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Rolling Rock's exodus still stings in Latrobe

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 4:02 p.m.

On July 26, 2006, Jim Gebicki removed his wristwatch and placed it in a small box.

He hasn't worn it since, nor does he plan to ever wear it again.

The watch, bearing the green and white Rolling Rock beer insignia synonymous with Gebicki's hometown of Latrobe, had been a gift from his former employer, Latrobe Brewing Co., on his 25th anniversary with the company.

July 26, 2006, was also the day the last bottle of Rolling Rock rolled off the line at the Latrobe brewery, marking the end of a 67-year relationship with the town it helped define.

In May of that year, it was announced that InBev, which owned the Rolling Rock brand, was set to sell the brand for $82 million to Anheuser-Busch, which would move production to a brewery in Newark, N.J.

"I was devastated," said Gebicki, the former Latrobe mayor who worked at the plant for 27 years before his retirement in 2000. "I really treasured my watch. I wore it every day, and I took it off for good that day. It meant a lot to me, but I couldn't wear it because it (Rolling Rock) wasn't part of Latrobe anymore."

Even though five years have passed, the pain remains for Gebicki and many members of the community.

The former brewery, now operated by Wisconsin-based City Brewing Co., employs fewer people -- about 170 as opposed to the 250 who worked there in 2006.

The real pain comes in knowing that a part of the city's identity has been lost.

Officials from Anheuser-Busch did not return numerous calls seeking comment. City Brewing officials said no one was available to comment until later this month.

'A shot in the foot'

Brewer Carl Bauer, who worked at Latrobe Brewing for more than 25 years, remembers how he felt when he found out about the Rolling Rock move.

"It was sort of like a shot in the foot," said Bauer, who now works as a brewer for City Brewing. "It was like they pulled the rug out from under us."

"I'm still very mad over it," said Jim Palombo, who worked at the brewery for 16 years until the Rolling Rock move put him out of a job. "I thought I'd have that job forever because (Rolling Rock) was such a part of the community."

Palombo remembers the meeting held by Latrobe Brewing at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel near Greensburg to break the news of the sale to employees.

"I remember it exactly: It was a rainy morning, and we all packed in there. The guy just told us flat-out that (Anheuser-Busch) bought Rolling Rock," Palombo said.

After the meeting, many workers went to a nearby bar to drown their sorrows, he said.

"We went to a bar there in Greensburg and kind of cried in our beer -- our Miller Lites," he said.

Palombo believes more than just a recipe for beer was sold to Anheuser-Busch.

"The bottles, they still say Latrobe," Palombo said, describing the green bottles with the painted white horse head that still bear the words "Latrobe Brewing Co." on them. "It's kind of like they took the whole town away."

'What they did was wrong'

When Palombo's brother, Fred Palombo, who owns Palombo's Bar and Restaurant in Bradenville, heard that the beer no longer would be brewed in Latrobe, he acted immediately.

"We decided to completely stop selling Rolling Rock," said Fred Palombo, whose other brother, Greg, also worked for Latrobe Brewing. "We did it because locally we thought what they did was wrong. I got more flak from my two brothers than anything else, telling me, 'You can't sell Rolling Rock!'"

Rolling Rock signs and merchandise, which once covered the bar's walls, were also taken down and given away, Fred Palombo said. After about a year, he brought the beer back and still serves it -- just not as much.

"There are definitely people who won't drink it because of what happened," he said.

Palombo's wasn't the only bar to pull the beer, which was once one of the best-sellers in local bars.

Fontana's Cafe in Irwin stopped selling the brew on the night Latrobe Brewing announced the sale. Jim Bortz, owner of Fontana's, said he has never looked back.

"We still do not serve Rolling Rock," said Bortz, who said he is still commended for his support of local business. "It was just a matter of standing up for the local workers. We knew we couldn't change or direct Anheuser-Busch, but it's really just a sign of solidarity showing that we care."

'They didn't buy it'

Jim Benedict, warehouse manager at Rosa's Beer Distributor, said sales of Rolling Rock took a big hit at his Latrobe distributor after the announcement.

"Sales went down pretty good, pretty quickly," Benedict said. "Local people didn't want the business to move out, so they didn't buy it."

Latrobe 30 Beverage owner Jeff McIlmay said sales of the beer are good, but not great.

"It'll never do what it did before in terms of sales because of the loyalty people have to the brewery," McIlmay said. "It's made a bit of a comeback for us the past couple of years, but that's because they put a better price on it."

Benedict said Rolling Rock sales at his distributorship have slowly grown over the past five years as well.

"Every now and then you catch a disgruntled, irate customer who says, 'What are you doing, selling that Rolling Rock?' But overall, the anger has really calmed down," he said.

"It definitely doesn't sell like it used to," said Ron Auld, general manager of Dino's Sports Lounge in Latrobe. "I know that a lot of people that were regular Rolling Rock drinkers don't drink it anymore."

'A proud family tradition'

Gebicki said the loss of Rolling Rock was about more than just beer.

"The brewery just had a tremendous amount of tradition," Gebicki said. "I remember the commitment, the expectations that we were glad to live up to.

"It has that aura about it," Gebicki added. "Everyone was proud to work there. You're talking about a proud family tradition that went beyond just a paycheck."

While the beer no longer is brewed in his hometown, he still feels that pride to see the name of Rolling Rock's birthplace displayed prominently on every bottle.

"Even today, everybody still knows that green label," Gebicki said. "No matter where it's brewed, the Rolling Rock label will always be Latrobe."

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