Updated April 21st: In response to my April 14th email to Rock Bottom, which followed some uncharacteristically sub-par experiences, I received an invitation to get the facts about the merger, gain an understanding of the new brewing strategy, and receive answers to my questions. I came away with a renewed feeling of confidence that the Bellevue RB will continue to serve as my best choice for local Fueled By Beer watering hole into the foreseeable future…
Update March 2012: due to significant price increases, less choice and reduced quality over the past year or so we now rank Rock Bottom below The Ram and McMenamins. These chains both now deliver better value for money. Sadly, at least in the Seattle market, Rock Bottom now joins corporate sibling Gordon Biersch as just another brewpub chain not worth visiting.
In November 2010 a newly created holding company called CraftWorks acquired and merged America’s two largest brewpub chains: Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch. Since then I have been holding out hope that this corporate entity, with its ties to Wall Street and purely financial motives, would not negatively impact the independent brewing culture at Rock Bottom.
For the first three months following the merger the situation at Rock Bottom appeared to be business as usual. However on April 1st, ironically April Fool’s Day, I first encountered the new beer lineup and a new menu… Danger, Will Robinson, danger!!!
Like many long time customers, when I first saw the new beer lineup described at RB’s website, then saw it repeated in such sparse detail in the new menu, I feared the worst.
After meeting today with management at my local RB (Bellevue, WA), I now believe I jumped to the wrong conclusions and judged the situation prematurely. The handout I was given, which I have reproduced below, explains things much more clearly.
In regard to Bellevue: the Kolsch, Wit, IPA & Red will always occupy 4 of the 9 available taps, as they will occupy 4 taps in every RB location. In Bellevue’s case these four taps essentially replace five taps previously dedicated to Pilsner, Hef, Pale, Red & IPA – going forward, this makes one extra tap available for rotation – a good thing.
As to who dictates the rotating dark on tap 5, and other rotating brews on taps 6 through 9, I was told they will all be local brewmaster Brian’s recipes.
With this in mind, I was reassured that Hop Bomb and Lumberjack Red will not be going away and that they, along with other RB favorites like American Dream, Bellevue Blonde, Fire Chief Ale, etc., will be featured on a rotating basis. And if the style gap between Kolsch and IPA is found to be too much for local palates, then even Humpback Pale might make a comeback – local management and the local brewmaster, I was told, will retain flexibility to adjust offerings to suit local demands.
Since the new IPA is the only homogenized brew to have been rolled out so far in Bellevue; it is currently pouring alongside yesterday’s new seasonal tapping – Eastside IPA – and our beloved Hop Bomb, it will be a while before we see what truly ends up pouring from the rotating taps once the four corporate brews are in place.
One thing is for sure: Rock Bottom corporate has done a terrible job communicating its post-merger strategy; they have left way too much room for FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) among Mug Club members. And while rumor and speculation runs rampant, untold damage is being caused to RB’s widely held reputation as America’s best brewpub chain, all the while risking the loss of customers, both long time and new.
I, however, have decided to resume my patronage of Rock Bottom on a wait and see basis. If what I’ve been told isn’t how things end up then I will simply vote with my feet; after all here in the Northwest we are kids in the microbrew candy store – such is the concentration of brewpubs in the Seattle area.
BTW: my take on the new IPA was not bad – certainly no Hop Bomb – but a very respectable example all the same. It’s quite aromatic up front, has a nice finish at the end, and holds up well even when reaching a warm room temperature. To my taste its flavor profile is closer to typical IPAs from other NW brewers – let’s face it, the Bomb would be classed as a double-hopped Imperial IPA anywhere else.
After my mid-afternoon meeting I returned later in the evening for dinner with daughter and The Spouse; we enjoyed new food items from the revamped menu, and had two more pints of Eastside IPA – this, I understand, is a new recipe from Brian, one worth repeating.
In conclusion: for me at least, in the end Rock Bottom didn’t have to give me a reason to return; what was needed was removal of the barriers that stopped me going for awhile. I hope other RB fans who may be staying away of late decide to give them another go.