Rob Tod, founder of Maine’s Allagash Brewing Co., popularized Belgian beer styles at a time when Americans were all about light, German-style lagers.
D.L. You took a big chance two decades ago, creating Belgian-style brews for the American drinker. Why did you take the risk?
R.T. When I started, I was on a shoestring budget and planned to build the brewery myself over a long period of time to save money. I figured if I was going to spend a year building a brewery by myself and possibly a lifetime running it, I didn’t feel like it would be as fulfilling to make beers similar to those currently being made. I looked at the Belgian brewing tradition as an opportunity to give people unique experiences with beer that they’d likely never had before.
D.L. You have called two of your barrel-aged beers, Curieux and Interlude “happy accidents”. Can you explain?
R.T. As a Belgian-inspired brewery, we’ve always been open to new approaches to making beer.
A dozen years ago, we only packaged our Tripel in 750ml bottles imported from Europe. When we had a shipment of bottles delayed in customs, we ended up with a bunch of Tripel that didn’t have a home, so we decided to put it in Jim Beam bourbon barrels that we had recently acquired for barrel-aging experiments. We were blown away by the way the beer had transformed in just a few days. We absolutely fell in love with the flavors.
A couple years later, we were brewing a beer that was a high-gravity, loose interpretation of a saison. As is commonly the case with saison fermentations, our saison yeast slowed down and nearly stopped halfway through the fermentation. After a couple months of waiting for fermentation to resume, we almost gave up on the beer. No sooner had we made this decision, fermentation immediately and unexpectedly resumed. When we tasted the beer, we noticed a subtle, but very pleasant, fruity Brettanomyces character. Apparently, local Portland Maine Brett yeast had made its way into the beer and finished fermentation for us. To make a long story short, after the beer finished fermentation, we aged half of it in French oak red wine barrels and half in stainless steel, and blended the two. The result is Interlude.
D.L. Your sour beers have become quite popular. Do you see this style staying around for a while or do you think it’s a craze that will pass?
R.T. I absolutely think it will stick around for a while. Sours may never reach a level of popularity that results in a substantial market share for the segment, but once people discover the uniqueness and complexity of a well-brewed beer that uses wild yeasts and bacteria as a component of fermentation, their perspective on beer is permanently changed.
D.L. Your Coolship beers, crafted using a traditional Belgian method of spontaneous fermentation, have been very well received. What’s in the works? Will you continue to release new sours?
R.T. We’ve been making these beers since 2007 – a short time compared to the decades and even centuries that some Belgian breweries have been making them. Although we feel that we’ve learned a lot over the last nine years and have refined our spontaneous brewing craft, we feel that there is plenty for us to learn with the Resurgam, Red and Cerise. We’re going to focus on continuing to refine these three core beers we brew in the coolship.
D.L. What changes have you had to make to the brewery in order to brew sour beers?
R.T. We’ve had to take a lot of steps to make sure that nearly every piece of equipment that we use to create the sours is used exclusively for those beers. In addition, we’ve created separate cellar spaces in order to ferment these beers and a separate bottling line to package them. Of course these beers are made possible by a lot of microbes like Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, but we take every precaution available to ensure they stay out of our core beers so that we can maintain our quality and consistency.
D.L. Experimentation has always been a huge part of the culture at Allagash. Which of your latest innovations would you suggest drinkers try?
R.T. Little Brett. Not only does this beer go along with our tradition of giving people new experiences with beer because it’s unlike anything we’ve ever brewed before, but it is a beer fermented exclusively with the Brett yeast we discovered when we first made Interlude. It’s a yeast that truly has origins in Portland. Little Brett is a beer that’s a completely new, unique experience for Allagash Brewing.
D.L. Do trends ever influence what you brew?
R.T. Since day one, we’ve always been motivated to offer drinkers, and ourselves as brewers, unique experiences with beer – with aroma, with flavor, with food pairing. We are absolutely not driven by “trends”. We’re fulfilled by brewing beers we love and sharing them with people who love beer.
D.L. Your Tribute Series of Beers (Fluxus, Hugh Malone, Victor and Victoria) is a way for you to give back to your community. Why is that important to you?
R.T. Community is one of our core values. When I was considering names for the brewery, I thought it was important that I come up with a name that resonated with Mainers – I knew our beers would be brewed in Maine, by Mainers and the local community would be extremely important to us in supporting the brewery in making it sustainable. It’s always been very important for us to give back to the community that has been so supportive of us over the years.
D.L. Your newest year-round release, Sixteen Counties is named to honor the rich tradition of farming in the sixteen counties of Maine. Can you tell us a bit more about the beer and where a portion of the proceeds will go?
R.T. We have been using ingredients from local farms dating back nearly a decade – the strawberries, cherries, plums, raspberries, pumpkins and blueberries in our wild fruit beers all come from Maine. The quality of Maine-grown malts for brewing has been steadily improving and we’re excited to be able to showcase these
farms in a beer. We’re proud to donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Sixteen Counties to help support organizations focused on sustainable agriculture and family farming in Maine.
D.L. Where is your favorite place to travel? For inspiration? For fun?
R.T. Belgium. In fact, for employees who have been at the brewery for five years, we have an annual trip to Belgium where we immerse ourselves in Belgian beer and brewing culture so that they can experience what I enjoy when I’m there.
D.L. You were recently appointed Chair of the Brewers Association Board of Directors. What does this job entail and how will your knowledge of running a brewery help in this new role?
R.T. I have a ton of passion for the movement that craft brewers and drinkers have created. There are breweries in nearly every community in this country and there is a tremendous amount of energy that is swirling around this movement. I am very much looking forward to continuing working towards the BA’s mission to promote and protect craft brewers both small and large.
D.L. What keeps you motivated after all of these years?
R.T. I’m more motivated today than ever. I can’t wait to get to work in the morning – I’m so energized by spending time around everyone at the brewery. They’re like a second family to me.
D.L. Which beer are you most looking forward to enjoying this summer?
R.T. Allagash White. It’s the first beer we brewed and by default has become our flagship. We sell more of it than any other. Despite the fact that we’ve been brewing it for 20+ years, I feel like I love it more than ever before. It was always meant to be refreshing and balanced and I’m still getting new experiences from this beer when I drink it in different settings and pair it with different foods. The first thing I did when I got home last night was open an Allagash White – and I guarantee it’s the first thing I’ll do when I finish work again tonight.
D.L. Most people don’t know that you have a degree in geology. What changed your career path?
R.T. A couple of years after college, I was considering going back to school to get my master’s degree in geology in hopes of becoming a professor. While going through the application process, I got a job washing kegs at a local brewery. I fell in love with the beer business after two days on the job.