Of all things, it was a summer job washing kegs at Vermont’s Otter Creek in 1993 that set the course for Rob Tod to change America’s craft-brew scene.
“When you walk in a small brewery like Otter Creek, you can pretty quickly see there’s a lot of science involved and a lot of art involved,” says Tod, who founded Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine two year later. “There’s a huge hand-crafted element with making beer; I had never seen anything like it.”
Allagash existed as a small, niche operation for most of its existence, making Belgian-style beers—like the White, Dubbel, and Tripel—and attempting to sell them to a New England audience that was completely unprepared for their complex flavors and, in some cases, high-alcohol content.
“Like most people in the country, I thought beer was made by machines in big plants and it all tasted the same,” Tod says. “When we started brewing Belgian-style beers, literally no one was interested. Our growth for the first 10 years was very slow, but we were never tempted to do something outside of that [homogenous] culture.”
When we started brewing Belgian-style beers, literally no one was interested.
Tod has been rewarded for his patience. This year Allagash celebrates its 20th anniversary, and Tod is now considered a forefather of American craft-beer innovation. His brewery is one of the most highly regarded Belgian-style breweries in the country, both for its reverence of tradition and complete rewriting of it.
Allagash’s tweaks on old-world styles and experimentations with yeast and barrel-aging came decades before the market caught up. The resulting beers—from Confluence Ale, a dry-hopped mixed-fermentation golden, to Curieux, a whiskey barrel-aged tripel—became key players in the movement to pair beer with food and end wine’s reign at the dinner table.
In 2008, Tod installed the first coolship in the United States, making Allagash’s brewery the only one brave enough to use the same large shallow pan to spontaneously inoculate sour beers the same way breweries like Cantillon have been doing for more than a century.
“I love the creative process, and I’ve always loved working with my hands. Before beer, I didn’t think there could be one profession that embodied both.”
From epiphanies with Scotch ales, to mishap that spawned one of Allagash’s most innovative brews, here Rob Tod details the 10 beers that shaped his career.
McEwan’s Scotch Ale
When I was working construction in Boulder, Colorado, I used to stop by Liquor Mart. At the time, I was really buying the cheapest stuff I could get, but every once in awhile, I sprung for something else. That’s when I found McEwan’s Scotch Ale. I still remember the flavor of it. It was the first beer with a bigger, robust flavor I’d ever tried. I didn’t know beer could taste like this. Like a lot of other people, I knew beer from what you had at frat parties. I generally drank the most economical beers I could find—never straying outside the American pilsner. I didn’t immediately switch over to those beers, but it was an eye-opener in terms of variety. (Photo: bcliquorstores.com)
Brooklyn Brown Ale
The first legal beer I ever had was Brooklyn Brown in Georgetown. Washington D.C. had a legal drinking age of 18, so this would have been in the late ’80s. It was another one of those early beers I discovered that showed me beer could have these wonderful flavors and wasn’t necessarily limited to these homogenized, dumbed-down commodity beers that most people were drinking at the time. (Photo: brookylnbrewery.com)
Otter Creek Copper Ale
When I was working at Otter Creek, their flagship was the Copper Ale. They did growler fills, and if you were an employee you could fill a growler every day and take it home. I was renting a room in a house at the time, and from the first week I was there I remember filling a growler each day of the Copper Ale. It was July in Vermont, and I’d sit on the porch after dinner and I would drink the growler. ‘How cool is this?’ I thought. I’m getting paid to make these great beers, and then I can go home with the beer I helped make and just sit on the porch, watching the leaves change color. It was one of the things that helped me fall in love with this business. I discovered the huge variety of flavors and aromas that beer can have. And it was also the first time I really paired beer with food, experimenting with different dishes. It was a very memorable time for me. (Photo: theperfectlyhappyman.com)
