How Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Ale Went From Troll Beer to Sensation
Bacon Maple Ale was roundly mocked by the media and derided by online reviewers — but it still sold like crazy
At the start of this decade, Rogue Ales & Spirits, one of the OGs of the craft beer world (est. 1988), did a collaboration project with a local doughnut shop that would instantly make a splash — though mostly for all the wrong reasons. Bacon Maple Ale was roundly mocked by the media and derided by online reviewers, but the series nevertheless forged on with five additional releases. It sold like crazy — to whom?! — but it was never a beer geek favorite and today it’s mostly been forgotten by the cognoscenti. Maybe it was just way ahead of its time, in both ingredients and its Instagram-friendly (if not completely garish) packaging. And, though I thought it was pretty disgusting myself, I still think about it constantly.
“It was a cool idea — bacon beer,” recalls Tres Shannon, one of the owners of the Portland-based Voodoo Doughnut. “But there were a lot of gross starts.”
From the day Voodoo opened in downtown Portland in May of 2003, the kooky shop served what they called Bacon Maple Bars, essentially “long johns” glazed with maple and topped with a slice of bacon split in half. It quickly became their signature doughnut. This was still the early days of internet culture, when putting bacon on literally everything was an “extremely online” thing to do. Spurred by Voodoo and other offbeat doughnutteries, the Bacon Maple doughnut became so ubiquitous in the era, that today the entire genre has its own Wikipedia page.
One day in early 2011, Rogue’s then-president Brett Joyce called Voodoo to tell them how much he loved their doughnuts. Shannon and his co-owner Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson invited him to come over and check the place out for himself and then they returned the favor. “We got together, had a few beers and doughnuts and the partnership just evolved naturally from there,” Joyce told Departures in 2013.
But the idea of making a beer that tasted like a doughnut — without actually using doughnuts — wasn’t easy to pull off. Brewmaster John Maier struggled mightily to nail the sweet and savory flavor profile, initially using a porter as the base beer. It’s even been reported that a few times Maier woke up in the middle of the night and sped to the brewery to have another go at dialing it in. (Maier retired in July and declined to speak for this article.)
“John iterates and iterates and iterates, and does sample after sample and figures out how to integrate that into the brewing process, which is a different task altogether,” explained Joyce. “It’s a different kind of challenge.”
Finally, however, he figured out what he was looking for, starting with a lower-ABV rauchbier base, a smoky German-style brown ale created with three different smoked malts. To that he added another 10 ingredients, most notably vanilla beans, “pure maple flavoring,” and, of course, applewood-smoked bacon — the latter fact something many of Rogue’s vegan brewers were not thrilled with.
It was a cool idea — bacon beer.
If Maier was unsure if he’d nailed it, consumers initially weren’t; the beer was a viral sensation even before Rogue had announced its release. The Beer Pulse blog — noticing the required TTB filing for label approval — announced the first pink bottling in August of 2011. “[W]ith the pink bottle, I thought perhaps it was a fundraiser for Breast Cancer Awareness,” claimed writer Lisa Morrison. (The pink bottles were meant to mimic Voodoo’s pink boxes; it took five iterations until Voodoo’s owners were happy with the exact color.) It immediately started getting tons of press both beer-niche and of a national general interest. Then, the first local reviewers tried it.
“A foul abomination” was the headline for Willamette Week’s pre-release review of the beer, adding, “Whilst we’re loath to give any attention to this blatant gimmickry, after tasting it, we feel a civic obligation to warn anyone who might be considering splashing $156 on a case.”
Nevertheless, the very next day, Saturday, September 24, starting at 7 AM, customers lined up at the brewery where they were allowed to purchase full cases, 12 bottles of Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale. Those quickly sold out, infuriating people unable to make it to the brewery. Then drinkers tried it.
“It went twofold with publicity,” recalls Pogson. “Not only did we get all this press, we also got all this press saying how crappy it was.”
From the get-go, the online user reviews were downright abusive. A sampling: “Very artificial and unpleasant,” read one on BeerAdvocate. “I hope the pink bottle is an indicator of some sort of gimmicky joke,” said another. “I cant go on,” claimed one reviewer. “I dump half the tasting glass in the grass and search for something to clean out my mouth. (sic)” The death blow was delivered on Reddit: “These are cancer in a bottle.” Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale would eventually garner a score of 66 out of 100 (“poor”) on BeerAdvocate.
“Anytime you push people outside of their comfort zones some people will love it, and some people will hate it,” Dharma Tamm, Rogue’s president, explains today. Back in 2011 they were more intentionally combative toward journalists who would try to write about it. Media kits even arrived with a pink condom included. “We never intended it to be a beer for everyone, we were just doing what we love to do and having fun with it.”
