Rolling Rock: One American Beer's Story

The decline of a decent pale lager

A bottle of Rolling Rock and its bottle cap
joey.parsons/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Rolling Rock was originally a regional beer enjoyed most in the blue-collar towns near the Latrobe, Pennsylvania brewery where it was brewed. What began as a family-owned business in 1939 has been gobbled up by one big beer company after another.

While Rolling Rock once had a premium (even semi-craft) beer status, enjoyed as a refined light American lager, opinions have changed. This brand is a perfect example of how the goal of big brewers did not meet the standards of longtime brand loyalists.

The Rocky Rolling Rock Story

Two brothers from the Tito family bought Latrobe Brewing in early 1933. Prohibition was still in effect, but the duo took the gamble that paid off. In April of that year, 3.2% ABV became legal and by December 5th, the ban on alcohol was removed completely. In 1939, Rolling Rock Extra-Pale Lager was launched.

Rolling Rock had mild success over the next several decades. The beer had loyal fans and was often considered the high-end brew for the working man. 

In 1987, Labatt's Brewing Co. bought the brewery but pledged to keep it in the small town of Latrobe. They maintained the same production standards and attempted to build it into a beer for the emerging craft and microbrew crowd. This strategy worked with limited success and Rolling Rock did gain nationwide attention.

Enter Anheuser-Busch in 2006.

  • Early in the year, the beer giant bought Rolling Rock from Labatt's.
  • By August of 2006, the Latrobe brewery was closed and production moved to the company's Newark, New Jersey facility.
  • Rolling Rock fans started to notice a difference.
  • In 2015, it was announced that the 'glass-lined tanks' key to Rolling Rock's production would be limited to aluminum cans only. Beer produced for glass bottles would be moved though it was promised that quality would not be sacrificed.
  • Anheuser-Busch merged with InBev in 2016 and by this time few drinkers were impressed with what the Rolling Rock brand has to offer.
  • According to the Rolling Rock website, it is brewed at one of ten breweries in the United States.

The Rolling Rock Review

Review from July 2006 (just prior to the Latrobe brewery closing): I must confess to bringing a great deal of prejudice to any of the light lager style beers that dominate the beer market worldwide. Flavorless, no character and watery are all characterizations that leap to mind when thinking of any of the many beers that fall into this category.

My experience with this style is truly limited. Because of this, I found myself pleasantly surprised at the fine white rocky head that formed when pouring Rolling Rock. The color was as expected — a very pale straw.

The beer has a pleasant, light hops aroma with absolutely no grain in the nose. The first impression in drinking the beer isn't the flavor so much as the mouthfeel. The water used at the Latrobe brewery must be quite soft. The mouthfeel has that faintly silky quality associated with homes water softeners.

The flavor of the beer, however, is lacking. There is a quite a lot of residual sugar in Rolling Rock and virtually no hops bittering, only a hint at the end, so this beer is somehow both watery and cloying at the same time.

Despite that, there is enough character in Rolling Rock that puts it a bit ahead of the other light lagers that I've come across.

Time will tell if A-B manages to maintain this quality.

Review from October 2016: It's true that Rolling Rock was a good beer, one that you could sit down and enjoy as a step above the average American lager. Sadly, everything that was great about this beer is gone.

We are not alone in our opinions that Rolling Rock no longer stands out from the big brands of Anheuser-Busch InBev. After the 2006 purchase, Rolling Rock steadily went downhill and sunk from the premium beer that Labatt's tried to make it to a swill indistinguishable from the 'Lite' beers of Busch or Budweiser.

The soft water notes from the first review are gone. The beer's character is just like any other light lager.

Now that the glass-lined tanks are reserved for aluminum alone, bottles of this beer seem even less impressive.

It is purely a disappointment to see what big beer did to what was once a decent small-town beer. As of 2016, most experts who watch the beer industry do not predict a long future for Rolling Rock.

About Rolling Rock

  • Very light American pale lager.
  • Owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev.
  • IBU: 9
  • 4.6% ABV