The enduring popularity of Rogue Dead Guy Ale is a welcome reminder that craft beer’s self-appointed gatekeepers wield far less influence than they (all right, we) like to imagine. For every whale-chaser, line-waiter, and slobby blogger, there are 99 normal, well-adjusted people who happen to prefer good beer to bad beer. They vote with their wallets rather than their message boards, and they matter infinitely more than the outlying loudmouths. Ignoring the relentlessly vocal minority of hardcore beers geeks who eschew malt-forward brews —especially ones that lack the decency to hide behind barrel aging, fruit infusion, or exotic fermentation — rank-and-file beer drinkers in all 50 states are still happily guzzling this sweet, maibock-inspired caramel bomb, 22 years after its introduction at the original Rogue brewpub in Ashland, Oregon.
In fact, although he’s reluctant to refer to it as his “flagship” offering, Rogue president Brett Joyce reports that Dead Guy still accounts for roughly 40 percent of the company’s sales, a figure that’s more or less held steady since shortly after its 1994 debut. That’s remarkable given the American beer market’s drastic shift toward hop-centricity since the first Clinton administration, and stranger still given Rogue’s iconoclastic culture.
The bombastic self-styled leaders of a “beer revolution” would likely prefer that their bread be buttered by one of the increasingly weird bottlings that garner whatever attention they get from beer media (social and otherwise) these days. But the bills don’t pay themselves, and Dead Guy is the workhorse that underwrites a stable full of stunt beers such as Sriracha Hot Stout and Voodoo Donut Mango Astronaut Ale, not to mention America’s eye-rollingest beer, the one made with yeast from the brewer’s beard.
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But although it’s a relatively tame beer by contemporary standards, and downright church-musical by Rogue standards, Dead Guy Ale does have an appropriately offbeat creation story. The original Rogue Dead Guy was a Dia de los Muertes-themed, pepper-infused house beer brewed for the now closed Casa U-Betcha, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Portland. Customers loved both the name and the now-iconic label featuring a beer-drinking skeleton perched atop a wooden barrel. So when the U-Betcha partnership ran its course, Rogue wisely transferred the name to the most popular beer at its brewpub, a bastardized beauty theretofore known as Maierbocker.
According to Joyce, brewmaster John Maier had created that proto-Dead Guy by “playing around until he hit on that classic Rogue twist of brewing a bock, traditionally a lager, with an ale yeast,” specifically Rogue’s famous-as-yeast-goes house strain, Pacman. So, while today it may present itself in your pint glass as a fairly demure specimen, rest assured that Dead Guy is a Rogue production through and through: an identity thief of a year-round American ale currently masquerading as seasonal German lager, following a stint as a quesadilla-joint chili beer. The other big thing to know about Dead Guy is that it is objectively excellent.
Even if the most passionate breed of beerdo no longer pays it much mind, Dead Guy still enjoys a RateBeer score of 88, which translates to a style-adjusted 99. Traditional maibocks, also known as helles bocks, are rare in American brewing, and Rouge makes the only ale’d one I know of, so there’s not a ton to compare it with domestically, but Dead Guy is just damn good stuff by any name. Yet I still struggled to find any passionate fans among my admittedly insular world of beer-geek associates. Sure, there’s the hop factor, but when I sought out Dead Guy testimonials, some other stuff came up, too.
Rogue doesn’t enjoy the best reputation among beer industry insiders and observers. Its smart-ass job postings occasionally go viral in the “Who would ever want to work here?” way, and its had some labor issues. However, I’ve talked to a couple of people who work there and they have nothing bad to say about the place. And my brief conversation with Joyce suggested he’s a pleasant and reasonable dude. That said, I’m willing to believe Rogue’s a tough place to work.
Rogue beers are also expensive. I’m not qualified to say their markup is any higher than the next brewery’s, because I’m not anyone’s accountant, never mind theirs. But a few bar managers I talked to said a keg of Dead Guy can cost 20 to 30 percent more than they’d expect, which tracks with my experience in the beer store — a sixer of Dead Guy costs about $13 in my neighborhood, whereas Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is $10. But the market bears what it bears, and I have no ill will toward any brewer that squeezes out however many pennies it can. Beer’s not housing or education or health care. Make your money, it’s fine.
I am fully on board with another common criticism of Rogue, however. It refuses to date its r beers, which is, ahem, bold for any brewery in 2016, never mind one that puts out India pale ales called 4 Hop, 6 Hop, 7 Hop, and 8 Hop. I know we beer types tend to over-fetishize freshness these days, but if you ship IPA to all 50 states, you ought to give customers 3,000 miles away a fighting chance. Not disclosing when your beer was brewed isn’t revolutionary, it’s obnoxious. Date your goddamn beers, Rogue.
But back to my love of Dead Guy: I’m sure it’s better fresh, but the flavor profile is one that can withstand a couple months on the shelf. Joyce told me it’s good for up to a year, which seems fair. I’ve never had a bad Dead Guy, though some bottles are more vibrant than others. I’ll go to the brewery one fine day and check it out at the source. Until then, though, I’m still confident that any Dead Guy I find way out here in Massachusetts will be full of caramel, honey, and dark fruit flavors, with a modest but real bitterness on the finish. Rogue Dead Guy is in the top tier of craft beer classics that should be revisited at least a couple times a year.