Despite it being universally panned, Rogue still decided to release the next batch, in November, into their full distribution network, all 50 states. And, like some Adam Sandler movie with a 10 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, it still somehow did boffo business. To extend the Sandler analogy, Rogue too seemed to intend this to be a beer for people who didn’t know any better — and might only try it a single time, perhaps while stoned. Like Portlandia’s Fred Armisen, who walked out for a 2013 appearance on Rachael Ray lugging a bottle of it.
“Bacon Maple Ale, yum! Yeah, you could drink that at breakfast, people, yes you could,” exclaimed the eponymous host as she accepted the gift. (We, unfortunately, don’t get to see Rachael or Fred take a sip of it.)
Pogson and Shannon were thrilled to get all the international press, both good and bad, and didn’t even really care how Bacon Maple Ale tasted. “We’re not big beer guys honestly,” Shannon explains. “Rogue was great, though and we were glad they had such a fanatical base.”
Even back then I figured Bacon Maple Ale would quickly become a one-off curio relegated to the “remember whens” of beer history. Yet, with Voodoo’s eager participation — Pogson: “After the first one blew up, OK, let’s do more!”— the company forged on with other doughnut releases. During the past decade it became virtually impossible to walk into a grocery store’s beer section and not see these sticking-out-like-a-sore-thumb over-the-top pink-painted bottles lining shelves and stacked high on endcaps. To a non-craft beer knower, they probably seemed like the most beloved beers in the industry.
In 2012 there was Voodoo Doughnut Chocolate, Banana & Peanut Butter Ale, meant to mimic Voodoo’s Memphis Mafia doughnut, a nod to Elvis and his entourage. It too scores a poor 66 out of 100. The next year would bring Voodoo Doughnut Pretzel, Raspberry & Chocolate Ale and Voodoo Doughnut Lemon Chiffon Crueller Ale in 2014. Voodoo Doughnut Mango Astronaut Ale and Voodoo Doughnut Grape Guerrilla would follow in 2015 and 2016, respectively. By that point they were all collected in a six-pack. There was even a Rogue Voodoo Bacon Maple Vodka. All would receive godawful reviews.
To a certain extent, it seemed Rogue was simply trolling customers: Was this a brewery created by Nathan Fielder just to mess with us all? Some non-doughnut Rogue releases of the time make that seem like a further possibility. In 2013 they released a Sriracha Hot Stout that looked like a Huy Fong bottle. More disgustingly, that same year they brewed a beer using yeast captured from Maier’s beard hairs.
The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if these “shit post” beers were just a Trumpian diversionary tactic to take away from company turmoil. In 2011 Rogue was accused of union-busting tactics and questionable salary standards. In 2013 they were lambasted for a jerky job posting. Still, those black eyes mostly never escaped the notice of niche beer media, so that can’t be the case. No, Rogue truly wanted to make these beers, and there must have been certain people who actually wanted to try them — though I still have never met any.
The death blow was delivered on Reddit: “These are cancer in a bottle.”
For what it’s worth, the brewery takes the beer’s bashing in stride.
“I think everyone who is excited about beer matters, but we average about 300 new beers a year, it is inevitable that people will love some of your beers and not others,” Tamm adds. “I think they are all great products but we are totally cognizant that these might not all appeal to the same person.”
Maybe they were just way ahead of their time. Today, dessert-crammed “pastry stouts” have become one of the hottest trends in modern beer, with breweries putting everything from chocolate to cakes to children’s cereal to, yes, actual doughnuts in their beers. Some of today’s doughnut beers even get exemplary ratings, like Evil Twin’s Imperial Doughnut Break, which scores an imperious 94 out of 100.
“When he [Maier] brewed Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale no one had even thought about brewing a beer that tasted like a pastry,” wrote Brewer magazine earlier this year. And, while I find it hard to consider Bacon Maple Ale the ur-pastry stout, it was certainly one of the first and definitely the first one to become a household name nationally. Often though, it’s not best to be the first to forge a path.
It was actually Voodoo who put an end to the series, however. They felt they were running out of doughnuts worth recreating as beer. The Rogue Voodoo landing page has been pulled down, even if bottles are still gathering dust at many local stores around me. Nevertheless, if few drinkers long for the beers’ return, oddly, the empty bottles have become a sort of collectible work of pop art, and there’s an avid market for them on eBay.
Business is still booming for Voodoo, meanwhile, who seemingly got the most out of this collaboration. The fact that the beers were available in 50 states got their name to customers from coast to coast; they were able to analyze where the beer was selling particularly well in order to expand their business — “Jesus Christ, look how much we sold there!”— which is one reason they are now opening their first shop in Houston and a second in Denver. And the Bacon Maple Bar is still a sensation in Portland, selling more than 1,000 pounds-worth per week — for many customers, the beer drove them to go try its inspiration.
“Out-of-towners still come into our shop: ‘Hey, I tried that beer. It was disgusting!” Shannon notes. “I can’t completely argue with them. It really wasn’t that great.”