Big Rock’s future plans take a page from their craft beer past

by Jason Foster

Big Rock's Life of Chai

pintsIf you’re the type of person who pays close attention to the world of beer, you might’ve noticed something different about Big Rock recently. Over the past year or two, the longstanding Calgary-based regional brewer has made some significant changes to its business — some obvious and others behind the scenes.

Formed in 1984, Big Rock was part of the first wave of craft beer in Canada, and they grew quickly thanks to an explosion of interest among beer drinkers for brews with more flavour. By the late 1990s, Big Rock was dominating the craft beer market in Western Canada and had stretched its reach across the country.

But they weren’t exactly aging well. While a second wave of craft brewers was offering more interesting and diverse options to an ever-evolving beer market, Big Rock had decided to compete more directly with the big boys by emphasizing pale lagers and cheaper beer, significantly damaging its craft 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 of sports retail giant Forzani) and gave him a 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.

Sartor believes that Big Rock simply isn’t well-positioned to be a mainstream player, stating bluntly that the company would “be bankrupt in 10 years” if they didn’t change direction. So he moved to shrink production volumes by shedding many of the low-margin, private label accounts (e.g. “house” beer for pubs and liquor stores) on which they’d become surprisingly dependent. He and Gautreau also embarked on an ambitious plan to re-invigorate Big Rock’s sagging reputation among craft beer drinkers.

The most public change they made was to revamp their packaging: they switched from industry standard bottles to more expensive, exclusively designed bottles, and 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 the industry standard 341 ml.

More importantly, they also made the key decision to install two new brewhouses in their brewery. For years they’ve had only a large (in craft beer terms) 20,000-litre brewhouse. That had limited their flexibility and required them to move a lot of beer to make the economics work (hence the house beer).

Big Rock kept that system — which they still need, because they sell a lot of Traditional and Grasshopper — but they added both a 2000-litre system (more standard for Canadian craft breweries) and a tiny 300-litre system which allows for experimenting with six kegs at a time. The 300-litre system is used exclusively for one-off specials for restaurants and pubs.

These additions mean Big Rock can once again act more like a small craft brewery. They’ve already 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 beers between these series, along with some one-offs. Most of these beers won’t make it out of Calgary right away, but over time I’m betting we will see some of them in Saskatchewan.

So how’s the transformation working? Well, it’s 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 extra special bitter, have worked out quite well. 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 they’ve also put out some decidedly lacklustre beverages. They’re clearly still trying to (re-)find their feet on brewing craft beer.

Public reaction so far has also been mixed, with craft drinkers curious, but not yet fully convinced.

Obviously, it’ll be the beer that ultimately decides whether Big Rock’s attempt to move back to their roots succeeds or fails. Trad and Grasshopper will always be their workhorses, and that’s fine, but to get the kind of craft-y cred they’re looking for, they’re going to have to learn how to make seasonals and one-offs that draw praise on a consistent basis.

Beer fans wish them only the best of luck.