Rockford Brewing Co. scored big in the competition at this year’s Great American Beer Festival. The West Michigan microbrewery, which sold 687 barrels of beer in 2016, took home two medals: silver among 30 entries for Sheehan’s Stout in the Classic Irish-Style Dry Stout category, and bronze among 63 entries for Rogue River Brown in the English-Style Brown Ale category. (Astute readers will recall Sheehan’s Stout took third place in Revue’s Best of the West Awards this year, as well.) To cap it all off, Rockford also scored the Small Brewpub and Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year Awards at GABF — a big feat, considering more than 2,200 breweries entered 7,900-plus beers in 161 different style categories. Revue sat down with owners Seth Rivard and Jeff Sheehan to discuss the praise the brewery’s been receiving and how they’re not letting it get to their heads.
Congrats on all the awards at GABF. This is the second honor for Rogue River Brown, while Sheehan’s Stout is a first-time winner, right?
Jeff: Yep. With both of those, we get judges notes back every year. Both of those beers had made it to the medal round for the last three years in a row, so we knew there was a chance that they could both win, but they both won in the same year, which made it even more special.
Then to top it all off, you won the Small Brewpub and Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year Awards at GABF. How did Rockford pull that off?
Jeff: There’s a stroke of luck that comes with the first two medals. In the end, there is a subjective element to that, but the icing on the cake is that Small Brewpub and Small Brewer of the Year Award. Of all the breweries in the nation that produce under 750 barrels, we won more medals than anybody, we got more points. That gave us the championship.
Were you surprised about the honor?
Seth: Absolutely. Because it’s such a slim chance, that was a shocker. Almost 8,000 beers were judged, and we only entered four, and took two medals.
Did you use the feedback over the last few years to help you refine the beers?
Jeff: Not so much. We haven’t really touched the Sheehan’s Stout recipe. The brown we have tweaked a handful of times (with a new yeast).
Seth: But I think the flavor profile between those two yeasts is pretty minimal in that style.
Jeff: Yeah, and anytime you tell people there’s a change, they exaggerate the (effect). But, of course, we would never make changes if it was going to be that drastic.
To have your beers held up on a national stage, what does that mean for the brewing operations? Does that give you guys a boost of confidence?
Jeff: Absolutely. I think you’re always looking for ways to improve, and you always wonder, ‘What are other brewers doing?’ … When you do win with a beer like that twice, and then also, two different beers in the same year, (it’s rewarding).
Seth: It’s validating that your process is good and you’re doing something right. It’s at the same time motivating, too. ‘What else can we do to make it even better?’
Jeff: As far as I know, we haven’t won any golds yet.
There’s always next year! Have the honors been a good marketing tool for the brewery?
Seth: We’ve definitely seen a lot of feedback and a lot of exposure on social media. The bartenders and servers talk a lot about how much the customers are asking questions and talking about it, too. A lot of people are flat out saying they came in because of that.
Looking ahead, what do you guys hope to do with all this positive recognition?
Jeff: Take over the world.
Seth: Take over Mars — the inner part of the solar system. (Laughter.) Really, there are a few different things we can do to expand. We started bottling six-packs of (flagship IPA) Hoplust, and the response to that has been overwhelming. The market is asking for a lot more than we can send, which is a good problem. We would love to bottle the brown and the stout and maybe Little George (an imperial IPA), but we don’t have those capabilities right now. So we’re talking about, ‘Hey, what can we do in the near/long-term future to potentially grow into some of these things.’
This has also been a big year for Rockford with the opening of your kitchen, which has been getting praise in its own right.
Jeff: It’s humbling to be surrounded by so many hardworking people. Quality — since we started — has always been my number one goal across the board. The kitchen is showcasing that pretty well right now, too, and hospitality — the front of the house. They do a great job tableside.
What is Rockford Brewing planning for 2018?
Seth: We’ve got our big anniversary coming up — five years. We just announced we’re bringing back Shanty Warmer and Complete Nutter Madness that people get really excited about. And the kitchen always is doing awesome things with the food for the events.
Jeff: It’s going to be a year, I think, where we further identify who we are because we’ve got some demand for some products that we’re really having a tough time keeping up with — and those are just regular beers. To fit some new beers in is always challenging, but between responding to the demand and doing things that excite us and give us the opportunity to learn as well — that’s the balance here.
Interview conducted and condensed by Joe Boomgaard.