’t sell. Brian Boru Public House, for instance, kept it on for 10 years as one of their worst-selling beers, just because I went in a lot. I can’t tell you how many times people came up to me and were like, “Why don’t you brew something people want to drink?” And honestly, I was tempted. But I never saw the point in running a brewery only to make a beer people could already get.

Charlie Papazian (founder, Brewers Association and Great American Beer Festival): In those days, the education of the beer drinker was as much a part of your job as making beer. And distributors, retail stores, bars — they aren’t going to touch a beer unless they understand it. You had a long haul. Rob’s been successful, but it certainly hasn’t been an overnight success. I think sometimes that aspect of success gets lost on people.

Tod: The first 10 years were not easy. There weren’t a lot of pats on the back — but there were calls from people we owed money. We were just grinding it out day after day, year after year. There was a fun element, but I honestly don’t think of it as the good old days.

Allagash Brewing Co.
Allagash Brewing Co.
Allagash Brewing Co.

III. "WE'RE SPREAD TOO THIN."

Tod: We started distributing out of state when Miller pulled Celis out of a bunch of markets in the late ’90s. A Massachusetts distributor called me right away to see if we could backfill his supply of the style. It wasn’t in my original plan, but after that, just to survive — because the beer still wasn’t selling in southern Maine — I opened up as many other markets as I could. We didn’t have any actual sales reps on payroll until 2009, so it was just me. I’ve spent countless days on the road: doing events, talking to bartenders, distributors, customers.

Dickson: He was everywhere. One time, I was in South Carolina, visiting my brother, and I walked into a little beer shop and saw Allagash bottles. I said, “That’s great, you’ve got Allagash.” And the guy said, “Oh, you missed Rob! He was just here.”

Michael Roper (owner, Chicago’s Hopleaf beer bar): Rob is kind of famous for his very short visits — he’ll fly into town early, meet with a distributor, go to a couple of bars, and fly out late at night. Before he started bringing Allagash into our market in 2002, we had a period when we didn’t have an American-brewed white beer. But there was pent-up demand for the style, because we’d previously had a great availability of imports and Celis White. So when Allagash arrived in Chicago, it was a hit. It went on one of our draft faucets, and it has never left.

Kate Bernot (former editor, Draft magazine): I was living in Evanston, Illinois, after college, and if you really wanted good Belgian-style beer you went to Hopleaf in Chicago. That may have been the first place I had Allagash White. In college, I drank stupid amounts of Coors’ Blue Moon. Then, a bartender was like, “Hey, you should try this other thing instead.”

Papazian: In its own way, Blue Moon probably helped popularize Allagash White, because you had a large brewing company marketing a version of a white beer.

Perkins: It’s nowhere near the quality of our White, but having Blue Moon on the scene certainly helped some.

Calagione: A lot of American consumers cut their teeth on Blue Moon, then “traded up” to more flavorful beers like Allagash White.

Tod: The brand really started getting some traction in 2006 — for probably a whole lot of reasons, and some of them I’ll never know. We’ve never done sophisticated marketing studies like a lot of bigger companies might.

Perkins: People were becoming more aware of craft beer in general around then, and I think all of the work that Rob had done developing relationships and explaining the beer was paying off.

Theresa McCulla (Smithsonian beer historian): Among many successful craft brewers, there’s this dedication to introducing something new, even if the consumer isn’t ready for it. In certain cases, the brewer really led the consumer into something, and I think Rob did that with Allagash White.

Tod: We’d opened up a bunch of markets — I was covering 30 states and 50 distributors by myself. But when the beer actually started catching on, we started to grow fast. We were selling a little bit of beer in a lot of markets, so the beer wasn’t getting rotated all the time — people weren’t getting fresh beer. We were doing a mediocre job in a lot of places. We had a small team back then, maybe eight people, and we kind of looked at each other and said, “We’re spread too thin.”

Allagash keg
Allagash coolship

IV. "THINGS GOT CRAZY."

Tod: We got into places like Chicago and DC and California in the first place just to sell enough beer to survive, but the reason we’re still in those particular markets is the beer turned out to be very relevant there.

Adams: Around ’08 and ’09, I used to hang out at the Reef, a bar in DC. It was this huge source of pride that they were one of the biggest Allagash White accounts in the country. They had this rooftop bar and they’d just crush Allagash there. DC summertime, rooftop deck, Allagash White — pretty perfect. I think that’s why they do so well in California too. My sister lives out there and she says every bar you go to, there’s Allagash White.

John Verive (LA-based beer writer; certified cicerone): LA was always a Corona town — it didn’t really have its own local beer industry until 2010. But since before then, Allagash White was a pillar of the bar scene. I live in Hollywood, and White is on the list at just about every decent beer place. It’s such a perfect beer for the LA climate — it pairs great with sunshine. It’s one of the best patio beers around.

