Could a brewery open its doors in 2016 selling only a cloudy, Belgian witbier? Just take that one beer, a style that isn’t exactly inspiring long lines at brewery-only releases, brew it really well, and build a brewery—and reputation—from there? Probably not. But that’s exactly how it all started for Rob Tod in 1995. He was swimming upstream in those early days.
“Honestly, I probably should have thought the business side through a little better,” Tod says. “For the first 10 years, we basically couldn’t give the beer away—there were many periods when I wondered if I’d made an unwise decision. I never imagined we’d even be selling 1/10th of what we’re selling now.”
But something happened along the way. Craft started picking up. Tap handles at bars—and beer buyers in general—got a little more adventurous. Suddenly, Tod’s cherished brew seemed like it might have a future, though he underestimated that future’s brightness.
“I honestly thought there was a very good chance we would only sell White beer, draft only, in Maine, for my entire life,” he says.
White is the rare beer whose name is virtually synonymous with its maker, and so it’s become a surrogate of sorts for the Allagash brand. Tod’s worked hard to ensure that representation has been consistent, and it was something he thought about in those early days, too.
“When I started college, there were fewer than 100 breweries in the entire country and the number of brands you could get were very limited,” Tod remembers. “By the time I started the brewery just a few years later, there were 700—and 25 in Maine. I thought it was very important to make sure that every time the customer saw an Allagash draft handle they knew what to expect.”
Allagash started in a rather quaint way. Tod’s first beer job was at Otter Creek in 1993. “When I started there were three other employees, and when I left there were around eight people,” he says.
Fresh out of college, he was just looking for a job, any job, not necessarily one in beer. And that’s what Otter Creek was—at first. But he moved quickly from cleaning kegs to filling them with the beer he was brewing.
“The first month I was washing kegs, second month I was washing kegs and working on [the] bottling line, third month I was brewing [and] by the time I left I was brewing four days a week,” Tod says.
Otter Creek exposed him to different styles and flavors, including different beers from places he’d never visited—Belgium in particular. Tod had rented a house with a friend in Middlebury, Vermont. Whenever he’d go to the liquor store, he’d pick up a new Belgian-style beer. He was in discovery mode. One of those beers was Celis White, and his initial impression was not favorable.
“I bought a six pack, brought it home, took a sip and immediately said, ‘there’s something wrong with this,’” Tod remembers. He handed it to his friend for a second opinion. His friend kind of liked it, so Tod snatched the bottle back, and his opinion slowly changed.
“I drank the first bottle and I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll try another bottle,’” he says. “It was starting to grow on me. By the time we finished the six pack, I was completely hooked on the style.”
It’s during this period of time that Allagash was born. “[Belgian whites are] so drinkable and refreshing, and also so distinctive and complex—so much going on with flavor,” Tod says. “I loved it 22 years ago, and I love it more with each passing day. It’s what I drink at bars, at restaurants, at home.”
Barely a year into Otter Creek, Tod ventured out on his own. He’d brew his white beer, and make it uniquely his own.
“I knew I had only one year of experience and no employees,” he remembers. “I tried to keep things as simple as possible so I could focus on getting it right. I just did eight 10-gallon pilot batches, got it close. Once the larger system was up and running, I brewed two large batches, and then sold the third.”
There were a number of tweaks in those first six months, but not much since, a pretty consistent track record for a beer that’s 20 years old. “Between July of 1995 and November of 1995 I tweaked it a bunch,” Tod says. “Nothing major, but a bunch of tweaks. But I remember what the beer tasted like back in 1995 and it tastes the same now.”
Meanwhile, the craft beer world was not equipped like it is today—support systems for opening a new place were practically non-existent. Tod had to make do.
“We were on a shoestring—using old dairy tanks, no pitched floors, cobbled together,” he says. “We didn’t start with a lot of resources. But I looked at it as a huge benefit. If we do everything, it makes it more uniquely ‘us.’ We didn’t have a business consultant telling us what our values should be. We didn’t have a brewing consultant writing a recipe for us and putting a system together.”
Making White was only the first step, of course. Getting it out into the world was a different problem entirely. The Great Lost Bear is a Portland, ME craft beer institution. Opened in 1979, at a time when acquiring craft beer was vastly different than it is now, it’s kept its doors and its tap lines—now 78 of them—open for craft beer enthusiasts ever since. It’s also the very first place that stocked Allagash White.
Much like brewing, owning a craft beer bar was very different in the ‘90s. While bars today are faced with paralyzing choice, back then, The Great Lost Bear had to hustle to get interesting beers on tap.
“We would drive to Boston to pick up unusual and experimental beers from Samuel Adams, swing over to Boston Beer Works to get some beer, and stop at Ipswich Brewing or Berwick Brewing to get a keg or two,” Great Lost Bear co-owner Dave Evans says.
He recalls the very day Tod asked to put White on tap: “We went over to his one-man brewery to try one of the first pilot batches. It was a hot summer day, and three of us from The Bear happily tried this ‘new’ style of beer. It was love at first sip.”
Evans says White was pretty popular from the start. But more notable is its staying power, how it remains a hit to this day, 4,000 breweries later. “Allagash White is our number one selling draft beer and has been for at least the last seven years or so,” Evans says. “We may sell more White than any other bar in Maine. That means quite a bit, as it’s competing with 77 other beers—including five others from Allagash.”
White constitutes about 80% of Allagash’s total production. That’s a lot of eggs in one basket. So how they get it into the hands of customers is important. You’d think maybe, what with the seemingly infinite amount of beer options given to drinkers these days, that they'd labor over their strategy. Not so much.
“We don’t really market White,” marketing director Jeff Pillet-Shore says. “We share it. We want people to try it and enjoy it on its own merits. White is certainly our best- and most-widely-known beer. And for so many people, it is the first Allagash beer they ever try. There’s no beer we love more.”
Craft beer is experiencing an interesting, sustained renaissance at the moment. But perhaps one casualty of that—particularly with new drinkers—is loyalty. The ability to constantly seek out and try new beers drives drinkers to explore. And who can fault them? Craft’s explosion has ushered in a wealth of possibilities and options, so why wouldn’t drinkers seek out the latest and greatest? And yet, this beer from 1995 abides. It took home the gold medal in the Belgian-Style Witbier category at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival. Among 82 entrants, and some 20 years later, White prevailed.
For his part, Tod kinda shrugs. The hard part’s over, after all. Back in the day, he made a beer he likes to drink. These days, lots of other people like drinking it, too.
“I’m glad we’re still around,” he says. “For the first 10 years there were many days I didn’t think we’d be around because no one wanted it. I’m glad there’s some acceptance and that people are enjoying it. And I’m glad I’m still enjoying it.”