Raise a frothy pint to Washington’s proud, 35-year-old craft-brewing industry.
THE JOINT IS jumping on a balmy summer night in the old but mostly new Pike Motorworks building. Capitol Hill hipsters, techies up from Amazonia and old-fashioned beer nerds pack the long horseshoe bars and sociable bench-top counters, their clinking glasses echoing off the bricks and hoop chandeliers. It’s the grand opening of the newest, splashiest beer-making, beer-drinking establishment in a city awash with such enterprises.
Brewpub would be too humble a label; this is the Redhook Brewlab, where the 8,000-year-old brewers’ art meets digital technology and back-bar social networking. A bright screen lists the 16 brews on tap, from Classic Special Premium Lager to Grapefruit Sorbet IPA. Many are collaborations between Redhook, Seattle’s original craft brewer, and younger competitors.
A ribbon at the screen’s bottom announces who just ordered what: “Quinn-Cidental Pale, Josh D. less than 1 minute ago.” On the other side of the obligatory glass wall, brewer Nick Crandall scrambles along a steel catwalk, checking gauges and valves on the gleaming tanks. Party or no, the fermentation must go on.
In two booths at the party’s center, an older but even merrier group, wearing Oxford shirts and summer dresses rather than T-shirts and tattoos, raises its glasses. They are executives and boardmembers, past and present, of the company that launched Seattle’s first craft brewery 35 years ago and that has, through various mergers and shape shifts, brewed Redhook since.
A craft-beer timeline
Fritz Maytag rescues San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, revives historic steam beer, goes on to inspire the craft-beer movement.
• President Gerald Ford signs a law reducing the excise tax on small breweries, bolstering ailing regional breweries and enabling an unanticipated craft-beer revolution.
• Jack McAuliffe, Suzy Denison and Jane Zimmerman open the first all-new microbrewery, New Albion, in Sonoma, Calif. Failing to finance expansion, they close in 1982.
The number of U.S. breweries bottoms out at 89, owned by fewer than 45 firms. Charles Finkel opens beer importer Merchant du Vin in Seattle. It cultivates local tastes and introduces traditional English, Belgian and German styles.
• President Jimmy Carter signs a law legalizing home-brewing, the gateway for legions of microbrewers.
• Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi launch Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, Calif., setting a standard of excellence. Sierra Nevada remains one of the largest craft brewers.
Wm. S. Newman Brewing Co., the first East Coast microbrewery, opens in Albany, N.Y. It closes in 1987.
• In June, English expat John Mitchell brews Canada’s first craft beer in Horseshoe Bay, B.C., making his Troller Pub its first brewpub.
• In July, Washington state lets taverns sell strong beer. Bert Grant’s Yakima Brewing & Malting ships Scottish Ale. Imperial Stout follows. Old New York Brewery, the first contract brewer, debuts New Amsterdam Amber Beer.
• In August, Gordon Bowker and Paul Shipman release Redhook Ale in Seattle. Washington’s governor and Seattle’s mayor join the festivities. The beer’s fruity pungency earns it the street tag “banana beer.”
• Grant launches the first modern IPA, and opens Grant’s Brewery Pub, the first U.S. brewpub.
• Redhook debuts Blackhook Porter.
• Mike Hale brews English-style pale ale in Colville (he later moves his operations to Kirkland and Spokane breweries).
• Hart (later Pyramid) Brewing produces Pyramid Pale Ale in Kalama.
• Redhook dumps its controversial “Belgian” yeast and debuts Ballard Bitter.
• Widmer Brothers and BridgePort Brewing, Oregon’s oldest craft brewers, open in Portland.
• On Bainbridge Island, Andy Thomas and Will Kemper launch Thomas Kemper Lager, called “blueberry beer” for its mild fruitiness.
New Pyramid Wheaten Ale becomes a popular gateway brew for novice micro patrons.
Fred Bowman, Art Larrance and Jim Goodwin launch Portland (later MacTarnahan’s) Brewing Company, with help from Grant. They initially brew Grant’s ales under license.
