Wednesday, April 11, 2007

An old column

Added this from The Star's archive and backdated it, since I wanted to refer to it in another post. Enjoy.

Pitcher This: A Rock by any other name ...


People drink beer for lots of reasons, and it’s not always the brew that makes a brand a favorite. That’s how I always saw Rolling Rock.

I just lost credibility with some connoisseurs for typing that. Who needs ’em?

Rolling Rock is not, I’ll admit, a sophisticated brew. It’s a simple American lager, a little sweet and very mild. The unique, blue-and white- painted labels have long carried a message “as a tribute to your good taste” that ends with the cryptic characters “33.”

Rolling Rock was brewed for 67 years at the same brewery in the same small town in Pennsylvania. That town, a Jacksonville-sized place called Latrobe, also birthed golf great Arnold Palmer, plus my neighbor and yours, Fred “Mister” Rogers.

I say “was brewed” because Anheuser-Busch, the global conglomerate responsible for Budweiser, bought the Rolling Rock name last May for $82 million from InBev, a Belgian firm that bought a Canadian company which bought Latrobe Brewing from the Tito family, who first brewed Rock in 1939 in a brewery that dated to 1893.

But AB bought the name — not the brewery. The company moved production of Rolling Rock to a Newark, N.J., plant last summer. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said 200 workers stood to lose their jobs when the Latrobe plant closed. The paper told of families who’d worked there for generations. Stunned, most vowed never to drink a New Jersey-brewed Rock.

And for every brewery worker, there were thousands who’d formed a bond with Rolling Rock despite its uncomplicated flavor. Many must have stories that revolve around the beer in the painted green bottle.

Mine? I remember two buddies in college drinking more of it than they probably should have, the beer fueling vows of eternal friendship. And my three months with the Air Force in Kuwait, where we went beerless in deference to Muslim custom. My friends back at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., sent a care package with a plastic Waffle House menu and a bottle of Rolling Rock — which they’d drained, of course. Jerks.

All that was before another Air Force buddy, who’d been posted to England, introduced me to stouts, ales and Irish reds, my first steps into a broader beer world. But I always had a soft spot for Rolling Rock. And every bottle of it I ever touched — including the one I tossed in a Kuwaiti trash bin in the dead of night, fearing a court martial — rolled out of the same western Pennsylvania town.

Until now.

I’ve got nothing against Anheuser-Busch. Love the commercials. But Rolling Rock’s charm was its story, its tie to a town synonymous with the brew. Painted on the bottles now is, “Latrobe Brewing Co., St. Louis, Mo.” Like the Latrobe workers, I’ve had my last Rock.

So I was thrilled to hear that LaCrosse, Wisc.,-based City Brewing, which bought the Latrobe plant in September, announced a deal last week to brew Samuel Adams there under contract for Boston Beer Co. City expects to have 100 people working in Latrobe by the end of the year, 250 within three years.

Now, Sam Adams has no more to do with Latrobe than Anheuser-Busch. But that beer’s launch in 1985 is at least partly responsible for the revival in regional and craft brewing now sweeping America. I can’t think of a better fit.

The bottle will be brown and the label paper, but I’ll raise a Sam Adams this weekend for the good people of Latrobe.

As a tribute.