Tod: Right as White was catching on, we decided to pull out of markets where it hadn’t clicked. Since then, we’ve grown from 4,000 to almost 100,000 barrels a year — we’re doing 25 times the volume in half the territory. And now everywhere we sell beer, we know it’s fresh.

Perkins: When we expanded in ’07, I think we had maybe 10 or 11 employees. The new space was sprawling, and I said we’d never need another building. I was wrong about that, but it was still a huge jump — and a huge expense, which made us nervous. But growth really started to pop from 2007 to 2010 — like 30 percent growth, 35 percent, I think we had a 42 percent in there. Things got crazy. It’s hard to even remember anything from those days. We just held onto the reins, not really doing any planning. We need new tanks? Buy tanks. We need new people? Hire people. Now, there are about 130 employees working here. And our lineup has grown a lot, but White is still about 80 percent of our overall sales.

Roper: Rob’s lucky that he has such a successful flagship beer. A lot of the new craft breweries do one-off after one-off, but a flagship like White can subsidize so much experimentation.

Tod: We have a little 10-gallon pilot system, and any of our employees — in accounting, or the lab, or the retail store — can brew on it. A lot of those beers become full-scale production beers. Last summer, we had a beer made with Champagne yeast that Mariah, who works in administration, came up with.

Khojastehzad: Some people still come into Novare and are like, holy shit, they make more than just White? We had 41 different Allagash beers on the other day.

Papazian: A really important aspect of what Belgian brewing is about is continued innovation, and that’s what Rob and Allagash have done.

Adams: Back in 2006, Rob was part of a small group of U.S. brewers that Sam Calagione organized for a trip to Belgium. They call themselves the Brett Pack, because that was the moment when brettanomyces [a wild yeast strain that can produce flavors from fruity to funky] started infiltrating the U.S. — not to mention spontaneous fermentation. For any American brewer that came after Allagash in trying spontaneous fermentation, Allagash was the one that broke trail and showed that you can do it in the States.

Calagione: At Cantillon, the famous Lambic brewery, Rob and I climbed the stairs to the attic, where they keep their coolship, the vat where the beer gets spontaneously colonized by yeasts and bacteria in the environment. We were sitting there with the roof slits open, the night air coming in, the steam coming off the beer. We were just quiet for a second, and then Rob turned to me and said, “You know what, Sam? I’m going to build a coolship in Maine.” That was a great moment that I’ll never forget.

Tod: It was a bit of an act of faith. The generally held belief, really, in the world of brewing at the time, was that you could only make these beers in the Senne River Valley area of Belgium.

Sean Sullivan (executive director, Maine Brewers’ Guild): They were like explorers crossing the sea, coming back, and sharing the wealth of everything they learned.

Yvan De Baets (head brewer and cofounder, Brasserie de la Senne, near Brussels): Now, Allagash’s spontaneously fermented beers can easily outcompete some of the very good ones we have in Belgium.

Adams: You go to a brewery or a bar in Belgium as a brewer and say “Maine,” and they’ll say, “Allagash!” Because of Allagash, we’ve piqued a lot of international interest. Everybody’s like, “What’s up with Maine? There’s a lot of great beer coming out of it.”

Eric Michaud (co-owner, Novare Res): Belgians — nobody’s more of a critic of beer than those guys. They just tear apart everything, especially American beers. The fact that they’ve embraced Allagash and recognize that it’s world-class is really cool.

Calagione: There are brewers in this industry who got a hot flagship and then didn’t stay dynamic or adventurous. I think Allagash deserves a lot of credit for not allowing that to happen.

Tod: I doubt our experimental stuff makes any money. These beers take, on average, about two years to make. When you look at the overhead, I don’t think the beers support themselves. White supports them.

Adams: Even though that sector of their production isn’t nearly as profitable, just knowing they make those beers makes White that much more special. It’s a whole brand image: these guys are cutting-edge and not resting on their laurels. If White was all they brewed, there might be some brand fatigue, even with that beer as good as it is.

Allagash Brewing Company

V. "YOU DON'T WANT ANYTHING ELSE?"

Roper: It was kind of unexpected when I first realized that Rob never orders his specialty beers. His favorite beer seems to be White. The founder of the brewery still has a love affair with his original creation.

Tod: It’s basically all I drink. I love our other beers, but I just always seem to gravitate back to White. Every once in a while, I still discover an aroma or flavor I’ve never gotten before.

Bernot: You can go out and drink all the crazy barrel-aged stouts and stuff with habaneros in it, but I have more appreciation than ever for the brewing skill it takes to make a subtle, balanced, really true-to-style beer. Allagash White is a technically beautiful beer — and it tastes so damn good. It’s like a little black dress: it’s not the flashiest thing on the rack, but it’s not going to go out of style.

