The Session #42: Rolling Rock Doesn’t Bring Me Back to Ohio Anymore


This month’s Session, is about a special place, and the beer or brewery that connects you to that place. Here’s my contribution.

I know exactly what my first beer was, I just don’t remember drinking it. My first beer was Rolling Rock, and I was just a few years old, growing up in the small college town of Bowling Green, Ohio during the 70’s when my dad gave me a carefully administered sip of it. Dad rarely drank anything besides Rolling Rock, and back then when there were far fewer breweries in the US, this was supporting your local brewer, even if the Rolling Rock brewery in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, just east of Pittsburgh, was about 300 miles away. Dad didn’t drink beer too often, but on Saturday afternoons, a glass of Rolling Rock was one of his small treats and he’d let my sister and I try some. Like most kids at elementary school age, we were curious how beer tasted, but didn’t particularly like it once we tried it. Dad later told me these tastings were his way of trying to demystify beer to prevent us from abusing it later in life. Dad taught us that beer was not some forbidden fruit, but something to be savored and carefully enjoyed. These days, we call that respecting beer.

I still remember Dad’s excitement when Rolling Rock’s spring seasonal Bock showed up at the State Liquor Store each spring. Seasonal beers in the United States were rare back then. Spring was basically when the snow melted and there were only a couple months of school left. But it was also the time Dad started drinking Rolling Rock Bock instead of their usual lager and telling me all about the spring tradition of Bock Beer, which barely interested me at the time.

As the 70’s ended, our family moved from the small Ohio town to the big city of Chicago, but so many small things from that time in Ohio remain etched into my brain. The lessons of supporting your local brewer, respecting beer, and a connection to seasonality of beer styles are all a part of my childhood experience growing up in a small Ohio town. I didn’t think much of any of this at that time, but I carry these memories with me to this day.

Nine years later, I came back to Ohio to attend graduate school at The Ohio State University. And while that meant a lot of late nights studying, struggling through nearly impossible problems, and long hours in the lab, it also meant late night poker games and going out to seeing quirky bands at clubs with friends. And the beer of choice when we cut loose from the hard work was Rolling Rock.

It was the early 90’s, and beers like Sam Adams starting showing up on grocery store shelves, Ohio having rid itself of the prohibition relic of State Liquor Stores. And while I started trying the new craft beers showing up in grocery stores, Rolling Rock was still the “local” brewer in Columbus. The tap list at most bars was limited to something like Bud, Bud Light, Coors, and Rolling Rock. And yes, for some reason, Rolling Rock just tasted better than those other lagers that simply weren’t a part of my home. Rolling Rock had an identity with the eastern edge of the Midwest, and Coors, Miller, and Budweiser seemed foreign, even if there was a Budweiser factory in Columbus.

Now 20 years later, I live 2,000 miles away from Ohio in Northern California. My curiosity in craft beers has turned into a full blown hobby, and my local brewers are all the great Northern California breweries. Mega brewing conglomerate Anheuser-Busch bought Rolling Rock in 2006 and almost immediately closed the Latrobe brewery and moved production to Newark, New Jersey. I recently tried Rolling Rock, and found it to be totally undrinkable, nothing like I remembered it back when I drank it back in Ohio.

Maybe Rolling Rock just was never very good. Maybe I simply look back on the beer during those idyllic days of my childhood and graduate school with misplaced nostalgia, rather than a realistic understanding of what the beer was really like. But I can’t help being troubled that the beer that created my first, lasting impressions of what beer embodies, a beer that identifies me with Ohio, and in a small but highly significant way, the beer central to experiences that will last me to the end of my life was kidnapped from its home in the Midwest and is now pimped from the streets of Newark with the awkward come on “Born Small Town”. Few are buying this ridiculous line, and sales of Rolling Rock are declining, with little chance this beer will ever find its way back to its true home. A part of me is lost forever.

The Session #33: Framed by 33

This month’s Session, by Andrew Couch, of I’ll Have a Beer is on framing beers, with the topic loosely summed up as “write about how the context the beer is presented affects the drinking experience”.

Psychologists have long known that our choices are biased by the way each choice is framed. To illustrate this, suppose you are the head of a disease control agency, and are presented with two options to combat a disease which is expected to kill six hundred people unless something is done to stop it. A team of doctors have determined the outcomes of two possible options.

