The Next Generation: Brett Joyce, President of Rogue

When your company tag line is “Dare, Risk, Dream” you don’t always operate your business with economic logic. But while it may frustrate every accountant on the team, Rogue Ales and Spirits has found its own way and possibly changed the landscape for owning a craft brewing business.

Rogue Ales opened in 1988 and Brett Joyce, the son of co-founder Jack Joyce, started working at the brewery almost immediately at the age of 16.

“I basically cleaned kegs and drove around town in a pink pickup truck delivering kegs of beer,” Joyce said. “I barely had my license and here I am driving around this small town of Ashland, [Oregon] — my dad had taken his pickup truck from when he worked at Nike and his friends painted it pink — and that became the Rogue delivery truck.”

Joyce eventually worked five more summers in Newport, Oregon before graduating from college. “Everyone says, the owner’s kid gets treated differently,” Joyce said. “And that was true, I got treated worse. I had to do whatever I was told to do, couldn’t ask any questions and always got paid minimum wage, not a nickel more.”

Out of college Joyce stayed away from the brewing business for about 11 years. He took a position with Adidas and never had a plan to return to the brewery. “I kind of went out and did my own thing,” he said. “Had a great career in the athletic field and was exposed to a great brand in Adidas where I did mostly marketing.”

In 2006 Joyce was presented with a chance to return to Rogue. “The opportunity presented itself to come back home — I wasn’t living in Oregon anymore — and work in a small business, work with my dad and see if we could figure it all out together. I was really thankful to come back to Rogue.”

In 2006 Rogue was just starting to experience what Joyce called “some really nice growth.” Joyce said he believed his dad was in a position where Rogue would need some help to grow the business to the next level. “I walked in and it was this massive growth in terms of top line, bottom line, pubs, employees … massive growing pains, but a great experience and a great time to come back to Rogue.”

Joyce said Rogue has tripled the top line since he returned to the business. Employees grew from about 120 to around 320 also in that time. “With all that comes infrastructure, resources, training and all the things I didn’t have experience in at all,” Joyce said. “I worked for big companies before so all of that was done for us. The small business you have to figure out all that stuff. It was really great and a lot of fun.”

According to Joyce, he had always been impressed with how pure the brand had been kept, which he attributes playing a role in his return. “Dad never compromised on quality, packaging, variety, experimentation, creativity — all those things he was very disciplined and the growth was never the goal, the growth was a byproduct of the brand,” he said. “If you do all the right things for the brand all the rest will kind of take care of itself. He really stuck to that, which I really respected.”

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One of the additional aspects was the speed at which Rogue, as a brand, was taking off nationally and internationally. “Nowadays everybody understands that game,” Joyce said. “But early on my dad had a vision that we had a brand that would travel across the country and perhaps across the globe.”

It was Rogue’s goal to develop packaging, branding and a story that consumers would find entertaining. “He thought all those things don’t just work locally, but work everywhere,” Joyce said. “The way you test it is by seeing if you can compete.”

Since rejoining the team Joyce said that he believes the brand has continued to evolve. “We’ve added farms, a number of pubs and that continues to evolve,” he said. “Certainly the product line has continued to evolve over the years, which is pretty natural. We have a combination of great and still relevant — we call them legendary products that have been around for a long time and are still outstanding — coupled with new products and packages. Spirits had just begun back then, so we’ve really evolved the spirits side of the business.”

Joyce’s dad originally developed the Rogue Nation, the ‘Dare, Risk, Dream’ mantra that essentially has driven the company over the years and continues to in daily decisions. “To give us that, it’s so simple, but so perfect that we can kind of run all decisions through that filter,” Joyce said. “Generally if you run [an idea] through a Dare, Risk, Dream filter, and you can’t really answer the question with a ‘yes’, then why are you doing it?”

Since 1988 the few areas that have helped Rogue have been the pub development with Rogue branding. “These are places where people can come in and experience us in our home, the totality of Rogue,” Joyce said. “The expansion of that is really important, just gives more and more people that chance to get the full brand experience.”

Additionally, the pubs helped Rogue build its wholesale business. “People would come into our pub in Newport and end up saying they were from Philly, owned a restaurant or bar and couldn’t get our beer,” explained Joyce. “Dad would ask who their wholesaler was, they’d say and next thing we knew we’d be in Philly. Especially over the years having done it, a lot of people from around the country end up coming through Portland or Newport or San Francisco.”

