Jack Joyce was a pioneer. The one time Nike exec, lawyer and beer buccaneer co-founded one of America’s greatest modern breweries — Rogue. Today, his son Brett Joyce brings a fresh generation of innovation and insanity to today’s brewing industry. Rogue Ales and Spirits (as it’s called today) currently sits No. 34 on the Brewers Association’s top craft breweries of 2015 by volume, and that seems like the perfect spot for such a talented, fuck-all-the-rules scalawag. We’ve been visiting with Rogue all week, and we’re completely convinced of its devil-may-care commitment to creativity. Brett is the next visionary in that mission statement, and we got the opportunity to pick his brain this week at Rogue headquarters in Portland. For that, we are thankful. Here’s what we discovered.
Brett, thanks for taking the time. We really appreciate it. First off: How has 2016 been for Rogue? Rogue as a brand has always had this theme of revolution — how do you feel that revolution is growing today? What big projects are you pushing in 2016? Is it harder out there than ever before?
I think we’re about on track, where we thought we’d be. You ask is it harder. I think, yes, the competition is fierce. We all, as brewers, understand that. We know that, and I guess we accept the challenge. You can’t do anything about the competition, right? So the competitive environment and market conditions force you forward, but they’re going to be whatever they are, and I can’t control any of that. So all we try to do here at Rogue is to work on getting better every day in terms of what we do whether that be, you know, product, packaging, concept, creativity, go-to-market marketing, social media, whatever — all those things. It’s just about getting better every day.
Does it take more to be better today?
I think the standards that you have to achieve, the skills you have to have and the quality of your total brand have to be a lot greater today than it ever was before. So I think it’s probably a rare craft brewer sitting around going, man, we’ve got this thing figured out. We can just put it on cruise control. It’s fiercely competitive, and to me that’s kind of part of the final challenge, trying to figure out how you navigate all that and how you work all that.
What’s going on at the brewery? We’ll be there in a few days.
We’re in the final month of a 27,000-square-foot brewery expansion, but it’s really more for warehouse space. So that was a big project we undertook this year. It’s a multimillion-dollar project. It’s contiguous with our brewery to the east of our current facility. So that’s a big deal. We’re in the process of procuring a canning line. So that’s a big initiative that will be installed in the next 60 to 90 days. That’s a real big deal. So, we’re working on the facility portion of that, and then obviously marketing the product — what you’re going to put in those cans. Unfortunately, we’re always spending money. That’s how it goes in our business. So it’s been, definitely, a big capital intensive year for sure.
Who did you get with for your canning line?
Wild Goose, Colorado.
Did you go with them for any particular reason?
It’s a high-quality machine, right size, lead time was what we could deal with. It didn’t have to come from overseas where it was going to take a long, long time. We also liked having the service install be local. We have other German, Italian brew systems, bottle lines. If everything’s equal, you’d certainly rather not have to have somebody fly in from overseas to fix a problem. So, it’s definitely nice to have it come from the states.
Are you having trouble finding cans at all? I know there’s talk of shortages out there constantly.
We haven’t had a hard time finding them. The minimum seems to be going up, so that you definitely have to buy more if you want a decent price on it. But in terms of actually finding the aluminum, that hasn’t been a problem for us.
I’m a really big fan of your GYO beers. Why is it important for you and for the company and the brewery to bring the supply chain in house, to localize that supply chain? Why is that fun?
It’s been seven, going on eight, years now. I think it’s fun because it’s so personal and so real for us, because we’re out there, and we’re in the dirt at the farm. It just becomes part of you and almost part of your family. And it takes a lot to do that, right? People think it’s vertical integration, and it’s the furthest thing from vertical integration.
I would imagine.
Cost-wise it’s crazy. The accountants want to kill me. The hassle factor, the cost, the risk, the insurance, all that stuff. It’s not the most savvy business move, at least economically. But for us, the creativity it gives us also inspires us. I think it’s one of those things where it’s so authentic. You can’t fake farming, so it’s so real that we just try to enjoy the reality and the authenticity of farming and growing our own stuff. We get to share that with as many people as we can and just let the purity of what we’re doing come through. So what started out as a hopyard is now a hop farm, and now we have a barley farm, we have berries, bees, pumpkins, botanicals, corn and wheat. It’s become this whole thing.
You’ve got 10 more acres of hops out there this year, right?
Yes. We planted two more varieties, so up to 10 varieties. Again, those — you probably know all this — but it’ll take a couple years before those …
Like three years.