Option A: 200 people will be saved.

Option B: There is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved, and a two-thirds probability that no one will be saved.

What do you do?

In a psychological experiment where subjects were presented with these options, 72% choose Option A. In the same experiment, subjects were also presented with the same options, simply worded differently.

Option C: 400 people will die.

Option D: There is a one-third probability that nobody will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.

When presented with the same options framed differently, the same participants who picked Option A 72% of the time, instead choose Option D 78% of the time. Of course, we would rather save people than let them die, and so the options framed positively are favored over those framed negatively, known as positive frame bias. (1)

Psychologists have found numerous other framing effects, which I won’t go into here. But clearly, the beer we chose and our experience drinking it is framed by things like the beer label, word of mouth, the advertising, the reputation of the brewer, and numerous other sensory inputs that are quite difficult to separate from the actual liquid in the glass. Beer judges have known this for years as most beer competitions are judged blind, where beer is presented to judges in unmarked glasses, and judges are not allowed to influence each other.

I find myself struggling with framing effects explaining craft beer to family and friends who are not craft beer drinkers. Often, they actually would like to drink something from their local brewer, but their perception of craft beer is that it is “too strong”, overly bitter, hops run amok, and simply not enjoyable to them to drink. Beer names like “Arrogant Bastard”, “Damnation” or “Hop Stoopid” tend to reinforce this notion. I’ve responded telling them that many craft brewers release lighter styles they might find more enjoyable. More than once, I been told, “Well, I really enjoy Blue Moon, from some small brewery in Colorado”. They are usually pretty disappointed to learn that Blue Moon is actually made by Coors, a massive industrial brewery. Coors sells Blue Moon by framing it as a product of some quaint Colorado brewery, and the fact that once people get past the deception, they often lose interest in the beer seems to validate this strategy.

One brewery it took a while to warm up to was Flying Dog Brewery. So many times in a bottle shop, gazing at a wide array of beers in from of me, I simply moved past the frenzied, graffiti-style art Flying Dog uses on their label, and picked up something from a different brewery. In this Session, we’ve been asked to try beers we wouldn’t normally drink, so I decided to try a couple Flying Dog brews, just to see what the beer is like.

As is often the case, stretching my beer horizons was rewarded, as I found the beer to be excellent. The Flying Dog Kerberos Triple had a light toasty yeast flavors with a little apricot, and a clean, clear character to it. Flying Dog’s Double Dog Imperial Pale hooked with a great creamy mouth feel, toffee-like malty flavors coupled with a little tangerine and an orange peel bitterness. I can’t help wondering why was the beer label art, designed to attract me to the beer, was actually pushing me away.

I think the answer to this question originates in the way beer was initially framed to me. I spent my childhood during the 70’s in the small Midwestern college town of Bowling Green, OH, located about 15 miles south of Toledo. My dad exclusively drank “33”, Rolling Rock, and would carefully allow me a sip of his Saturday afternoon beer. My father later told me he did this to prevent me from abusing alcohol, to demystify beer at an early age. These were also early lessons to respect beer, that it wasn’t a beverage to be carelessly guzzled, but to be savored and enjoyed at special times. I also remember Dad proudly informing me Rolling Rock was brewed “in the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe” in Western Pennsylvania. Latrobe is about 300 miles from Bowling Green, but in those days, drinking exclusively Rolling Rock was supporting your local brewer, and from this I learned the place the beer was brewed was just as important as the beer itself. These experiences, burned into the neurons of my young brain, still guide me today.

I find it sad and ironic that InBev bought Rolling Rock, shut down the Latrobe brewery, and moved production to Newark, NJ in a cost cutting move, priming the pump of their plans for world wide beer domination. Yet, InBev still has the audacity to market Rolling Rock with the grammatically deficient slogan “Born Small Town”, trying to sell the beer by framing it as from a tradition bound, small town brewery. I guess the corporate folks at InBev figured out a more accurate grammatically deficient slogan like “Born small town, multi-national corporation bought brewery, laid off workers, bean-counters rule day” would not be a good way to frame Rolling Rock if they wanted to sell lots of it.

