Fort Bragg's North Coast Brewing Co. succeeds by going against the grain
In the craft beer industry, North Coast Brewing Co. has consistently gone against the grain, both figuratively and literally.
When other West Coast brewers went to more hoppy beers, the brewery didn’t try to keep up in the arms race for the most hop-forward India pale ale (IPA). It preferred to keep the focus on other styles of beer such as a Russian imperial stout, a pilsner and saisons (a kind of pale ale).
When others went to locales that were closer to larger cities and major transportation hubs, North Coast stayed in its preferred spot in Fort Bragg, forcing beer lovers and distributors to trek hours up the coast to make their visit.
And while breweries have recently built facilities in other states to corner more of a national market - and even international in a few cases - North Coast has felt no desire to do the same even in an industry that had an 18 percent increase in volume from 2013 to 2014.
Yet those decisions have played a major role in its success, as the brewery is consistently lauded by critics and nabs awards for its beer quality. It has now grown to producing a little more than 66,000 barrels in 2015, placing it among the top 50 domestic craft brewers in terms of volume.
Mark Ruedrich, who co-founded the brewery in 1988 and now serves as its president, conceded his business plan would probably be laughed out of business school, especially the part about setting up shop in Fort Bragg.
“It did not make good economic sense, good business sense necessarily. It was not the sort of idea that investors would break down your door to get you,” Ruedrich said.
But the choice has allowed North Coast to set its own course and not hop on recent trends, such as a recent trend to add fruit to IPAs. For example, Ballast Point Brewing Co. in San Diego - under new corporate leadership - has unveiled a watermelon double IPA, to the consternation of some beer purists.
“I think our isolation has served us well in terms of that regard,” Ruedrich said.
North Coast, however, is not resting on the fact that it has successfully remained independent under the recent spate of takeovers, private equity investments and partnerships, such as the 50-50 deal Heineken International made last year for Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma. North Coast’s biggest plan for the future is to build a new facility that can house its production, taproom, gift shop and offices in Fort Bragg instead of seven different spaces spread out across town for its approximately 150 employees.
In fact, it’s eyeing a spot at the old Georgia-Pacific lumber mill near the scenic California Coastal Trail, a space that could serve as a crucial anchor for redevelopment of the 425-acre site.
“It’s very consistent with the vision of the community,” said Fort Bragg City Manager Linda Ruffing of the plans. “It could be a flagship project for the redevelopment.”
In its almost 30-year history, North Coast’s growth has come primarily organically and not through the traditional business practices of craft beer pioneers, most of whom focused primarily on a flagship beer and grew by expanding locally.
North Coast Brewing Co. was born when Ruedrich met up with Tom Allen and Joe Rosenthal. Ruedrich was working as a carpenter but had ventured into beer-making after a stay in England. The trip made him appreciate the flavorful British beers, which he found far surpassed the light lagers like Budweiser and Miller available in the United States.
The brewery first garnered attention for its Red Seal Ale, an amber ale that was notable in the late 1980s for its hoppy taste. Ruedrich had found a special hop at a beer convention with a decidedly unremarkable name: 41590. But it had a compelling citrus and floral aroma. It was later renamed “Centennial” and has become one of the most popular hops in the craft beer movement, in turn making the hops-forward IPA the most popular style of beer in the craft-beer sector.
“Now, it’s appreciated for being a very well-balanced beer,” he said of Red Seal Ale.
North Coast also offered its Scrimshaw pilsner and Old 38 Stout. Ruedrich continued to experiment with other styles new to the American consumer, many not widely produced in the United States. In contrast, many breweries are known for their flagship beer, especially IPAs on the West Coast such as Pliny the Younger by Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa and Racer 5 by Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Cloverdale.
“The beers they take on are not your usual beer and they tend to be significant,” said Tom Dalldorf, publisher of Celebrator Beer News.
A key test of its unconventional business practices came in 1995, when North Coast introduced its Old Rasputin Russian imperial stout to the marketplace in a four-pack. Distributors and retailers protested that customers wanted their beer in six-packs, not four-packs. But a traditional six-pack would cost too much for a consumer, given the high cost to produce Old Rasputin, said Doug Moody, a senior vice president and later bought out Rosenthal.