• Founder Beth Hartwell sells Pyramid to Seattle investors.
• Redhook moves to a larger brewery in the historic Fremont trolley barn, opens Trolleyman Pub.
• Charles and Rose Ann Finkel open the Pike Place Brewery, with “Microbrewery Museum” covering pub walls.
Pyramid and Thomas Kemper merge.
Redhook moves its brewing operations to a new, larger brewery in Woodinville. Redhook sells a 25 percent share to Anheuser-Busch, gaining access to a national distribution network and capital for its second brewery in Portsmouth, N.H. Rivals call it “Budhook.”
• Redhook and Pyramid go public. Stocks climb, then later tank.
• Stimson Lane Vineyards & Estates buys Grant’s Ales.
• Hale’s Ales builds a larger brewery/pub near the original Redhook site in Ballard.
Bert Grant dies. Stimson Lane sells Grant’s Ales and Yakima pub to an Atlanta-based brewery group.
Redhook closes Trolleyman Pub, its last Seattle base. Theo Chocolate later occupies the building.
Pyramid buys former Grant’s Ales licensee MacTarnahan’s (later re-renamed Portland Brewing), and shifts production to Portland plant.
Last call for financially crippled Grant’s Ales and pub.
• Widmer and Redhook merge to form Portland-based Craft Brew Alliance. Anheuser-Busch owns nearly one-third of the new company.
• After helping develop craft breweries across the United States, Mexico and Turkey, Thomas Kemper co-founders Will and Mari Kemper return and open Chuckanut Brewery in Bellingham.
Pyramid/Portland Brewing is successively acquired by Vermont’s Magic Hat Brewing, Rochester-based North American Breweries and Cerveceria Costa Rica.
Craft Brew Alliance buys Kona Brewing, its most successful brand.
Pyramid reopens brewery at its Sodo Alehouse, brewing experimental beers.
The number of U.S. breweries tops 4,000 for the first time since the 1870s.
The Brewers Association counts 5,301 U.S. breweries.
Redhook closes its Woodinville brewery, sending its remaining production to Portland, and opens the Brewlab in Seattle.
Paul Shipman, Redhook’s founding CEO — grayer and paunchier now, but still boyish and ebullient — regales one booth with now-they-can-be-told tales from the early days. A keg’s throw away, Andy Thomas, the trim CEO of the Portland-based Craft Brew Alliance, which owns Redhook, speaks just as eagerly about how the Brewlab signals creative rejuvenation and regained authenticity for a storied beer that had drifted on the market shoals.
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“Brands have midlife crises, just like people,” Thomas tells me, explaining Redhook’s 1994 “move to the suburbs” — a spiffy new brewery in Woodinville. The Brewlab means “getting back to your roots” in Seattle.
IN SOME WAYS, history seems to be repeating itself. The Brewlab’s location, formerly a BMW dealership, is an upscale echo of the old transmission shop on Ballard’s Leary Way where Redhook was born. And the party, with all its nostalgia and hopped-up optimism, recalls Redhook’s exuberant debut in 1982.
But it also points out just how much things have changed. Today, the United States has more than 5,300 breweries, most of them tiny microbreweries and brewpubs. Last year, the business data firm Datafiniti counted 337 in Washington, topped only by California’s and Colorado’s rosters, and 174 in the Seattle area — more than in any other metropolitan area and nearly twice as many as the whole country had in the Lite days of 1978.
Today, when nearly every neighborhood has a brewpub and some have many, imagining a world without craft beers is like imagining life pre-Internet. But by the late 1970s, decades of corporate consolidation and industrial dilution had left a wasteland of pale, bland, fizzy lagers. Budweiser, Miller Lite and a few other national brands battled for dominance. Traditional regional breweries embodying rich, local traditions were falling like empty bottles. Industry pundits predicted that just seven, or three, or two big brewers would survive.
