Young and Hungry

Rock Bottom & Gordon Biersch Merger: Big Brewpub Brands Plan Little Change Aside From Growth

Last week Rock Bottom Restaurants and Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant Group, the nation's two leading  brewpub chains, merged to become CraftWorks Restaurants and Breweries, Inc. This makes the new company without question the country’s largest operator of brewpubs and craft-beer focused restaurants with nearly 200 locations across the United States.

CraftWorks brands include Rock Bottom, Gordon Biersch, Old Chicago, and "specialty concepts" like D.C.'s very own District Chophouse and Brewery.  The now "mega" microbrewery company is led by Frank Day, founder of Rock Bottom Restaurants, Inc., and Allen Corey, an original investor and 13 year President and CEO of Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant Group. It follows that CraftWorks maintains dual headquarters in Chattanooga, TN, where Gordon Biersch was based, and Louisville, CO, where Rock Bottom had its national offices.

The merger was the result of a $150 million investment led by Centerbridge Capital Partners, a $12 billion money management firm that now owns a majority share of the combined companies. There has been much speculation about how the business deal will affect individual brewpub locations and the beer that's made in them. Some fear closures, but the fact that brewing operations are very different across the two formerly independent companies is the primary concern. While Rock Bottom brewers generally have a great deal of freedom to create experimental beers that differ at each brewpub, Gordon Biersch brewers are confined to more traditional German styles and must send samples of their beers to corporate labs to ensure consistency across locations.

But according to the new company's board chairman, the move was about building the capacity for both companies to grow and customers should expect to see no real impact on existing locations. Denver's Westword "Beer Man" Jonathan Shikes reports,

Rock Bottom co-founder Frank Day, who will become chairman of the board, says nothing much will change at any of the restaurants. "Each brand will stay separate and do its own thing. Maybe you will see a Gordon Biersch beer show up on Old Chicago's beer list, but we're not wanting to homogenize the restaurants," he explains... "We didn't sell out. It was a good deal for us," Day says, adding that both Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch were facing more debt than they could handle. "It was making it difficult for us to grow. We needed new equity. This will strengthen Rock Bottom."

And from a post at ColoradoDaily.com,

Day expressed some certainty that the effects of the combination would not be negative. No restaurants are expected to close or be re-branded in the immediate time frame and CraftWorks plans to have headquarters operations in both Chattanooga and Louisville for at least the near-term, he said. How everything will pan out in the long haul, Day said he doesn't know. Most of the changes, he added, will be more operations-focused and mostly be behind the scenes.

This should come as a relief to fans of each brewpub chain's beers who have good reason to demand little change. Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch brewers have won a total of 120 beer medals over the past ten years from the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup, annual competitions run by the Brewer's Association. Many have moved on to start their own brewpubs and breweries, like acclaimed local brewer Jason Oliver of Devils Backbone in Roseland, Virginia.

If nothing else, the news has given me a reason to visit Omaha, Nebraska. Poking around on the new company's website led me to find Rock Bottom's, that is, CraftWorks' Gold Medal Tap. At this one location, customers can order from Rock Bottom's (and now Gordon Biersch's as well, presumably) award-winning beers from across the country. As if that weren't enough, drinkers can pour these beers themselves at party booths equipped with personal taps. That's a lot of good beer at one's fingertips. Road trip?

For other local beer writers' response to the Rock Bottom – Gordon Biersch merger, check out what Alexander D. Mitchell at Beer in Baltimore and Greg Kitsock at the Washington Post had to say.

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