John Urlaub, President
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- Website: www.rohrbachs.com
- Top Executive: John Urlaub, President
- Local Employees: 25
- Headquarters: Rochester, NY
- Founded: 2006
- Total Employees: 25
- Years on List: 2
- Last Year’s Rank: 95
So how cool is it to own a brewery? Especially one that got in at the dawn of the craft-brewing craze and has been growing every year, placing it on this year’s Rochester Chamber Top 100 list?
Pretty cool, confirmed John Urlaub, owner/founder/president and CEO of Railroad Street Brewing/Rohrbach Brewing Co.
“It’s really fun,” said Urlaub, whose business includes a downtown Rochester beer hall and Gates brew pub. “We tend to attract a younger employee base, and we try to create a good working environment. I hope it’s fun for everyone. It’s fun for me.”
Railroad Street/Rohrbach’s is a micro-brewery of the sort that have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. Urlaub worked for Eastman Kodak Co. before founding the business in 1991 and opening its doors the following spring.
Now he has 70 employees between the Railroad Street brew house and Rohrbach’s on Buffalo Road. Along with those venues, Rohrbach beers are sold in supermarkets, restaurants and sporting events throughout the area as well as in the Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany and Southern Tier regions.
Beer culture was much different when he started. The national brands dominated, as they still do, but the little guys were beginning to make headway in appealing to customers who wanted something different.
“Craft beer had just started on the West Coast,” Urlaub said. “We bought used equipment and rented space. No one really knew craft beer. We felt if we had the right package, the right product and we opened a restaurant to get people in, they would try the product.”
He was right. Urlaub started with a place on Gregory Street and followed with Buffalo Road in 1995. He presented a “nice restaurant” with good food to serve as the magnet that led people to his beer. After that, the beer sold itself.
“The Rochester vicinity embraced the product so well,” Urlaub said. “We grew slowly and organically…It’s much more about quality, not quantity. People are more discerning about quality food, and craft beer really complements quality food. It has more flavor. Restaurants embrace it.”
Urlaub started with beers that he called “not too extreme,” like the Scotch Ale and Highland Lager. His brand now includes those “classics” along with Railroad Street IPA and Blueberry Ale, seasonal brews like the Oktoberfest, the “one-and-done” trials like Maltster Matt and a small-batch series like the pumpkin ale. As Urlaub says, “In craft beers, there are no rules. We’ll do whatever sells. We do it in a subtle way.”
Urlaub’s job with Kodak had taken him to places like San Francisco, where, as noted earlier, craft beer was burgeoning, and to Germany, where beer is a way of life.
In Germany, he was in a town called Rohrbach, which he thought would be a good name for a company. And yes, he is frequently referred to by new customers as “Mr. Rohrbach.” Sometimes he doesn’t even correct them.
So how did he go from corporate life to brewmaster? Urlaub said he isn’t exactly sure when or how the idea hit him. He knew he wanted to go into business for himself. That old real estate mantra – location, location, location – played a big part in the decision.
At the Gregory Street location, Rohrbach’s had a seven-barrel beermaking system. At Buffalo Road, the amount was upped to 20. When the Gregory Street lease was up after 10 years, Urlaub closed there and debuted the Railroad Street location.
“We knew we had to significantly increase our production,” Urlaub said. “By default, we found this great building on Railroad Street. It’s been a perfect fit for us.” The place has a beer hall and wood-fired oven and is just a short walk to the Public Market.
The Buffalo Road Rohrbach’s now has a seven-barrel system. Railroad Street, for now, operates with a 20-barrel system. But at Railroad Street Brewing, kettles, tanks and other equipment are being upgraded (The tanks are made locally, Urlaub proudly noted, in Geneva, Ontario County.)
The new equipment will give Railroad Street a 25-barrel system, and overall production will increase from 8,000 barrels a year to 10,000 barrels.
“We’re really selling everything we can,” Urlaub said. Sales volume and revenue exceeded 20 percent last year and will be even greater this year, he added.
He gives a lot of credit to his brewers and brewery manager Jim McDermott for the company’s success. Urlaub talked about expanding into other markets, notably New York City, but said local remains the priority.
“We focus on how do people perceive our name, what are we doing to strengthen our brand,” he said. “We live and die by our local community.”
For Urlaub, his employees and his customers, the fun continues.