A hard-knock future for Rolling Rock beer

I’m trying my best this morning not to see parallels between the fate of our lives as misfits in the 21st Century, and the disturbing news about Rolling Rock beer.

But, just like unlucky Moe Greene and that other sorry goombah in The Godfather, you have to conclude that someone who goes to the trouble of placing a horse`s head on your mattress is trying to tell you something.

(c) 1939, Latrobe Brewing Company
(c) 1939, Latrobe Brewing Company

Allow me that filmic comparison, for a green bottle depicting a horse`s head was the precise trademark imagery that built Rolling Rock into a semi-great brand, back when suds were sold regionally and promoted sparingly. Rolling Rock, made by the Latrobe Brewing Company in Pennsylvannia, could afford only cardboard signs for point-of-sale, which declared their brew to be the Coors of the East. Coors used to be unavailable on the right-hand side of the Rockies, where it had established word-of-mouth demand through scarcity. Liquor store owners in the suburbs of Washington, DC would pay truckers to sneak a few dozen cases back from Colorado, and would mark them up accordingly for those willing to pay.

Rolling Rock, also a pale, understated lager, and also the sole brand of its manufacturer, attempted to horn in on the Coors cachet, which was silly, because Coors was already planning its assault on the east coast. Beside which, Rolling Rock had so much more to offer, in the form of its distinctive containers.

All you can really add is `33`
All you can really add is `33`

Latrobe never modernized its package design, sticking with a funky 1930s look painted directly on green glass. Enhancing the oddball allure, each bottle was inscribed with the following pledge: “From the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe, we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment as a tribute to your good taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you.” Those heartfelt remarks, stiff as an unrehearsed Knights of Columbus toast, concluded with the number “33,” a throwaway reference that could only be meant to puzzle central Pennsylvannia retirees, student journalists, and others with plenty of time on their hands.

Rolling Rock was destined to become an early accoutrement of geek-chic. Just after the local Latrobe owners were ready to sell, it fell to the new bosses, the Labatt folks out of London, Ont., to pair the unchanging Rock label with David Byrne’s affecting lyric, “Same as it ever was.” Presto. Out of all the dozens of tiny independent Quaker State beer brands that were still hanging in at the tail end of the 1980s (Bartels! Gibbons! Stegmeier!), only Rolling Rock was acknowledged to be cool. Some college kids, last night`s puke still stuck to their Converse All-Stars, affectionately called it Green Death, confusing Rolling Rock with Mickey`s Big Mouth, an overproof midwestern malt liquor.

Edgy coolness, of course, is always the first signal of the coming death-rattle. Labatt was bought by Belgians, who saw to it that Rolling Rock was available in places it never belonged, such as smart pubs in the West End of London, where it was served alongside Stella Artois and other things consumed by poseurs in PriMark lesiureware. The Brits, a thirsty race, never swallowed the “33” mystique, and didn’t know Latrobe from Le Freak. Meanwhile, the Belgians were occupied trying to control the planet’s beer consumption, and slowly nurturing quirky little brands is not part of their business plan. They ditched Rolling Rock in 2006, pocketing $82 million from Anheuser-Busch.

The A-B management team wasted no time in determining exactly what made Rolling Rock special, and then they blew it all up. Glass-lined tanks? Get rid of them. Old Latrobe? Screw that. Production was moved to a New Jersey factory, and the brand image was further destroyed by introducing a range of indifferent new products. The Belgians, fortified with a new brain trust of cut-throat Brazilian executives, which sounds like some kind of joke but isn`t, turned their sights to Busch family themselves, those fat `n` happy St. Louis mouth-breathers who tended Bud and Michelob, and were barely aware that they`d acquired Rolling Rock. Fifty-two billion bucks convinced the Busch bunch to part with their family legacy. By that point Rock sales had already fallen by a third within five years, and A-B was promoting the stuff with a sad slogan, “Born Small Town,” which underlined how the once-proud suds were pumped out alongside Bud ‘n’ whatnot next to a Hess refinery just off the New Jersey Turnpike.

Picturesque setting in which to imagine your beer being made

A more honest slogan would have been, ‘We just don’t care.’

Well, then, here’s a surprise. The Wall Street Journal today reports that the Belgians, now calling themselves Anheuser-Busch InBev, are looking to unload Rolling Rock for a second time. They engaged Lazard Freres to go find a buyer, but were disappointed when the merchant bankers came back and said, “No one’s willing to pay any serious money now that you idiots have destroyed the brand.” (It emerges that the Latrobe brewery, and with it any claim to continuity or legitimacy, was earlier parceled off separately to a group from Wisconsin.)

That leaves a couple of schleppers who may still be interested in picking up Rolling Rock, if the price is right. The most logical fit would be with KPS Capital Partners, which recently bought the old Genesee plant in Rochester, N.Y., and also purchased the rights to distribute Labatt stateside, which for practical purposes means metropolitan Detroit, western New York, and a couple of counties in Connecticut. Restoring the Genesee brand has proven to be a mug’s game, and my guess is that Rolling Rock isn’t about to start rolling uphill, either. With retail and tavern space tightly controlled by a couple of dominant suppliers, and with thousands of new products emerging annually from the beverage industry, it’s hard to picture the precise niche for a flattened brewski with a 1930s pedigree.

It’s just as easy these days to pay a qualified Mumbai graphic designer $75 to design a brand new logo and fresh product identity. Of course, what you can’t buy — or buy back — for $75 is your soul, and you’d be setting the stage for tragedy if you thought you could try. Rolling Rock had one: a distinctly American, pre-War soul that would have much to say to us right now in our current circumstances, except that it`s silent, quiet as the late thoroughbred sleeping next to the guy who crossed the Corleones. So, here’s our Belgian-inspired “tribute to your good taste.” Drink up your Bud, asshole, and be like everyone else.

____________________________________________

  • Mitch doesn’t quite get around to sampling Molson Canadian 67 in this November 2009 post
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4 thoughts on “A hard-knock future for Rolling Rock beer

  1. OHHH NO!!
    Man, I loved RR.
    I moved out to SoCal and the bars out here tried to push it as a premium beer, cuz of the green bottles!! Seriously. Typical of AB. Prolly turned it into some rice beer with a nasty after taste like their Bud crappola. God I hate Bud. They’ll prolly do the same to Miller.

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