Latrob's Fizzle Is Newark's Fizz
One small town in western Pennsylvania has long provided trivia buffs with
two obscure questions that share an answer: Where was the golf legend
Arnold Palmer born and raised? And where did those seven-ounce pony
bottles of Rolling Rock beer — actually extra-pale lager — come from?
The answer, until last week, was Latrobe, Pa., a town of about 9,000
snuggled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains about 40 miles southeast
But the glass-lined tanks of Latrobe have given way to the red-brick
Anheuser-Busch factory on Routes 1 and 9 in the shadow of Newark Liberty
Anheuser-Busch — the maker of Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob and other
beers — bought the Rolling Rock brand, the recipe for its mountain-brewed
extra-pale lager and the entire Latrobe Brewing Company from the Belgium-
based InBev SA company in May for $82 million. After weighing several
options, said David A. Peacock, vice president for business and finance for
Anheuser-Busch, the company decided to move operations to Newark.
"It made sense because Newark is close by, it's a very good brewery and we
can produce the same great packaging and beer there," Mr. Peacock said.
But in Latrobe, the decision is not going down smoothly.
"No offense to New Jersey , but I didn't think it had any mountain springs,"
Clint Shaffer, 39, a resident of Latrobe, said in a telephone interview.
"Rolling Rock is a source of pride around here, and moving it someplace else
is like hearing that Chevys will now be made in Japan."
The move has become such a visceral issue that Mr. Palmer, Latrobe's
favorite son, will not discuss it.
"There are a lot of people with a lot of strong feelings," said Mr. Palmer's
longtime assistant, Doc Giffin. "He doesn't want to weigh in right now."
But others are only too happy to fill the vacuum. Beer drinkers like Richard
Lott of Grenada, Miss., plan to stock up on as much of the Latrobe-made brew
as possible, and when it is all consumed, it will be time to find a new brand.
"I'll try the new batch once, but I don't think I'm going to like it," said Mr.
Lott, 33, who works in an auto parts factory and, like many others, lamented
the loss of Rolling Rock from Latrobe on an Internet message board devoted
to beer ( mylifeisbeer.com). "There is something about the mystique of the
beer that will be missed."
Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a national nonprofit
organization devoted to professional brewers, says the truth is that beer
drinkers will not be able to tell the difference.
"The brewer can take water from anywhere and add or subtract minerals to
make it mimic water from other places," Mr. Gatza said in a telephone
interview from association headquarters in Colorado. "They can make it to
exact specifications. That's why a Budweiser brewed in Newark tastes
exactly like the ones made in St. Louis."
Taste aside, Mr. Gatza conceded that loyalty does account for something. "I'm
sure there will be a dip in sales in the immediate Latrobe area and around
Pittsburgh, where it is extremely popular," he said.
Over time, however, Mr. Gatza said the merger would probably improve the
bottom line for Rolling Rock, which will benefit from Anheuser-Busch's vast
"In terms of customer appeal," he said, "well, there is an emotional concept
that a lot of people will have with it and they will make the decision to keep
buying it or not."
Latrobe Brewing began making Rolling Rock in 1939, and although it is most
popular in the eastern United States, it has enjoyed a loyal following in the
brewing world, its seven-ounce pony bottles a staple at summer cookouts
"This has been a lot of fun, a challenge for us to brew," said Douglas J.
Muhleman, group vice president for brewing at Anheuser-Busch. "We set out
on a mission to make Rolling Rock exactly the same way. That proved to be
an interesting endeavor."
The flight of Rolling Rock and Rock Green Light, a lighter version, does not
mean the end for the Latrobe brewery. City Brewing, a Wisconsin company,
recently signed a letter of intent that would use the Rolling Rock plant, along
with many of its 200 employees.
But the mystery of Rolling Rock — in the Kelly green bottle with horses and a
mysterious "33" on the label — will live on in Newark. Some say the "33"
was a misprint, others say it was for the year prohibition was repealed and
still others say it is for the number of words in the beer's famous pledge.
Rolling Rock executives have never said.
As for Anheuser-Busch, it says it will keep the pledge on the bottle "to honor
the tradition of this great brand."
It reads: "Rolling Rock. From the glass-lined tanks of old Latrobe, we tender
this premium beer for your enjoyment, as a tribute to your good taste. It
comes from the mountain springs to you."
It will not include this caveat, however: The water now comes from the
Wanaque Reservoir in Passaic County.
A Journalist Looks at Beer
|The Beer Briefing
by John Holl