“Rolling Rock: From the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe, we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment as a tribute to your good taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you.” – The 33 words of the Rolling Rock label.
LATROBE, Pa. – No other town in America is so tightly bound to a single beer.
“You think of Latrobe,” said Steve Kittey, editorial director of the town’s daily newspaper, the Latrobe Bulletin, “you think of Rolling Rock beer.”
“It’s like Hershey and chocolate,” said Ed Maher, a Latrobe Brewing employee whose father and grandfather both worked at the town’s famed brewery. “They’re inseparable.”
Only now, Rolling Rock is leaving Latrobe.
In a deal that has soundly shaken this small western Pennsylvania town, Anheuser-Busch bought the brand, its famed “33” label, the recipe, even the “Latrobe Brewing” name, then declared Rolling Rock would be brewed at its facility in Newark, N.J.
The brewery, which was not part of the purchase, will close at the end of the month unless its owner, InBev, finds a buyer.
(The Associated Press reported that the familiar slogan will remain on the bottle, preceded by the disclaimer: “To honor the tradition of this great brand, we quote from the original pledge.”)
Around town, the day the $82 million deal was announced is known as “Black Friday.”
“It’s been so devastating to the town because the brewery has been such a source of pride,” said Kittey. “People all over Latrobe say they’ll never touch the stuff again.”
Those are strong words coming from a place where it’s not uncommon to see SUVs with No. 33 vanity plates.
Rolling Rock was a vital part of this community. It sponsored parades, it provided free cases to nearby St. Vincent’s College, its executives were members of the local chamber of commerce. Generations of families worked at the brewery; college students earned extra bucks every summer filling in for vacationing workers. Two years ago, when Latrobe celebrated its 150th birthday, Rolling Rock brewed a commemorative beer for the occasion.
And when locals traveled, they knew that when they mentioned their hometown, they’d get a friendly look of recognition.
At Frank’s Lounge on Main Street, Brian Spiller remembered visiting Savannah, Ga., a couple months ago. “I tell them I’m from Latrobe, Pa., and they say, ‘Oh sure, that’s where Arnold Palmer and Rolling Rock are from.’ But now, this old town is losing everything it’s got left.”
The governor and area politicians are hoping to convince another brewery, possibly City Brewing of Lacrosse, Wis., to buy the facility and keep its 250 employees working.
Some Latrobe backers have started petitions to keep Rolling Rock in town. But that seems unlikely; though the brewery is modern, A-B has little use for it.
The sale has been especially hard on the men and women who worked at the brewery.
“It was a very good job,” said Jay Peters, who made Rolling Rock for 22 years. “Hell, having a job at a brewery is like dying and going to heaven… ”
“We used to carry business cards that identified you as a proud employee of Rolling Rock,” said Michael Bauer, who worked there 14 years. “If you went into a store that carried Rolling Rock, you’d give them your card and tell them thanks for stocking our product…
“I was so proud to work there,” said Bauer, whose father worked there 33 years before he died. “He’s rolling over right now.”
The workers say they feel cheated, that they did everything InBev ever asked. “We met all their goals,” said Rick Ravis, who worked in the brewery’s fermenting cellars.
They noted that in recent years the company seemed to lose interest in selling Rolling Rock as it committed resources to other labels, especially Labatts and Stella Artois. Advertising was sliced from $7 million to about $1 million, the workers said, and sales plummeted. Now, they expect A-B to pump up the brand.
“What’s going to be hard for me,” said Bauer, “is two years from now, watching the Steelers in the Super Bowl and seeing a Rolling Rock commercial.”
Both the workers and the town itself seem resigned to losing its icon.
On Black Friday, Ravis left the brewery and headed for his local tavern. He’d worked 28 years at brewery, hired right out of college.
“Whenever I’d walk into the bar, the bartender would pull out a cold Green Light – that was my beer,” Ravis said, referring to Rolling Rock’s light beer. “It was sitting there for me every day.
“For 28 years, I never had to think what I was going to order,” he lamented. “But now, I didn’t know what to do. I felt horrible.”
He paused a moment and added, “I’ll never drink Rolling Rock again.”