But in 1965 San Francisco, a washing-machine heir named Fritz Maytag planted a seed that would blossom two decades later in Washington, Oregon and other craft-brew meccas. Maytag impulsively rescued the failing Anchor brewery, reinvented its local steam beer and cut a trail for every artisan brewer who followed.
A handful arose between 1976 and 1981, in California, Colorado, New York and (briefly) Portland. Most failed. One, Sierra Nevada, is still going strong.
Washington wasn’t the first state with microbreweries, but it was where the movement rooted most deeply and all the early startups miraculously survived. Several circumstances favored them: Cool, gray weather is more conducive to sipping ale than to popping frosties. State licensing law favored taverns serving no liquor and beer that was 3.2 percent alcohol, so Washingtonians drank more draft than almost anyone else. Little breweries couldn’t afford bottling lines, but they could fill kegs.
Here, even more than elsewhere, bottled imports whetted a thirst for something tastier, thanks in part to a bow-tied graphic designer-turned-wine merchant-turned-beer importer from Oklahoma named Charles Finkel, who evangelized tirelessly for adventurous sipping. In 1989, Finkel and his wife, Rose Ann, crossed over to serving the tastes they had cultivated, and founded the Pike Place Brewery.
Finally, local beer pride ran strong here. Two regional brewers — Olympia and, in Seattle, Rainier — still held their turf against Budweiser and Miller. In the mid-1970s, Rainier’s wacky, wildly varied anti-commercials — galloping Wild Rainiers, Mickey Rooney chasing them with a giant bottle opener, a motorcycle growling “Rrrainier” — upended the good-times-and-groovy-people clichés usually used to sell beer. The message: We do things differently here.
The stage was set for a craft-brewing scene dominated by two outsized, unconventional personalities. One was a brewer. The other was a brew.
HERBERT L. GRANT was a character no screenwriter could invent and few viewers would believe. Born in Scotland, raised in Toronto and happily settled in Yakima, Grant was puckish, playful, stubborn and opinionated. He flaunted his Scottish roots, donning kilt and tartan when occasion allowed and threatening to smite with a claymore anyone who dared smoke on his premises.
His ale, he proclaimed, was brewed to please “one taste and one taste only — mine.” As for his competitors’ bland brews — he carried a little bottle of hop oil to spice them up when he drank them at trade functions. As for the pettifoggers at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who said he couldn’t list his Scottish ale’s B vitamins and other good nutrients because beer wasn’t food, and couldn’t ferment cider in his brewery the same way he made beer because cider was really “wine” … he defied them and fought them, until the cost grew unsupportable.
Grant, a precocious chemistry student, went to work at 16, testing and tasting beer at Toronto’s Carling brewery. He spent the next three decades designing new brewing processes there and at Stroh in Detroit. Finally, chafing at what he called the “dumbing down” of the industrial beers, Grant decamped to Yakima, the world’s premier hop-growing center. There he became technical director at a leading grower, built America’s first hop-pelletizing machine, invented a way of preserving their vital bitterness long past the usual fade date and championed the aromatic Cascade hops that would define West Coast ales.
All the while, Grant built his own pilot breweries and tinkered with recipes until he had what he described with typical modesty, in his memoir “The Ale Master,” as “the best ale in the world.” A few neighbors agreed and chipped in to build a brewery in a derelict former opera house/saloon.
On July 1, 1982, Washington state fortuitously opened the doors to craft brewing by raising the alcohol limit on draft beer to 8 percent. Two weeks later, and four weeks before Redhook’s debut, Grant’s Scottish Ale went out into the world — or at least a few Yakima taverns. I can still remember my first sip in one of them: It was a rich tawny color, malty, almost chewy, so fresh it was still a bit cloudy, with an eye-opening bitterness that somehow recalled grapefruit — as far from standard light lager as an Islay single malt is from generic vodka.
Over the next two years, Grant scored one first after another, laying down track for everyone who followed. He launched the first new imperial stout and India pale ale brewed in America in many decades; even he never imagined that IPA — a once-esoteric style, highly hopped and high in alcohol to withstand long sea voyages — would become the catchall craft standard in the next millennium. He created the country’s first modern-day wheat beer and hard cider. And he opened the first brewpub since pre-Prohibition days after facing down a liquor board that seemed to assume because no one had done that, it wasn’t allowed. Grant even banned smoking, something unheard of then.
