PORTLAND, Maine — Allagash Brewing Co. turns 20 this weekend. To celebrate, the pioneering Portland brewer is throwing a block party for friends, fans, customers and neighbors.

How does a startup become a leader in the hyperactive craft beer market?

Two decades ago, founder Rob Tod began with a cloudy, fruity wheat beer that got a wan response. Through persistence and skill, Allagash White is now the company’s top brew, amid more than 30 unique Belgian-style ales.

We asked him to share 20 lessons he has learned in 20 years of business. Take it away, Rob:

These lessons have taken me 20 years to learn. If they seem pretty obvious, understand I am a slow learner — just ask any of my school teachers. If we’re lucky enough to be around for a 50th anniversary and the list has grown longer, hopefully it’s not from learning the new lessons “the hard way” — something I have a history of being pretty good at.

Keep it simple. Our Tripel Ale just has one malt variety and one hop variety. Often, beers have pretty complex malt and hop bills, but this simple backdrop gives our Belgian House Yeast strain its opportunity to shine. It drinks like one of our most complex beers, despite the simplicity of its building blocks. To me, the Tripel is an ever-present reminder of the merits of keeping things simple.

When you see trash, pick it up. If everyone’s doing it, it makes a big difference. We have 93 employees who pick up little pieces of trash when they walk by them — literally and figuratively. If something’s not right, they take the initiative to do something about it. It’s just as important to do it when no one’s looking, when you are not going to get any credit for it. It’s a reflection of how much everyone at Allagash cares about what they are doing.

Walk the floor. I probably do this a lot because I can’t sit still for more than 30 minutes or so. But I get a tremendous amount of value staying in touch with what’s happening on the floor and staying in touch with the people who are making it happen. It’s tough to really be in touch when you are sitting in your office.

The little things matter. Our retail merchandise purchaser pores over every item before we put it in our store. Nothing is taken lightly. Where is it made? How sustainable is it? How does it add value to the customer’s experience? We don’t get everything right all the time, but we sure try. A bunch of little things add up to big things. In the case of our retail store, people have a much richer experience because we sweat the details.

Don’t be afraid to delegate. Every time I’ve found the right person for a role at the brewery, gotten out of their way and let them do their job, they’ve done it a lot better than I ever could have.

Listen. We have an incredibly dedicated, passionate, sharp and engaged crew. They are a huge resource and great teachers. I always learn a lot more when I’m listening at the brewery than when I’m talking.

Be candid. It’s a natural tendency to avoid tough conversations, because they are tough. But if someone’s on the “wrong track,” it’s kindest to tell them where they stand. Otherwise, they’ll never have the opportunity to make things right. It’s unfair not to give someone the opportunity to make things right.

Be relentless about improving. Even though we’re constantly making strides with quality at the brewery, we’re never satisfied. Once we make an improvement, we get back to work and look for the next. There is always opportunity for improvement.

Value the community you live in. Maine has been extremely supportive of Allagash Brewing over the last 20 years. We have never taken this for granted. We love Maine, and we love Portland. Our crew’s hard work making great beer has made our philanthropy program possible. We focus our philanthropy locally, and everyone at Allagash is very proud of that.

Get a website. Around 15 years ago, a friend of mine told me we should register allagash.com before someone else scoops it up. My response? We don’t need a website because we have a fax. He said: “I’m going to register the name, send you a bill and someday you’ll thank me.” Listen to people who know what they are talking about.

Don’t be a mile wide and an inch deep. Jerry Sheehan, who runs a number of our distributors, told me this. And we learned it the hard way. By 2005 we were selling about 5,000 barrels of beer in 30 states and frankly not doing a great job anywhere. Around then, we made the tough decision to walk away from a fair amount of this volume and pull back — eliminating territories where we did not think we could be competitive and relevant. Now we’re selling 80,000 barrels of beer in 17 states, and I’m much prouder of the job we’re doing today in all of our markets. Better to do a great job in a small pond than a not-so-great job in a big pond. I think every business has concepts like this that are so simple they easily are overlooked.

Park in the worst spot. One of the most senior people at the brewery, our brewmaster, is here early every day and can probably always get the best parking spot. But he usually parks farthest from the employee entrance to the brewery leaving the best spots for the employees who are out on the floor every day making the beer. This sets a great tone for any leader at the brewery.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. We’ve all heard this one before, but we make sure to remind ourselves constantly at Allagash. We take everything we do here at the brewery very seriously, but we have a good time. I used to light firecrackers in the brewery — probably better I stopped doing that. Who wants to go to work and spend the entire day without laughing?

Smile. Earlier today I walked by our kegging line and saw one of the operators who always has a smile on her face. When she is around other people on the line, guess what they are also usually doing? Smiling. It’s contagious.

Do your thing. When I made our first beer, Allagash White, not too many people wanted it. It was different — cloudy, spicy, distinctively Belgian. For a very long time it was usually the slowest draft line at the bars that were kind enough to keep us on draft. But I thought it was important to be doing something that was different. What’s the point in spending years building a brewery and possibly a lifetime running it just to make something people can already get? We avoid latching onto industry trends. We try to keep doing our own thing at Allagash.

Stick with it. If you are doing something different, sometimes it takes a while to get traction. It took about 10 years for the Allagash White to start catching on, but I’m glad we stuck with it and didn’t switch gears.

Do something you feel truly passionate about. It’s awfully hard to stick with something for years while fighting an uphill battle; but if you love doing it, it’s easy.

Don’t sell out. A high school teacher hand wrote this below a grade he gave me on a final history exam — I don’t remember the grade, maybe a C+ at best. He must have intended it as a parting thought. It really didn’t mean much to me for years, but for some reason it stayed with me. It resonates with me now. I wish I still had the test so I could tack it up on the wall in my office. We have core values at Allagash that include family, passion, caring and innovation. They are kind of a framework that guide us with decisions, big and little, that we make every day. We need to constantly remind ourselves that it’s important we don’t “sell out” on any front at the expense of these core values.

Hire people who inspire you. When I get out of bed in the morning, I can’t wait to get into the brewery because I get to spend time with incredibly passionate people. They are motivating to be around. I love spending time with the people at Allagash Brewing.

Don’t procrastinate. I was only able to come up with 19 lessons because I waited until the last minute to work on this. It’s 11:35 p.m., this is due tomorrow morning, and I just want to relax a little and drink an Allagash White Beer.


Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.