Khojastehzad: There are super-hyped brewers who come to the bar and order White. And I’m like, “You can order anything you want — you don’t want anything else?” And they say, “No, I just really feel like a White right now.”

De Baets: Allagash White is probably the best beer in this style that exists. I gave it a gold medal while judging the World Beer Cup — a totally blind tasting, of course — and that really says how I feel about it.

Tod: The funny thing is, it wasn’t that long ago that you could come out to the brewery on a Saturday and stand on this road for 15 minutes and not see one car drive by. Back in ’95 or ’96, I put a sign next to our door that said “Tours and Tastings.” I don’t know if I even posted specific times. I was showing my parents around, and my mom looked at the sign and said, “Rob, no one is going to come out here to this industrial park.”

Perkins: Even in the summer, we maybe got a handful of people a week for tours. I remember, after work a couple of times, teeing off golf balls outside — the two businesses behind us now weren’t there yet. There was nobody out here.

Dickson: I used to call over and say, “Hey, I’ve got five people here at the bar interested in a tour,” and they’d say, “Send them on over.” Those days are long gone.

Allagash White samples

Twenty years ago, Rob Tod couldn’t give away his beer, and in a sense, he still can’t: Allagash had to end free tastings because of how many visitors the brewery draws now. Without charging, Allagash would have given away some 1,000 kegs of beer last year.

Tod: Now, on an average Saturday, we might get 1,500 visitors. A few months ago, I was walking by an empty building across the street with our marketing director, and I kind of half jokingly said, “Fifty bucks there’s a brewery in that building by summer.” A week later, there’s a sign out front that a new brewery’s going in.

Evans: It’s crazy out there on Industrial Way now, with all the newer breweries that have sprung up around Allagash — Maine Beer Company, Foundation, Austin Street, Battery Steele, Definitive.

Dan Kleban (cofounder, Maine Beer Company, now in Freeport): My brother and I were putting together our business plan, probably sometime in 2007, and we reached out to the few brewers who were in Portland. We just said, “Hey, we’re two dudes wanting to start a brewery.” Rob was the only one to actually talk with us. I’m sure what went through his mind was like, “Oh, geez, these two characters.” But he took time to share his experience. It was awesome starting up across the street from him. He made a very obvious point to direct his employees to help us as much as they could. Jason and some of the other brewers would take 45 minutes and teach me something like how to do a cell count. Or if we were short on hops, they’d be the first to step up to the plate and help.

Khojastehzad: Look at, say, Rising Tide or Maine Beer Company or any of the other half-dozen breweries that started in Allagash’s ’hood. I really feel like they wouldn’t be in the positions they are without Allagash’s stewardship and guidance.

Evans: Rob’s not changed, despite all the success and growth. He’s one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. Period. I mean when he comes into the Great Lost Bear, he knows the names of the bartenders’ children.

Khojastehzad: He’s just like that dude who bellies up at the bar and you have a normal conversation with. He’s not at all pretentious. He’s just a rad guy. The first time I had a conversation with him here, we just talked about Steely Dan.

Evans: Rob hasn’t changed, and the other thing that’s important is neither has the beer. It always tastes the same.

Tod: We’ve been able to invest in state-of-the-art quality control. We brew about 98,000 barrels of beer a year now. A couple of years ago, we had a batch of Saison that failed its sensory evaluation in quality control. We had to dump 240 barrels of it. That’s more beer than we produced our whole first year. To me, White tastes exactly the same as it did 20-plus years ago.

Khojastehzad: You know what you’re getting every single time with White. I’ll be at the Omaha airport or some such place, and they’ll have it on tap. When I see a White handle somewhere like that, it’s a shining light in the darkness. Sometimes you’ll hear beer geeks say, “But you can get that anywhere.” And I’m like, “How is that a problem?

Sullivan: When you look at the consistency and the success Rob’s achieved, I bet people are knocking on his door once a week looking to buy — private equity firms, venture capitalists, big breweries — and I’m sure they’ve made generous offers.

Tod: I think I’ve said no so many times to so many people that they’ve stopped bothering. I didn’t get into this to build a brewery and then sell it. I got into it to make beer. I don’t know what the hell I’d do if I sold this thing. I mean, our beer is the only thing I know. I love it more than I did a year ago, and I loved it more a year ago than I did five years before that.

Perkins: You know, we’ve gotten to do a lot of really cool things. But in the context of the time when it was created, White is still probably more innovative than anything else we’ve ever brewed.

Tod: Honestly, even if it had never really caught on, we’d probably still be here, in the original building, with maybe a few employees. I’d be coming to work every day in my jeans and flannel, just making white beer.

Allagash Brewing Company hosts its annual Street Fair in Portland on June 23. Will Grunewald is Down East‘s associate editor.

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Will Grunewald

Will Grunewald is Down East's associate editor.