Lisa Morrison's picture

John Maier – Born To Be Rogue

After nearly a quarter century of professional brewing, the master brewer at Rogue Ales still has the heart of a homebrewer.
John Maier Rogue Ales Hops
Photo Credit: roguefarmsblog.wordpress.com

If a beer-inspired genealogist ever traced a craft brewers’ family tree, Rogue Ales’s brewer, John Maier, would certainly be one of the patriarchs. And an unlikely one at that.

Soft-spoken and even a bit reclusive – although quite affable – Maier doesn’t strut with the swagger that some “rock-star” brewers possess, and he seems to purposefully steer clear of the limelight that he richly deserves. Not only is he one of the most award-winning craft brewers in the world, he also has influenced many brewers across the country, who learned under his guidance at Rogue and took their educations elsewhere as they embarked on their own careers. Take, for instance, Flying Dog’s head brewer, Bob Malone; Amnesia Brewing’s owner, Kevin King, and its brewer, Chris Spollen; Full Sail’s head brewer, Barney Brennan; C Street Brewing’s owner, Doug Draper, and the list goes on and on.

Like most craft beer pioneers, though, Maier didn’t start out with aspirations to be a brewer, although he did, at a rather early age, intrinsically know that he wanted to live in Oregon. Born in Riverside, Calif., in 1955, his family moved to the suburbs outside of Portland when he was around 7. They spent most of Maier’s childhood in the Portland area, although his parents moved back to California when he was in high school.

At that time in his life, Maier wanted to utilize his natural talents and interest in electronics, and so he went to school at the DeVry Institute of Technology in Phoenix, Ariz., where he graduated in 1975. It wasn’t long before the young Maier landed a job at what was at the time one of the premier aerospace and defense contractors in the country, Hughes Aircraft, near Los Angeles, which was founded by Howard Hughes. Maier spent 11 years there working as an electronic technician, although he took off some time after eight years to try to land a job back in Oregon.

During that time, though, something happened that would alter the course of Maier’s life.

“My stepdad bought me a six-pack of Anchor Steam, and it’s the beer that changed my palate forever,” Maier said one bright and clear morning last fall at the Rogue brewery in Newport, Ore., where Maier has brewed for more than two decades. “I took a sip of that and thought, ‘Wow, this is great!’”

With the late-September sunlight kissing the lazy waves of Yaquina Bay, the brewer was relaxing for a change among the tools and products of his craft. At that moment, it was hard to imagine Maier ever doing anything but brewing craft beer, or even brewing for anyone but Rogue, for that matter. But those first sips of Anchor Steam were the beginnings of a twisting path that led Maier to where he is today.

“On my way to and from work, I used to drive past a homebrew shop with a sign that said ‘Homebrew Classes.’ One day, I went in and decided to take a class,” Maier said of his early venture.

“That was in the early ’80s,” he reflected. “Because that’s when I met Charlie [Papazian]. I started homebrewing. A lot. I got pretty good.” Around that time, Maier joined a homebrew club called the Stout Bay Brewers, which is no longer in existence.

“Tom Edmunds, who is now in his 70s, was one of the founders. He’s the guy who contributed the recipes for all those crazy beers you find in Charlie’s ‘Complete Joy of Homebrewing’ – you know, like the cock beer – the one with the chicken in it,” Maier remembered with a laugh.

A little later, he got hooked up with the Maltose Falcons, the country’s oldest homebrew club, which, by the time Maier got involved, was already around a decade old. He still owns the brewing system he used during those initial years, and his description of it is enough to send the heads of beer geeks spinning even today.

“This Pleasanton, California, guy started building these original stainless steel 15-gallon, Miller-cut kegs with a half-inch coupler on the side and a brew stand – this guy built all this stuff, way ahead of his time – with a cooler and a PVC false bottom with the slits in it. I still have it at home,” he said with a big smile.

Brewing was growing to be more than a hobby. Maier’s beers were winning praise and accolades among the small but tightly knit homebrewing community in southern California. That bolstered Maier into wanting to learn more. He explored the possibility of becoming a professional brewer, which he hoped would also be his ticket back to Oregon. He considered going to brewing school at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. But there was a slight work issue to be dealt with.

