Letís Save Rock Bottom
The Rock Bottom brewpub chain has a big secret. Itís an open secret, but something that most people, even many beer nerds, donít know. I myself was unaware of this secret until a ten-minute talking-down from the brewer at the Chicago location corrected my misconception of the chain.
The secret is this: There are no standardized brews at Rock Bottom.
Thatís right; every beer at every store is an original creation of the head brewer at that store. While some beer names are used across the chain, the beers behind the names are unique. The food menu is standardized, but the beer menu is not. Brewers have essentially total control of the beers that they produce.
Over the 20 years that the chain has been in existence, this open policy toward brewers has resulted in 45 GABF gold medals and countless silver and bronze medals. Rock Bottom brewers are consistently among the medal-winners in the World Beer Cup and other prestigious brewing competitions. Many Rock Bottom brewers have gone on to open their own breweries or to work at other successful breweries. Surly brewmaster Todd Haug is one example. Anyone who has visited Rock Bottom with any frequency knows that this chain brewpub is different from the others.
This difference is in jeopardy. The recent merger between Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch has been widely reported. Initially Frank Day, co-founder of Rock Bottom and board chairman of the newly formed company CraftWorks Restaurants and Breweries, stated that no re-branding would occur. ďEach brand will stay separate and do its own thingÖweíre not wanting to homogenize the restaurants.Ē The problem with this statement is that while it may rule out homogenization between the different concepts, it doesnít preclude increased homogenization within each concept.
That appears to be exactly what is happening at Rock Bottom. As first reported on Brewpublic.com, it seems that the new corporate management intends to limit the amount of control that Rock Bottom brewers have over their production. Sources inside the chain have leaked the information that a number of system-wide, standard beers will soon be required at each location. Because the chain has never done a particularly good job of marketing the fact that each storeís beers are unique, this isnít technically a ďre-branding.Ē It is, however, a bad idea on many levels.
Unlike the Hops, BJís, and Gordon Biersch chains that serve the same beers across the entire system, each Rock Bottom store has a different brewery setup. While every Gordon Biersch has a reverse osmosis system in place to standardize the brewing water, every Rock Bottom location uses different water. Consistency across batches is hard enough for a small brewery. Consistency across a number of small breweries with different systems and water is a near impossibility. If managementís intention is to give guests a consistent experience from store to store, they will most likely miss their mark.
And besides, who really wants another Hopís, BJís, or Gordon Biersch? In a world overflowing with Benihoulafridaybeeís restaurant concepts do we really need another totally-interchangeable, cookie-cutter dining experience? Craft beer is the only segment of the beer industry currently seeing consistent growth. Part of that success is due to a growing desire in the public for all things local. People are beginning to seek out fine food and drink. Grocery stores are beefing up gourmet food sections. Restaurants and bars are offering more and more eclectic beer selections. The number of operating farmers markets saw 16% growth from 2009 to 2010. Why is CraftWorks looking to homogenization when uniqueness and higher quality are the trends of the future?
Rather than trying to limit brewer freedom at Rock Bottom, CraftWorks should be developing a coherent marketing strategy to sell it. They should be shouting from the hilltops that every visit to Rock Bottom is a unique experience. They should boldly declare that their brewers are among the nationís best, and they should be trotting out their competition medals to prove it.
I am encouraging beer-lovers to send this message to CraftWorks management. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
. Use the power of Facebook and Twitter to spread the word. Blog about it. Tell your friends.
Letís save Rock Bottom.