BACK IN SEATTLE, Redhook struggled. Its founder and chairman, Gordon Bowker, was a gifted divergent thinker; he’d previously co-created the famous Rainier commercials and conceived and co-founded a little coffee company called Starbucks (whose phonetics he reprised with “Redhook”). Shipman, whom Bowker lured from the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, was a proven marketing ace. But though they both loved beer, they didn’t know much about making it.
Charlie McElevey, the Rainier veteran they hired to make it, did. But he was battling a cruel deadline to have the brewery finished and beer ready in time for a splashy August 1982 debut at Mick McHugh’s landmark, later-demolished whiskey bar, Jake O’Shaughnessy’s. McHugh had pegged it to the day Gov. John Spellman, together with Mayor Charles Royer, could attend. No backing out there.
McElevey duly brewed various test batches to determine which yeast strain worked best. Only one, from a University of Washington yeast bank, worked at all; as he discovered too late, leaking coolant had squelched the other strains. They rushed to brew out that strain and fill the kegs.
At Jake’s, we raised glasses of the lovely coppery potion, hailed the new Ale Age and — what’s that smell? The beer was sweet and nearly flat, which would have been forgivable, if not for its strange, fruity pungency.
For three months, the aroma waned and waxed. Some patrons loved this erratic “banana beer.” Others sent their pints back, and taverns returned kegs. Local beer nerds peered into microscopes, sent samples to labs and claimed to find wild yeast strains running amok. McElevey insisted the samples were meaningless, because wild yeasts would abound in the tavern lines they came from.
Meanwhile, Grant was outselling Redhook on the latter’s Seattle turf. Shipman went into salesman overdrive, opening accounts to keep his ale moving. The Redhook partners anguished over whether to stand by its beer’s unique but, to many tastes, obnoxious character. McElevey switched to another yeast chosen by Shipman. The banana blast moderated, but a fruity, clove-like sweetness persisted — hardly the classic English style they’d promised.
Then the great British beer writer Michael Jackson visited and gave Redhook a reprieve. Jackson pronounced it good — “highly distinctive,” in a Belgian sort of way. Belgian brewers famously used wild yeast, even acidifying bacteria, to produce pungent, idiosyncratic beers. Redhook’s labels switched from touting “traditional English ale yeast” to proclaiming “rare” Belgian character.
“Belgian” Redhook soldiered on until 1984, adding a porter whose roasted malt masked the strange notes. Finally, it switched yeasts again to create a cleaner-tasting pale ale, Ballard Bitter. Its motto, “Ya sure ya betcha,” was the only quirky thing about it. Ballard Bitter was a hit, as was the new Redhook ESB that replaced the weird Redhook Ale.
In today’s saturated market, with hundreds of fresh brews to choose from, could a startup brewery like Redhook survive until it got its brewing act together? Shipman doubts it. “I’m stunned at the overall [high] quality today,” he says.
“We made mistakes along the way,” admits Bowker. “But if we hadn’t made those mistakes, other people wouldn’t have been able to do it. We were reinventing the wheel.”
Back in 1982, no one made small lots of tap handles; Bowker had to commission them from a local sculptor. McElevey traveled to Germany to salvage a vintage brewhouse. Mike Hale, who launched Washington’s third microbrewery in remote Colville, and Andy Thomas (no relation to the Craft Brew CEO) and Will Kemper, who started the fourth on Bainbridge Island, had to hammer their kettles, tuns and fermenters out of dairy tanks.
Today’s startups can order theirs ready-made, online. “I had no idea brewing would become such an easy-entry industry,” marvels Bowker.
“We inspired people to become microbrewers,” Shipman told Peter Krebs, author of the richly detailed history “Redhook,” “because every home brewer who tasted our beer thought they could make better beer in their bathtub … If Redhook could be this successful with a beer that tasted this odd, just think what they could do with a good-tasting beer.”