“In 1986, I asked Hughes if I could take a sabbatical [to attend Siebel], and they said ‘no.’ So, in one weekend, I flew to Chicago and met Bill Siebel,” Maier said. “I had brought a couple of [homebrews] with me and [Siebel] said he would have his sensory panel evaluate them. The panel really rated the beer highly. I was surprised. It was a hoppy little pale ale, too. I figured I’d get slammed because it was so hoppy.

“By Sunday when I flew home, I had decided that I was just going to quit my job and do it … I knew that if I was going to move back to Oregon it would have to be as a brewer.”

After three months and 300 hours of classwork at Siebel, Maier returned to Portland, where his brother lived. No nibbles there. But he did get job offers from Dixie Brewing in New Orleans and Alaskan Brewing in Juneau. On the advice of a Portlander named Jim Kennedy, who, through his Admiralty distribution company was one of the craft beer pioneers in this country, Maier decided to head north.

The year was 1987, and Maier found a great partner for his ale-explorations with Geoff Larson, the owner of Alaskan.

“I homebrewed like mad when I was there – when I was off work at the brewery or at the house,” Maier said. “I made this porter, and Geoff was amazed and said, ‘God, this is great.’ We had a smokehouse across the street that was smoking salmon. And he said, ‘Let’s take a portion of the malt and have them smoke it.’ And that’s how Alaskan Smoked Porter got started – Geoff and I, a collaboration.”

While he was brewing in Alaska, Maier sent a few bottles of a barleywine that he and his brother had brewed a previous summer off to the American Homebrewers Association’s annual competition.

While still in California, Maier said, “I used to ride my motorcycle every year up to my brother’s house in Beaverton [Oregon] for Fourth of July. And one year, I brought along all the ingredients to make a barleywine along with me on the motorcycle – including the yeast. That’s what I won the Homebrewer of the Year Competition with. I had just left it in a carboy at my brother’s house for quite a while and then sent it in.”

That barleywine was the prototype for Rogue’s Old Crustacean, which was first brewed in 1989.

“That barleywine was off the charts, man,” Maier said. “We haven’t really changed that beer at all.”

Maier was quickly beginning to make a name for himself in the fledgling world of what was then called “microbrewing.” But he still had his heart set on returning to Oregon.

Around the same time, Jack Joyce met a woman in Newport named Mohave Neimi. Joyce was a co-founder of a small brewery in the artsy town of Ashland, Ore. The brewery was named Rogue, partially after the Rogue River that runs like a lifeline through that southern section of the state. He was looking to expand to a second brewery. “Mo,” as she was always called, owned a chain of eponymous chowder houses, called Mo’s Clam Chowder, on the Oregon coast. She convinced Joyce to set up his second brewery in a building she owned on Newport’s thriving waterfront, with two stipulations: that Rogue always “feed the fishermen,” which meant giving back to the community, and that a picture of Mo, naked in a bathtub, always be on display at the pub. It’s there to this day.

With a second brewery in place, Joyce needed another brewer.

“One day I had just finished bottling [at Alaskan], and it was Jack [Joyce] on the phone,” Maier said. “I think we split the airfare for me to come down and meet him in Portland.”

After a trip to southern Oregon to visit the original Rogue facility, which later closed after a devastating flood, Maier was driven to Newport to check out the second brewery. He was ready to take the job as the Newport brewer, but then came a brief setback.

“On the way back to Portland to catch my plane – I rode back with Jack, his wife, Joanie, and Brett (now Rogue’s C.E.O.), who was just a tyke – Jack said, ‘I want to make a lager-ale.’ And I am thinking to myself, ‘Uh-oh, this guy doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.” But then I realized Jack was saying he wanted to call the beer ‘L-o-g-g-e-r Ale,’ Maier laughed. “For a minute there it was touch and go.”

But Maier was finally moving back home.

“I got off the boat in Bellingham and drove straight down to Newport,” Maier remembered. “I had a pair of boots with me when I stepped inside the brewery and Greg [Kebkey, Rogue’s first brewer] was working on batch No. 1, so I stepped in and helped out. I actually walked in just in time to be part of the first brew.”

He’s been there ever since.

Throughout the course of conversation, Maier’s dialogue is often peppered with memories of beers – ones that he created himself and some that he collaborated on with someone else.

