Salt Lake City, Utah
There's a reason Phillips wanted to add the word "project" to his brewery's name during its origin. "For me, I didn't want this to be a stagnant thing," he says. "I always wanted it to be a project -- or a work in progress."
Fittingly, RoHa Brewing Project continues to adapt to the changing landscape of craft brewing.
The brewery was founded by Rob Phillips, the "Ro" in RoHa, and longtime Utah brewer Chris Haas, the "Ha" in the brand's name, as well as partner Josh Stern. It was a storied beginning: Phillips, an engineer, used to volunteer during his days off at Desert Edge Brewery where his friend Haas -- who, Phillips points out, was "at the foundation of craft beer in Utah" -- was working. When Phillips began brainstorming the idea for his own brewery, Haas not only gave him advice -- he asked to join the venture as well.
Strictly adhering to beer style guidelines, early on, the name of each beer came with its own story: Back Porch Pale Ale, sitting at 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), recollects the days Phillips and Stern would play music together on their back porches. Big Green Couch Double Dry Hopped Double IPA -- an 8 percent ABV "high point" beer (as the Utah term goes for anything above 5 percent) -- revisits the salad days when Haas surfed on said piece of furniture while looking for a brewery at which to hang his hat. (Haas ultimately wound up working at Desert Edge for 17 years.)
Right out of the gate, RoHa developed into a brewery with a wide footprint. "We set a laser focus on [how] our growth would come through distribution," says Phillips. The brand can be presently found within about 500 retail outlets within Utah, thanks to its distributor, General Distributing, which not only represents Anheuser-Busch products, but also places smaller craft breweries in stores. And Phillips doesn't foresee any change to that relationship, although he does expect to "streamline" the RoHa brands available in retail outlets in the near future, using his brewery's freshly available tank space to produce more one-off beers to be sold on-premise.
Phillips says, "We're slowly turning this distribution ship and trying to [focus] a bit more on our taproom space, and trying out some small batch beers and limited-release type beers that are available [only] in our taproom. So, I would say we learned a lot about distribution: We learned a lot about the profit margins -- or lack thereof -- in the distribution model. And we're pretty excited to have this shift -- or expansion of our focus -- into putting out unique and really cool beers in the taproom."
Largely due to an increasingly competitive market, RoHa has expanded its taproom space from about 200 square feet to 1,000, in order to offer a greater variety of beers to a larger volume of customers -- while also maximizing profits. And it's begun offering one-offs like the well-received Mild & Free British Mild, made by reusing the malts in its 8.7 percent ABV Nights Out Belgian Style Stout for a second run.
Out of its 2,000-square-foot, 15-barrel brewhouse, RoHa brewed little more than 2,000 barrels in 2021. Its best-selling canned beer at stores is its Shambo Juicy IPA, which delivers "a punch in the face of fruit," says Phillips. A couple of hard seltzers have also been added to the offerings -- which allows gluten-intolerant people to still enjoy a beverage at its taproom.
"We've doubled in size from 2018 to 2019," says Phillips. "I was thrilled at the end of 2020 to see we still grew even though bars and restaurants were shut down for the majority of the year." A team of three brewers now produce the offerings. Haas, who has stepped away from day-to-day operations at the brewery, still offers consulting help.
Asked about the brewery's motto -- "greatness without compromise" -- Phillips reflects on the founders' discussions about beer quality during the brewery's formation: "Making 'good' beer was not going to be adequate in the market. It may sell the first six-pack, but it won't sell the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth six-pack."
And now, at its expanded taproom, completed in April 2021, Phillips has set out to provide great one-off beers -- which may occasionally veer away from established beer guidelines -- for its local customer base.
For Phillips, the brewery is still a project -- a work in progress. "We were always growing and changing and learning and adapting and supporting the neighborhood and community around us," he says.
Favorite beers: "It's overlooked a lot, but Desert Edge [Brewery] -- that's where my partner, Chris Haas, came from," says Phillips. He also gives a shout-out to "our crosstown friends at Fisher Brewing." Phillips adds about Desert Edge and Fisher, "They both do a pretty good job making nice beers." There's also Roosters Brewing Co. up in Ogden: "We get along with those guys pretty well."
Challenges: Letting people know about the taproom's unique offerings, says Phillips: "Getting people in the door to see what we have to offer."
Opportunities: Being able to offer more than just 5 percent ABV beers within the brewery's taproom, while remaining in accordance with Utah liquor laws. "We're going to apply for a bar license, and that will also expand the beers that we have available, because we can sell five other beers we produce and package that otherwise you can't drink on site," says Phillips.
Needs: RoHa needs general stability and "the opportunity to consistently provide beer, and have customers come in and enjoy it in this taproom space," Phillips says. "That growth is going to be critically important to us in the next year."