… before you get the full harvest. You have to be at least mid term if not long term on these investments. They’re investments. When you plant something, it’s going to be at least two, maybe three years before you can actually put it in your mouth. You’d better be committed to the long term.
We appreciate that kind of commitment. Paying it forward, what business advice could you give to other craft breweries out there trying to make it? What would you say to an up-and-comer that wants to stay aggressive with their beer offerings and still succeed into today’s competitive marketplace?
Oh man, I would just say do what you do. Do what’s pure for your brand because the world doesn’t need more sameness, maybe is how I think about it. So, if you start a new brewery, I hope that you bring innovation or something new to the market. Bring something that’s really authentic and pure for your brand. Don’t do me-too stuff. Do stuff that’s fun, experiment, play, be creative.
We’re seeing a lot of West Cost breweries set up second brewhouses on the East Coast — Asheville and Virginia specifically. Is Rogue looking to expand eastward?
No. I think, for us, we’re not about trying to be big or trying to be hyper efficient or mitigate freight costs or any of those things. We’re a Newport, Ore., brewery, and for better or worse we’re going to remain a Newport, Ore., brewery. There are lots of reasons you could make to open up a second facility, but our DNA is in Newport, Ore., and that’s how we like it.
Gotta respect that. What big trends do you see out there in the beer industry right now? Styles that are getting popular or buying habits that you see from people?
Buying habits — it’s more experimentation than ever before. I think people in all consumer product goods categories are looking for something new, something fresh. I think consumers at large are into trial, are into experimentation. I think brand loyalty is there, but I think it’s less significant than it once was with people. It’s the classic long tail. The long tail foretold the future, more or less, in terms of consumer buying habits. So it’s the Amazon of the world, and the iTunes of the world. I think you see that in beer. There wouldn’t be 5,000 breweries if there weren’t people willing to buy 5,000 breweries’ beer.
The market kind of decides all that stuff in a way. So, yes, certainly people are willing to give their money to breweries, big breweries, small breweries, a huge range of product types. So I think it’s the era of experimentation and trial. In terms of trends, we all know the trends, right? It’s IPA, it’s IPA, it’s IPA.
It’s a fruity IPA.
It’s fruity IPA. IPA is king. We know that, which is great. We’ve always made lots of IPAs, but we’ve also always been a varietal brewery, even when there was almost no variety. We were doing variety in ’89 and ’90, when people produced like five beers — that’s crazy. So we’ve always done porters and stouts and pilsners, lagers, a wide range of ambers, reds, barley wine. So we continue to offer that, even though really, the taste profiles have changed a lot. We still think it’s important to offer a wide, wide cross section of varieties.
What are your most successful products these days?
Well, the flagship for two decades has been our Dead Guy, so that continues to be the case. Beyond that it’s really three more products that are the rest of the leaders. Hazelnut Brown is a great, classic brown ale with hazelnuts in it.
It’s a great beer.
It’s an Oregon crop, so that’s a great product. Our hop family — so we have a four-hop, six-hop, seven-hop and eight-hop. We introduced the four, six and eight this year. We had the seven before. So that’s been quite successful this year. Then this year we released a beer called Cold Brew IPA, which, to our surprise, really took off and is in the top four in terms of its popularity.
There seems to be this constant debate hovering over us about big beer vs. craft beer. In 2016, AB InBev and SABMiller will merge, and MillerCoors continues to buy up craft breweries at a shopping spree-like pace — Terrapin and Revolver, recently. Is that craft vs. crafty debate something that Rogue spends a lot of time discussing as a culture? Or is it more like, well, we can’t worry too much about what we can’t control?
I guess a little bit of both. First off, I don’t like to talk about other breweries. I can just tell you what we are and what we do, and people can conclude what others do for themselves. So, for us, we’re 28 years old. We’re independent after 28 years. We don’t need to sell. We don’t want to sell. We joke around that we couldn’t pass a drug test anyway, right? So we’re a very unlikely target if somebody even wanted to think about it because we’re already in all 50 states. So we’re a hard-to-figure-out model anyway. We have 10 pubs that we own and operate, so we’re not just a brewery. We’ve got a brewery; we’ve got a distillery; we make soda and cider, and we have pubs.
So, I think we do all those things because we just wanted to build a fun, dynamic, small, creative business, and that’s what we’ve done for 28 years. We’re owned by the same group of friends that started this thing in 1988, and we like it that way. We don’t have any debt, and we like it that way, too. So we’re not pressured to do things that we don’t think are good for the quality of the brand. We get to do what we think we should do, and not what a bank or somebody else thinks we should do. So, I don’t think the spirit of Rogue really lines up to be anything other than highly independent. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.