“Ashland Amber, which is now called American Amber, Oregon Golden and Shakespeare Stout, those were the three original Rogue beers,” Maier said. “Greg came up with those. The first one I came up with was ‘Newport-er.’ We had to put a hyphen in it because back in the old days, the B.A.T.F. [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] wouldn’t let us use one word for beer names – who knows why.” Maier recalled that Newport-er started out as a brown ale but evolved into a robust porter that became known as the popular Mocha Porter many beer fans love today.

“I was tweakin’ with that recipe more than any other beer I’ve ever brewed; just getting those malts – the profile – just right. But now it’s been the same for at least five years,” Maier said. “Mocha Porter evolved by mistake. I ordered some chocolate malt from one purveyor and a bag of pale chocolate malt got put in there by mistake. I liked the change so much, I stuck with it.”

Dead Guy Ale, which accounts for nearly 50 percent of Rogue’s beer sales, has a deep history as well. The beer was first brewed for a now-defunct Mexican restaurant in Portland called Casa U-Betcha, for whom Maier also developed Rogue’s rare smoke beer. The skeleton on the label was originally created by Casa U-Betcha, but they let Rogue keep it.

“Dead Guy was a Maibock, and it originally used Munich lager yeast,” Maier said. “But with only three fermenters we didn’t have the capacity to let a beer lager at the time. So, I brewed it again with the same malt profile but with our PacMan yeast [Rogue’s proprietary ale yeast], and people loved it. That’s the way it’s been brewed ever since. So, it’s not truly a Maibock.”

Just like Rogue itself, Dead Guy continues to evolve. Over the years, it was brewed with Perle and Sterling hops. But recently Maier has started using the GYO hops Rogue is cultivating at its farm in Independence, Ore. – hops with the names of Independent and Revolution.

Coincidentally, those are also words that not only describe Rogue but Maier himself, despite a distinct interdependence between the two. On a day off, when meeting for an interview for this article, Maier couldn’t help but check in with the CO2 guy to make sure the order was right and help haul off another empty canister, double-check on a valve that had been acting funny, and grab a sample off the zwickel of a new brew that was fermenting. For Maier, it’s a job that never quits.

“We brewed the most beer in one month ever last July – 8,000 barrels – with three guys. And I am one of ‘em,” Maier said with a gleam in his eye. “Just three guys! And the other guys are almost half my age!”

When asked if brewing ever gets old for him, Maier shakes his head.

“I am not a mouse-type brewer. The brewery’s got a touch-screen, but we don’t spend a lot of time up there [with the computer]. We are very hands-on, and we are moving a lot. You’re on your feet the entire time. It’s starting to wear me out, but I still love it. The boiling wort, that aroma, is something. You really can’t ever get over that.”

It’s safe to say that if Maier was a bumper sticker, it would read “Dog is my co-pilot.” A conversation with Maier is usually filled with references to dogs past and present, including recent antics of his and his wife Stacey’s two dogs, Mojo and Luna.

Still, after many years, water rises in Maier’s eyes as he recalls having to put down his yellow lab, Shawn, who traveled with him to Juneau for his stint at Alaskan Brewing, or Brewer, Maier’s longtime black lab companion who grew up at Rogue and was eventually named the honorary C.E.O. But a lot of good comes out of pain, and the Maiers head-up Rogue’s annual Brewers Memorial Ale Fest, which is more like a celebration of dogs with good beer than a beer fest that allows dogs. Featuring contests, a dog wash, an off-leash play area and more for the dogs, proceeds each year go to help out local and regional pet-related charities.

Maier also takes time to cultivate his connection with homebrewers, many of whom make a pilgrimage to the Rogue brewery like it’s a shrine and Maier their malty messiah. He is especially tight with the Eugene, Oregon-based club, Cascade Brewers Society, which is home to another beer pioneer. Chris Studach’s name might not be quite as recognizable as Maier’s among most craft beer fans, but his beers are. Maier collaborated with Studach after tasting the homebrewer’s Oregon Nut Brown ale. The result was Rogue’s Hazelnut Brown Nectar, which has taken the top prize in various competitions an unprecedented nine times. (That’s Studach on the label.) More recently the two collaborated again, using Studach’s two-gallon homebrew recipe for Rogue’s Imperial Chocolate Stout.

“I give homebrewers all the credit for the growth in craft beer,” Maier said. “That’s where my roots are, and that’s where they’re going to stay. And that’s my inspiration – the homebrewers.”