GOOD TIMES AND bad followed for Redhook and Grant. Redhook surged, building new and bigger breweries, first in Fremont, then in Woodinville and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1994, Shipman cut a deal with the devil, selling a quarter of the company to Anheuser-Busch (now the U.S.-Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate AB InBev) to get into its distribution network. Rivals pounced on the deal, the first but not the last for AB (which since has bought a batch of craft brewers outright, including Seattle’s Elysian). Redhook, which had lived down “banana beer,” now had to contend with “Budhook.”
The Brewers Association, which represents America’s independent breweries, adopted a rule denying membership and the “craft” appellation to any brewery owned 25 percent or more by an industrial brewer. “Drink craft beer, not crafty beer!” intones Charles Finkel.
Shipman now regrets the decision: “I didn’t understand the consequences for the brand, or for the relationship with consumers and distributors.”
These days, these deals don’t carry as much stigma. Elysian, Lagunitas, Ballast Point, even Anchor Brewing haven’t suffered the same scorn for selling partly or entirely to global beer barons — not even when Elysian nixed its Loser Pale Ale six-packs with the motto, “Corporate beer still sucks.” CEO Joe Bisacca, who stayed on to run Elysian after the sale, says Anheuser-Busch gives him free rein and had no part in that decision; declining sales drove it.
Mistake or not, Redhook’s ties with AB InBev have only grown closer. In 2008, Redhook merged with Portland’s Widmer Brothers Brewery, which was also partly owned by AB, to form the Craft Brew Alliance. In 2010, the new company bought Hawaii’s Kona Brewing, whose beers it was already brewing under contract. In June, it closed Redhook’s Woodinville brewery and moved production to the larger Widmer brewery in Portland; an AB plant in Colorado also brews Alliance beers.
Widmer sales have slumped in recent years, and Redhook’s have tanked. Kona’s have surged, keeping the company profitable. In a crowded market, Kona’s promise of “liquid aloha in every bottle” cuts through the noise. The alliance’s hopes for growth now lie largely in Kona sales overseas, especially in South America, under a licensing deal with AB InBev.
Buyouts, partial mergers, brand swaps, complex licensing agreements — it sounds a lot like what breweries big and small underwent in the bad old days of the 1960s and ’70s.
IN 1983, JUST AS Grant’s dreams were coming true, a CT scan uncovered a whopping tumor in his skull. Doctors removed it but took most of his olfactory capacity with it. He could no longer smell the hops he was pitching in, and consistency suffered until aides took more control of his business.
Still, he forged on. He helped some Oregon home-brewers — who wanted to go pro — get started with Portland Brewing, training them and licensing his ales to them until they were up and running with their own beers.
Grant sold his brewery and pub to Chateau Ste. Michelle’s parent company in 1995, near the peak of the first craft-beer boom, but stayed there until his death in 2001. Soon afterward, an Atlanta-based brewery group acquired them. In 2005, Grant’s Ales, without Grant, foundered and sank in a sea of securities troubles and unpaid rent.
“Losing your founder seems to be the kiss of death,” says Mike Hale, the only local patriarch who has never budged from his original operation. “That’s why I’m sticking around.” Hale, who started brewing in Colville in 1983, still operates the showpiece brewery and pub he opened in 1995, on Leary Way, a few blocks from Redhook’s birthplace.
Not that it gets any easier. The proliferating micros nip at the heels of established craft brewers and multinational conglomerates alike.
“Two breweries a day open in this country,” says Hale. “At any given time, there are 2,000 in the planning stage. The cool factor of starting a brewery is still big. Lawyers quit being lawyers, doctors quit being doctors, engineers quit being engineers — to make beer!”
Rookies they might be, Hale muses, but they bring an irreplaceable ingredient to their beer: passion. Can a legacy brewer like Redhook, suspended somewhere between craft and conglomerate, rekindle and sustain that passion? That is the Brewlab’s big experiment.