By Nancy Marshall, The PR Maven® 

How Allagash Brewing Company’s Founder Turned an Unknown Beer Into One of the Top 50 Craft Brewery Brands in the US

  • Know your vision for your brand, and stick to it as part of your identity. Consider changing course if you need to, but stay focused on what makes your brand unique.

When Rob Tod was using his welding, plumbing and electrical skills to turn dairy equipment into a brewery in 1995, he never thought that his one-person operation in Maine — now known as Allagash Brewing Company — would become one of the top 50 craft breweries in the U.S. by sales volume.

Rob, who is also a winner of the 2019 James Beard award for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional, had created a beer that was so unique that it didn’t sell for the first 10 years, he says.

In the ’90s, there were only around 15 breweries in Maine, and tourists mainly visited the state to ski or otherwise enjoy the great outdoors. How did this Belgian brew — that was so different from the more common British or German brews of the ’90s — go from a money-losing operation to distribution in 17 states?

Rob credits his commitment to innovation: offering a unique beer experience. Equally key are his dedication both to building community among his employees and other breweries across Maine, and to sustainability, to protect the state’s environment for years to come. A craft brew boom in 2007 also gave Allagash and other breweries a boost.

Rob believes one of Allagash’s roles is to support other breweries to keep this growing community going: “We have an obligation to help brewers that are in the shoes now that we were in 20 years ago.”

Now, the Pine Tree State is a destination for brewery-goers and has “become a huge part of Maine’s branding,” Rob reveals on Episode 147 of The PR Maven Podcast. Listen to the full episode to hear more of Allagash’s success story.

Here are Rob’s top tips for building a strong brand as you pave your own way in an underrepresented industry.

How Allagash Brewing Company’s Founder Turned an Unknown Beer Into One of the Top 50 Craft Brewery Brands in the US1. Be yourself and stay focused on your brand’s vision

When Allagash produced its first beer — a cloudy spiced brew made from traditional Belgian yeast — people didn’t know what to think about it. But Rob didn’t let that deter him from moving forward with his vision to offer a beer unlike others on the market.

“People hadn’t seen, tasted or heard of a beer like this ever at the time,” says Rob. “So the first 10 years were a slog; that’s for sure. I just kept just going, going, going, and luckily things did take off after about a decade. I’m pretty bullheaded, and until someone stops me from doing something, I’ll just keep doing it.”

Allagash has received numerous accolades — including seven gold medals from prestigious competitions such as The Great American Beer Festival, the World Beer Cup, and the European Beer Star Awards, and then Rob’s own James Beard Award in 2019. In the early days, when the beer wasn’t selling, awards were one of the motivators for Rob, along with his desire to innovate.

Eventually, the time was finally right: Rob and other brewers benefitted from a craft beer boom across Maine in 2007, which brought customers with an interest in the unique Belgian brew.

Allagash Brewing Company likely would never have benefitted from this local boom if they hadn’t stayed true to Rob’s vision from the outset.

Today, the company continues to innovate and set an example for other breweries in the area.

Says Rob: “We’re motivated by the work that ends up delivering some of the awards we’ve been blessed enough to get. That’s what really inspires us — that journey.”

2. Foster innovation by encouraging employees to collaborate and share ideas

Innovation is at the core of how Rob built the brewery, and it’s also infused in how he runs the business and comes up with new ideas, with a focus on collaboration.

Rob talks about what that looks like: “Whether it’s a beer name or a beer, we’re very collaborative, and everyone participates. The names don’t just come out of the marketing department. The recipes don’t just come from me (the owner) and Jason (the brewmaster).”

At Allagash, there’s a pilot brewery program in which any of its 150 employees can cook up their idea on a small scale. As Rob reveals, a lot of those beers become full-scale production brews.

This kind of experimentation goes back to how he started the business when he says he read every book he could on beer, working with a small budget and focusing on a single well-crafted brew. Like in the early days, he still encourages his employees to experiment and share in the innovation process.

3. Collaborate with your peers and your network

Collaboration at Allagash extends to the wider brewing community, which has grown to become both a part of Maine’s branding and a community that Rob never saw coming.

“If you come out to this industrial park on a Saturday, it’s mind boggling. There’ll be hundreds and hundreds of cars lined up on both sides of the road. And the really fun thing is that this is a really collegial, collaborative, friendly business among brewers.”

Rob views one of Allagash’s roles as helping to foster this community to support small brewers who are in a position now like he was in the ‘90s.

“The larger breweries were always happy to help me if I ever had a question or issue. I feel indebted to give back.”

4. Contribute to the community and be sustainable

As a certified B Corp, Allagash’s community support extends to a commitment to sustainability. Before COVID-19, its philanthropy department was giving about $375,000 a year to the local community, such as by donating 10 cents to Sebago Clean Waters (a collaborative of nine organizations and a regional water utility aimed at increasing the pace of forest conservation in the Sebago Lake watershed in Maine) for every barrel of beer Allagash makes.

The company also set a goal to buy a million pounds of grain that are grown, dried, packaged, and malted in Maine by the year 2021. That also speaks to their sustainability commitment with a return to native grains instead of those that have to travel across the country. In 2020, Allagash used about three quarters of a million pounds of such grains, and in 2021, it is projected to use a million pounds.

When Allagash saw other brewers in the area were struggling with their sustainability practices, it took its recycling program for stretch wrap, cardboard and other packaging and launched a co-op to collect materials from local breweries who don’t otherwise have a practical solution to sustainably dispose of them.

In these ways, the company is setting an example for other breweries in the area to make a difference.

Says Rob: “I’m a believer in the B Corp status. It really is delivering tangible value to things that are important to us.”

This is based on episode 147 of The PR Maven® Podcast, a podcast hosted by Nancy Marshall. Weekly interviews feature industry leaders, top executives, media personalities and online influencers to give listeners a peek into the world of public relations, marketing and personal branding. Subscribe through Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.