You may have noticed something different about Big Rock recently. The long-standing Calgary-based regional brewer has been significantly shifting many aspects of its business over the past year or two.
Big Rock, formed in 1984, was part of the first wave of craft beer in Canada, growing fast as part of the new interest among beer drinkers for beer with more flavour. By the late ’90s, Big Rock was dominating the craft-beer market in western Canada and had stretched its reach across the country. At this point it was middle-aged, in craft-beer terms, and it was not aging well. A second wave of craft brewers began offering more interesting and diverse options to an ever-evolving beer market and Big Rock was getting left behind. Worse, it had embarked on an ambitious strategy to more directly compete with the big boys by emphasizing pale lagers and cheaper beer, significantly damaging its craft-beer credentials.
After a number of years of rising volumes, dropping profit margins and evaporating craft credibility, it was time for a makeover. About two years ago, Big Rock brought in Robert Sartor, a former CEO for the Forzani Group, with an explicit mandate to revamp the company’s position in the beer market. I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Sartor and Big Rock’s Brewmaster, Paul Gautreau, to discuss their strategy and the motivations behind it.
In short, Sartor believes that Big Rock was not well positioned to be a mainstream player. He bluntly states that the company would “be bankrupt in 10 years” if they didn’t change direction. He moved to actually shrink the production volumes, shedding many of the low-margin, private-label accounts (“house” beer for pubs and liquor stores, for example) to which they had become surprisingly dependent. He and Gautreau also embarked on an ambitious plan to reinvigorate Big Rock’s reputation among craft-beer drinkers, which had been taking a beating in recent years.
So what did they do? The most obvious change was revamping the packaging. They switched from industry-standard bottles to more expensively designed bottles. They overhauled the label and box designs, offering more rustic and artistic representations. The increased cost is off-set by making the new bottles 330 mL (as opposed to industry standard 341 mL).
More importantly, Big Rock also made the key decision to install two new brewhouses in their brewery. For years they have had a large (in craft-beer terms) 20 000-litre brewhouse. This limited their flexibility and required they move a lot of beer to make it economical (hence the house beer). Instead of getting rid of that system—which they still need because they sell a lot of Traditional and Grasshopper—they added a 2000-litre system (more standard for Canadian craft breweries) and a tiny 300-litre system which allows for experimenting six kegs at a time. The 300-litre system is used exclusively for one-off specials for restaurants and pubs.
These additions have permitted Big Rock to act more like a small craft brewery. They added two new seasonal series to their regular lineup: Brewmaster’s Edition, which brews up traditional European styles; and the Alchemist Series, which is more experimental and eclectic. Their schedule for 2014 is to release 27 different beer between these series along with some one-offs. Many of these beer will not make it out of Calgary, but most will find their way to Edmonton in some form.
How is the transformation working? In short, it is still a work in progress. In terms of the beer, the seasonal series have been a bit hit and miss. Some of their efforts, including tries at a Maibock, a Czech Pilsner and an ESB (Extra Special / Strong Bitter) have worked out quite well and are nice examples. Others, like an experimental Stein Beer, which is made by using rocks to heat the brew kettle, and a Gruit, a historic ale made with herbs instead of hops, have been fascinating and worth trying, but others have been lacklustre in their performance, including a rosemary beer and their attempt at an English Mild Ale.
In a way, such is to be expected with one-offs and seasonals; you will never like every one. However, it is an indication they are still trying to (re-)find their feet on brewing craft beer.
Public reaction seems similarly mixed. Craft drinkers are open to a Big Rock transformation but are not yet wholly bought in. That process will take time and, ultimately, it will be the beer that decides Big Rock’s fate. Trad and Grasshopper will always be their workhorses, and that is fine, but if they’re to get the kind of craft-y cred they are looking for, Big Rock is going to have to learn how to make seasonals and one-offs that draw attention.
And that will determine whether Big Rock will exit its middle years balding, broken down and lonely, or fit, flexible and ready to (big) rock. V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.