Norm Johnson used to be in the business of kicking field goals. From 1982 to 1999, he was a kicker in the National Football League. During that time, he spent 8 years in Seattle playing for the Seahawks followed by the respective teams of Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. As an NFL kicker, he was a 2-time Pro Bowler and All Pro, and he helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl XXX in the 1995-96 season. It’s been 15 years since he has played and he still sits at #10 on the NFL’s list of all team leading scorers.
These days, Norm is in the business of beer. He, along with his business parter Neal Nilsen, have created 12 Man Pale Ale to much success throughout Washington. Like the Seahawks, his beer is popular. Like tickets are for the Seahawks, his beer is similarly hard to find.
With the Seattle Seahawks playing the New Orleans Saints tomorrow in the Divisional Playoffs, we couldn’t think of a better time to get in touch with Norm and learn a little bit more about 12 Man Pale Ale.
While you were in the NFL, did you have any interest in home brewing or did you have an elevated interest in beer?
When I was here with the Seahawks, I got here in ’82. I lived not far from the Redhook Brewery which is one of the earlier craft breweries and really enjoyed craft beer way back then. I really got into beer and got to know some reps and such and it was kind of always around beer. Then I started doing a little bit of experimenting with home brewing near the end of my years here in Seattle and that went with me when I went out to Atlanta. I don’t know if I was ever really any good and I didn’t get into the science of it, but I understood it, made some home brewed beer, and had fun with that. So I’ve been around and interested in beer for a long time.
You lived in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, and Seattle as a member of each city’s respective football team. Did you have a favorite city in terms of the beer they had available to drink?
Funny you asked that. When I left Seattle, I was a craft beer fan. I went to Atlanta and I couldn’t really find any craft beer that I enjoyed. That was frustrating. It was even more frustrating in Pittsburgh. I guess I could call myself a beer snob, which I’ve been since the early ’90s. And in my travels at that time, things have changed in the last 20 years. But in the early ’90s, over on the East Coast where I spent about 9 years, it was a struggle finding good craft beer, and I was very frustrated with that.
Did you drink beer during the season?
Oh yeah. Yeah I would drink beer during the season when I could find good beer. After the games I’d go out and sometimes smoke a cigar and find places to get good beer.
After kicking professionally in the NFL for 18 years, what sparked the idea to create and release your own beer?
The initial thought was actually the brainchild of my partner, Neal Nilsen. I have a partner in Federal Way, Washington and he actually had the first idea. He talked to me about it and we formed a partnership on how to bring this all the way through the trademark process and the marketing and creating something real that is out at bars and on shelves. That’s been a year and a half project for us. I wish I could say I was the mastermind behind everything, but I wasn’t, but for the last year and a half, we’ve been formulating everything. Not just the recipe, but everything to bring it to market. Getting hooked up with the right people like Great Artisan Beverage Distribution who has a really big distribution network in the Northwest and we got around a lot of really good beer people who have helped us do this in the right way and helped create what we have right now, which is just a frenzy.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of creating 12 Man Pale Ale?
The trademark process is not necessarily a challenge, but it’s a long process and it’s government and moves a little slower than we’d like. That was part of it. Then, we felt we had something that we felt was going to be pretty big. But not having our own brewery, the challenge was finding a brewery that was going to have enough capacity to keep up with what we felt the demand was going to be. Most breweries are at capacity and are looking to expand to keep up with their own production, let alone have enough capacity to brew a beer that we thought was going to be quite popular. We had to talk to quite a few breweries, many of which were already at capacity or didn’t have the right distribution network or whatever, but where we kind of started this project was at Dick’s, and we came back full circle to Dick’s Brewing out of Centralia, Washington. They had quite a bit of extra capacity but right now they’re pretty much brewing at capacity and we’ve had to work within those parameters of what we can produce and that has created some challenges and what some people would call shortages in the marketplace. That has its benefits and its drawbacks. When people want to find the beer you tell them it’s at QFC or Safeway and they go there and it’s sold out, we get disappointed customers. It’s a good and a bad problem. Having disappointed customers is the bad part, but having people wanting the product and stores wanting more beer than they can keep on the shelf is a always good.
What were your goal posts, if you will, when concepting what 12 Man Pale Ale would be?
What we wanted to create was a craft beer for the fan. And not just football fans, but fans year round. The other part of that was to produce a beer and create a recipe that would appeal across the board. What I mean by that is most yellow beer drinkers when they taste our beer, they say “yeah I could drink that, I like that.” Most yellow beer drinkers like it because it’s not too bitter–and it’s not–but that’s a lot of their mentality. So we toned down the bitterness to makes it very drinkable and a lighter pale ale. It’s not heavy or filling and very tasty, with a good balance between malt and hops.
How has the beer been received from Seahawk fans?
It has been an incredible ride so far. The funny thing is we have created a very large demand out there but we have only hit the tip of the iceberg. Two days ago I was meeting at a coffee shop with a beer rep. His question was if we were going to come out with other styles. I told him we have to launch our beer first launch properly, and he said we’d already done that because there’s so much demand. I responded that we haven’t and that we’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg. I asked him to look around the coffee shop and I bet that very few, if any, of these people had heard of these beers. I didn’t know anyone in the coffee shop, but he turned around to a friend on the other side of the coffee shop and asked if he had heard of 12 Man Pale Ale. His friend had not. He then turned to a group next to us and asked them, and they said no. He finally turned back to me and said I made my point. So, as I’ve said, we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg, but at the same time, we have created enough demand where we can’t keep it on the shelves.
We’re getting on our Facebook page people drinking the beer and loving it. We’re getting photos of fans wearing other jerseys, including for example our big arch rivals and nemesis up here, San Francisco and I’m seeing people wearing San Francisco jerseys posting on our Facebook page drinking our beer. It’s been a lot of fun, but the fans have absolutely gone nuts so far, but we still haven’t reached all the fans. In general, we want this to be a fan beer year round for all sports, not just for football fans.
What do you feel beer’s place is in football culture, as part of the football ritual?
Back when I was playing and before, beer has been a staple in all stadiums with fans. Wherever there is tailgating prior to an event, there’s beer. So I’d say beer is very tied into the culture of the fan. Absolutely.
And, lastly, a prediction for this Saturday’s divisional playoff game between New Orleans and Seattle?
I think the Saints are going to come in here with some momentum. They just won their first playoff game in a hostile environment; their first road playoff game in the history of their franchise. So they’re going to be very excited and now they’ve gotten over that stigma. They’re going to come in here upset and pissed off about their showing on national television last time they were here. So they’re going to come out with a chip on their shoulder and a little bit of confidence. I think they’re going to give the Seahawks a good tough game. I think the Seahawks may have their hands full at times, but I just don’t think they’re going to be able to come into here and beat the Seahawks at home. I think we’re going to see a whole different ball game than we saw last time and a lot tighter.