But going back to my earliest framing of beer, I believe my earliest experiences of beer explains my initial aversion to Flying Dog beers, framed in chaotic, modern artwork. I’ve come to realize my favorite breweries like Anderson Valley, El Toro, and Deschutes are favorites of mine in part because these breweries evoke their unique local geography into their marketing, and are relatively close to where I live. This new understanding about how my beer preferences are shaped will allow me to make more informed decisions on the beer I choose to drink. There’s nothing wrong with psychological warm fuzziness guiding what we drink. But of course, craft beer drinking is a lot about exploration and expanding beyond your comfort zone. And if you’re going to expand beyond your comfort zone, it’s helpful to know where the discomfort is coming from.

(1) Positive framing example from The Mind of the Market, Micheal Shermer, Henry Holt and Company, copyright 2008, pages 84-85.

Taking the folks to Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery

My parents were in town for an extended Memorial Day weekend. So the Tuesday after Memorial Day, Linda and I decided to spend a day with them in Santa Cruz. First stop, Natural Bridges State Beach. There is something restorative about standing on the beach in cold, ankle deep water as the waves crash and recede in front of you. Periodically, squadrons of pelicans glided overhead, looking for fish. A sea lion would poke its head out to look around now and then. And the Natural Bridge rock formation loomed over the entire scene.

Afterwards, we headed over to Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, (SCMB) about a five minute drive from the beach. In addition to their small brewery where they make exclusively organic beer, they have a tap room where one can go in and enjoy some of their beer. I was hoping for the best, and slightly fearing the worst. I’ve enjoyed their beer many times, but have noticed some batch to batch variation in their product. And sometimes, this results in off-flavors in the beer. In fairness to SCMB, organic barley and hops are usually inferior to the non-organic kind, and its a testament to the skill of the brewers at SCMB that they produce plenty of good batches of beer. Still, I was hoping we’d spend the time in the SCMB tap room talking about the good times we just had at Natural Bridges, rather than talking about strange flavors lurking in our brew.

Mom tends to favor lagers, with her favorites being Heineken and Stella Artois. SCMB wasn’t offering a lager, so I asked the bartender to pour a sample glass of their Wilder Wheat. I braced myself and took a small sip. Good news! I tasted a really soft tasting beer with warm clove and vanilla notes in it. Really nice, and none of the sour, off-notes I had detected in a previous batch of this beer. I handed the glass over for Mom to try. She liked it, being so sure that this was the beer for her, she had no choice but to order it, end of story.

Well, not exactly. Mom looked hard at the descriptions of the beers and the wall, and started looking confused. Walking up to the bartender, she asked him what would be comparable to her favorites. The bartender was a lot more patient with Mom than me. Actually, just about everyone is more patient with Mom than me. Mom ended up ordering their Pale Ale on the bartender’s recommendation and really enjoyed it.

Dad and I decided to get the spring seasonal, a dry hopped Pale Ale. I forget what hops they used, but the dry-hopping gave the Pale Ale an extra fresh, bitter, and slightly astringent dimension. Falling back upon absolutely zero beer judging and culinary descriptive experience, I’d say it made the beer taste “springy”.

Linda decided to get a sampler flight, which she shared with me. SCMB beers tend to be on the lighter side for each style, but don’t seem watery. They’re just the sort of refreshing, yet substantial beer you’d want to drink after a day of surfing. (Or running, because I can’t really speak for surfers, having never surfed.) I’ve been a fan of their Devout Stout, Dread Brown Ale, and People’s Porter for a while now. And every beer on the sampler flight was solid to good. Really pleased to see a local brewery get it so right.

And since Mother’s Day just past, and Father’s Day is around the corner, let me take this opportunity to give a Beer Runner toast to my parents.

Growing up in Bowling Green, Ohio in the 70’s, Dad would carefully dole out sips of Rolling Rock to me from his glass on hot summer days, teaching me to “respect beer” at an early age. (This was back when Rolling Rock was a respectable regional brewery, not the soul-less InBev product it is today.) And my running career started out back in 1980, when Dad and I trained for a 10 kilometer race. Dad’s been running well into his 60’s, but it looks like some foot surgeries he’s had to undergo will cause him to hang up the running shoes.

Mom also played her part in bringing up her little Beer Runner, and has always been active walking, biking and swimming. Often, Mom would be out swimming in the freezing cold lake or ocean water on family vacations, teaching me that you can have a lot of fun if you develop a high enough pain threshold. And she taught me to put good stuff inside my body, telling me to eat my vegetables because they say “Hi” to my insides.

Good beer says “Hi” to your insides.