Rogue doesn’t necessarily target certain areas that it wants to build a brew pub. “We’re very patient,” Joyce said. “We don’t target a place, but if the perfect location pops up then we’ll go and open one. It was sort of one by one we opened them over time. We’re very opportunistic.”

Joyce said the company doesn’t believe it’s great at being bar or restaurant owners, but they’ll find situations where a bar or restaurant is going out of business and they’ll come in and take over. “That’s really the model and we’re glad we did it because it’s built us a lot of customers,” he said. “It gives people a chance to sample Rogue and get a feel for what the brand is all about.”

The farms have continued that same strategy. Not only do the farms help the brewery by providing and giving control of ingredients for the beers, but they also act as an outpost for the Rogue brand, attracting consumers and showcasing products. “I think that was a critical decision, something that we’re pretty proud of and pretty excited about here at Rogue,” Joyce said. “Both because it’s so authentic, it’s so real, you can’t fake farming, and the fun we’ve had with it.”

The farm strategy originally began as just a hop farm. “We didn’t just take it, sit on it and say that was good enough,” he said. “We continued to evolve it in fun ways that people have come to appreciate.” Rogue Farms now produces everything from hazelnuts to pumpkins to jalapenos — all of which are eventually found in the beers they make.

“They say necessity is the mother of invention,” Joyce said. “Our story is really from that. There was a global hop shortage back in 2008 and we’d never really had to worry about hop availability and then all of a sudden they weren’t available and then they were four or five times the price, so we just didn’t want to tell our brewmaster, nicknamed ‘More Hops’ to use less hops, so we wanted to hedge our supply.”

A lot of business-minded individuals assumed it was a move for vertical integration, but Joyce said that wasn’t the case. “We just wanted to make sure we had them. That was really the genesis for why we started with the hop farms. We believe in doubling down on ideas when we believe they work, and hop farming kind of works, so why not barely, why not all these other crops,” he said. “It was starting and then building on something. That’s what we did and what we continue to do.”

Joyce said through the farms Rogue now uses close to 50 percent of its hops directly from Rogue hop farms and with barely at about 15-20 percent. “The most expensive hops we use, or barley we use, is the stuff we grow ourselves,” Joyce said. “Trust me, we’re not efficient, that’s not why we do it. The accountants don’t really endorse it, but we do it nonetheless.”

The next piece of the puzzle for Rogue was in line with its spirits. While spirits had been around since 2006, completing a distillery the way Rogue envisioned required a further step — to build a cooperage.

“The quintessential symbolic example of Dare, Risk and Dream, it has to be Rolling Thunder Barrel Works because you have to be half crazy to want to do what we did,” Joyce said. “And I think that’s something that’s really special for us. You have to have the vision to do it, the courage to do it, the risk and capital to buy the equipment, build a building and apprentice somebody for a year to figure out how to do it. Economically it’s suicide, but we’re not motivated that way.”

When visitors go to the cooperage Joyce said they are simply blown away by the idea that Rogue actually built it. “To do it ourselves and to make such a great quality product, it’s so old fashioned and artisanal, done by hand — there’s not a nail in these things — I think that’s something that’s in the spirit of Rogue,” he said.

What Rogue discovered in beer was the creativity and those desires its consumers enjoyed. “They like variety, creativity, unique ingredients, and there wasn’t a ton of that — we started in 2003 — in spirits,” said Joyce. “If we experience this in beer, why would the same thing not apply here? Why couldn’t we bring our spirit of Rogue over to the spirits? That was kind of our why. Over time we’ve built our spirits line to have some of the same type of concepts.”

While a lot of what Rogue does may seem innovative or unique, it’s not really what the company is striving for innately, but it’s in the back of Joyce’s mind, somewhat. “For us to go do something that’s already been done is not very interesting for us,” he said. “So we’re always trying to find ideas that haven’t been done so we can carve out a position of leadership. The name Rogue kind of tells you it’s not copycat, it better be a Rogue-ish type of idea, so that really guides us in everything we do. We’re not going to do knock-off stuff.”

As a company Rogue spends a lot of time thinking about the name, the mission and how that seeps into the strategy. While a lot of companies design mission statements and try to operate via a litmus test, it’s not always so visible. However, with what Rogue has accomplished over almost 30 years, is a staple for developing company culture and following its soul. While it’s not always in coordination with the accountants and the money Rogue has found its way and carved its own path, blazing a whole new trail for future brewing companies to follow.

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