Dead Guy Ale understood shelf presence way before craft brewers faced competition in the thousands at retailers. Rogue Ales and Spirit’s famous Maibock beer brand is built around a great mascot — a beer-clutching skeleton with wicked-weird hair oddly sitting cross-armed on a barrel. The art is imbued with a Grateful Dead-style mystic, but the brewery says that’s mere coincidence. Anyway, it’s a beer that’s always jumped off the shelf because of it’s awesome brand design.
So company legend goes, the Dead Guy was a custom bottle created to celebrate a Mayan Day of the Dead for a Tex Mex restaurant in Portland back in 1990 called Casa U-Betcha, which has since been shuttered. The restaurant wanted Dead Guy in a bottle — the beer being a “Maierbock” (think Brewmaster John Maier), a Rouge-ish twist on a Maibock (or Helles bock) using an ale yeast. That Dead Guy Maierbock caught fire within a year and would eventually become one of the most iconic craft beers in America soon after (accounting for some 40 percent of Rogue’s sales at one point). It would also come to represent the Rogue brand in the way that Fat Tire represents New Belgium Brewing Co.
Today, Rogue Ales has well over 30 major beer brands, many of which it sells in all 50 states, but Dead Guy Ale is still a crucial part of the company’s success. Important enough that Rogue Ales decided to revamp its Dead Guy Ale brand for the quickly-evolving craft beer market in 2017, and that redesign (somehow, some way) actually surpasses the original. The brand will be packaged in bottles, but it will also come in Rogue’s new cans where it has been completely and absolutley murdered out, with basically a giant, silver Dead Guy logo on a pitch-black background with minimal text. It’s so metal.
In fact, the design is so metal we were inclined to phone up Rogue President Brett Joyce to discuss the redesign. The always gentlemanly Joyce talked us through the process, but that was only the beginning of the conversation. We quickly moved into canning lines, Rogue’s recent expansion, farming and beyond.
CBB: Brett, thanks for taking the time. We know you’re always busy – with not just Rogue Ales and Spirits but also Rogue Farms, your cooperage, recent expansion and ever onward — so we appreciate the chance to jump into your schedule. Anna [Abatzoglou, Rogue’s marketing director] sent us some can samples of the Dead Guy Ale redesign. They really turned out amazing.
Can you maybe walk us through the new concept? There’s so much black.
Ha. Of course. There are really two big parts to the new Dead Guy concept. One was we thought that it was time after 20 years to tweak the Dead Guy a little bit. We love the Dead Guy logo, and we just wanted to change it up a little bit — make him bigger and badder, I guess, for lack of better terms. On a design and creative perspective, we really just took the Dead Guy himself off of the barrel. The previous iterations have him sitting on a barrel, so we just took the barrel off and just made the focus of the Dead Guy actually the Dead Guy.
That was the first step, and then as we’re looking at moving into cans in 2017, the Dead Guy on a can was an obvious concept. Then we just thought that black with silver lent itself to the design that we have already with the Dead Guy. We decided it was a pretty natural process. Some stuff you have to go through lots of rounds, iterations. What about this? What about that? We didn’t really have that with Dead Guy and the cans. We really found the black and silver idea early on and just went with that. That’s kind of a little two-step process on how we got there.
It’s simple, but it really sticks out. I can see it really coming out on the shelf.
Yeah, that was the idea, to really make the Dead Guy the feature. I mean, Rogue’s not even on the can. Rogue’s not even on the label.
Exactly, it’s not a lot of text really.
Yeah, it’s really on the side of the can, and then on the top of the sticker, but certainly we were optimistic that people will continue to recognize the Dead Guy, just on a different package and in a bigger design presentation. I think that’s kind of fun, not everything has to follow the exact same template in terms of your brand being right there on the front of the label. That was fun, definitely fun to play with that.
How big is your design team at Rogue?
It’s a two-person team. We have a creative director, and then we have a designer. Our creative director is a designer, too. He does the lion’s share of the design, at least on the product packaging’s work.
Sounds like a pretty solid team. Is anything else getting redesigned?
No, that was really just the only redesign. We like to … I wouldn’t say we like to keep it the same, but that was the one that kind of screamed it was time to do something with that. No, we have new product, but no other redesigns I guess.
And what other brands are going into cans?
The new can lineup, we’re really excited about. Dead Guy we talked about. We have one of our farm’s beers, which is called 6 Hop IPA. That’s coming out in cans right now. It just started shipping. Dead Guy and the 6-Hop IPA started to ship in January. Then we have a Chocolate Stout in nitro that we’re going to do for the winter time frame. It’s kind of like a holiday seasonal, and that’s in the 16-ounce can with a nitro widget to release the nitrogen.
Then we have a second nitro product with our Cold Brew IPA. You may know this already, but we’re making an IPA with cold brew coffee from Stumptown Coffee here in Portland. That was kind of a big success for us, thankfully, last year, so we’re going to extend that into a nitro can, which will be in stores in a few months here. Then we are also doing a summer can called Hot Tub Scholarship Lager, which is a fundraiser beer that’s … It’s kind of a long-winded story, but the beer itself is a German-style Helles lager
My dad, who’s our founder, he passed away two and a half years ago. We established a scholarship at Oregon State University for their fermentation science program. At last year’s award ceremony, the second year, we brought back the winners of the scholarships from the first year. Anyhow, these people gave speeches on what the scholarship meant and what it did, and most of those speeches are pretty standard. Like, “It helped me pay for my tuition and books.” It was like $10,000 for each student, so it was real money. Anyhow, one kid had the same kind of speech, “I bought books and tuition, and then I took $2,000 and tried to buy the most Rogue-ish thing possible, so I bought a hot tub.”
So, this guy used scholarship money for a hot tub. That was part one, the part two is my dad was ironically a huge hot tub guy. Every house he ever had, had a hot tub.
It was meant to be.
We got to do something with this. That’s how we got this funky name, and portions of the proceeds from the sale of this beer will go to help us raise even more money. We’ve raised over $200,000 bucks in the first three years now of the scholarship. We’re pretty proud and honored to be able to give away lots of money to deserving college students, too.
That’s very cool. Yeah, we did a piece on it, and we had some poignant photos of some people being emotional, which was pretty cool.
Yeah, that’s right. That one picture, it’s not often you get that perfect picture. I know the picture you’re talking about, that, for me, is maybe as good as it gets. And the gal who’s up there being emotional, she’s got this amazing underdog story. Raised in Oakland, from a really tough upbringing, and she’s not the all-time favorite to be on track to have a really good education, and a good career in fermentation science somewhere. That’s always cool. We love those kind of underdog stories, too.
That’s pretty cool. And the canning line, who did you go with for canning?
Let’s see … It’s Wild Goose Canning. I think it’s out of Colorado?
Yeah, and how was that line, setting that up? Is that a big process?
As a nontechnical guy goes, yeah, it was easy. I’ll say this, compared to … We did a new bottle line like two, two and a half years ago, and that took up a huge amount of space, and took a lot longer. The can line definitely doesn’t take up as much space, and it was … relative to the bottle line, I’ll say it was definitely simpler, and that’s not to say it was simple. I guess on a relative basis it wasn’t quite as involved, but certainly a lot of man-hours, and a lot of doing electrical and plumbing. The team comes in, they install it and test it. It takes a month, for sure, kind of nonstop work on that.