One of the beers I stumbled upon while working at Otter Creek was Celis White. It was the first year Celis had opened, and I remember buying a six-pack. I opened a bottle and took a sip, and my immediate thought was, ‘Something’s wrong with this beer.’ I’d never tasted anything like it in my life. I handed it to my buddy to try it. He said he liked it, so I grabbed it back. I was curious and intrigued. I started to think, ‘This is kind of interesting, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with it. Maybe it’s just different.’ I opened a third and then a fourth bottle. By the end of the six-pack I was fascinated by this style of beer. At that point, I knew I wanted to make a Belgian-style wheat beer. When we started making the White at Allagash, it was important to me we weren’t trying to duplicate anything already out there. We’ve always been a believer here in innovation—give them something different. I wanted to make something fuller that people wouldn’t dismiss as a summer beer in the middle of a Maine winter. I wanted to brew something that people were open to enjoying year-round. (Photo: philcook.net)
When I started Allagash, the only thing I was really concerned about was whether I’d love the beer that we brewed, because I can’t go out and sell something unless I truly love it and have a passion for it. Luckily, we started making the White. After 20 years of drinking something you’d think I’d want to move on, but I love the White more with every passing day. It’s my favorite beer in the world. I’m not ashamed to say it. I love drinking it at all occasions. I love it in front of a fire. I love it on a hot day. I’m still discovering these subtle aromas and food pairings that I haven’t discovered. It’s 75 percent of our production, and I still love it as much today, if not more, than I did 20 years ago. (Photo courtesy Allagash)
Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus
I’ve spent a lot of time in Belgium, and the brewery that inspired us to install a coolship was Cantillion. The owner, Jean-Pierre van Roy, is a contemporary of mine, and he told me that you can brew these beers anywhere in the world. Those words of encouragement resonated with me, so we put the coolship in. My favorite beer of Cantillon’s is the Rose de Gambrinus. I love drinking it at his brewery, or drinking it here in the U.S. And I know I’m not unique in saying that. (Photo: screamyell.com.br)
De La Senne Taras Boulba
Taras Boulba is one of my favorite beers. It has big flavor, it’s sessionable, and it has a great, dry, hoppy profile. There are exceptions, but I tend to gravitate towards dryer beers with a crisp, tight finish, and that’s one of the things I love about the De La Senne beers. They’re complex, but they have a nice light, dry, crisp character to them. A lot of our beers tend to kind of tilt in the dry, drinkable, clean-finishing direction rather than the sweeter, fruitier direction. (Photo: beergonzo.co.uk)
Russian River Brewing Company STS Pils
I love all of Vinnie [Cilurzo’s] beers, and have a tremendous amount of respect for Russian River. The STS Pils is amazing stuff. Again, it’s got a lot of what I love in beers—that crisp, clean, bright, kind of lively character. There’s a lot going on in that beer, but it’s drinkable. That hop-forward pils—I just love that concept. I’m sure that’s what a lot of the traditional pilsners tasted like before the global commoditization of beer took that style and stripped all the character out of it. (Photo: Facebook/Russian River Brewery)
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
I kind of call Sierra Nevada Pale Ale the brewer’s beer. It’s such a solid, high-quality beer from a brewery that we have a tremendous amount of respect for. We worked with Sierra for their Beer Camp Collaboration 12-pack and it was an amazing experience spending time with the Sierra crew. If I’m sitting down at a bar, that’s the beer I order. I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t drink a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. (Photo: sierranevada.com)
We had a batch of Tripel and it looked like it wasn’t going to have a home. Our bottles which, we imported from Europe, were stuck in customs. We had some bourbon barrels, though, so instead of dumping the beer, we put it in the barrels and fell in love with [the result]. We never expected a light-colored beer. I think it’s another example of innovation being a core value of Allagash. With that spirit of innovation, you come up with surprises you’d never envision. It’s an expensive beer to make, and 11 years ago I didn’t think anyone would be willing to pay $15 for a big bottle of beer; but we can’t make enough of that beer now. (Photo courtesy Allagash)