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Fifteen years ago, our craft breweries were the antithesis of Big Corporate Beer; they were about flavor first.

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Puget Soundings

Beer in the Pacific Northwest

by Don Scheidt

     Fifteen years ago, there were just a few craft breweries in the Pacific Northwest. Pioneering craft beers under the Grant's and Redhook labels had been around just about a half-dozen years, while upstarts like Pyramid, Thomas Kemper and Hale's had more recently joined the fray. It was still not very firmly established, this microbrew thing, but it was gaining ground quickly. There were still established local breweries in the Northwest; Rainier's bright red "R" glowed from atop its brewery in Seattle's industrial south side, while Blitz-Weinhard still held its own in Portland, and the brewery in Tumwater was still known for its big Olympia sign.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Brewpubs were still a rather new idea. Pyramid's big alehouse wouldn't be along for several more years, nor would Hale's pub, but a new place called the Big Time Alehouse would open in Seattle's University District before the year was out, and two brewpubs operating under the Noggins name were finding it tough going, as was a new place called Duwamps.
Finding craft beers on supermarket beer shelves was more common but still a bit of a novelty. There were bottled beers from Redhook, Pyramid, Kemper and Grant's, along with the occasional specialty from out of state, but they had to compete for space with the imports. The big regional breweries were more concerned with competing against the even bigger nationwide brewers.
Good pubs with a selection of interesting tap handles were slowly but surely increasing. Good thing, too, especially as the craft breweries were extending their range and putting out some exceptional seasonal beers. Redhook's Winterhook and Pyramid's Snow Cap were eagerly anticipated; they were around for such a limited time, after all.
The majority of beers from these craft breweries were made contrary to the norms Americans had been accustomed to for several years. The big breweries churned out mass quantities of taste-alike bland lagers, but the microbreweries were more inclined to make old-fashioned ales, reasoning that it was expensive enough to invest in the equipment to make and ferment beer without adding the additional expense and overhead of storing the beer and keeping it cold, too. Thomas Kemper was the exception to this, choosing to brew something akin to old-fashioned lagers instead.
Fifteen years ago, some upstarts in California had an idea. They saw all these new little specialty breweries opening up and down the West Coast. People could now choose to drink fresh, locally made beers brimming with flavor and recalling a time that most Americans thought was gone forever. These little breweries were big on ambition and small on marketing budgets, so it seemed natural to document this brewing phenomenon. So a little tabloid newspaper came to be, featuring breweries both new -- Sierra Nevada had been around just seven years -- and older, like San Francisco's Anchor Brewery, which had been brought back to life in the mid-1960s.
It was only natural that this little tabloid in California would extend its coverage to Oregon and Washington, especially as bottled beers from these states were just starting to ship up and down the thread of interstate highway connecting the three states. Most of the action took place in bigger cities and urban areas, with occasional exceptions; nobody would mistake Chico for a big city, but that's where Sierra Nevada made its home.
Dan Gordon and Dean Biersch were getting ready to open a spiffy new brewpub in Palo Alto, Calif., and like that little Thomas Kemper brewery up in Washington, this shiny new Silicon Valley brewpub would specialize in lagers.
Fast-forward 15 years to 2003. Two of the Pacific Northwest's big regional breweries are no more: The big red Rainier "R" is gone, replaced by the big green "T" of a coffee roaster, and downtown Portland is no longer filled with the aromas of brewing from the Blitz-Weinhard brewery. The Olympia brewery has been absorbed by a bigger company and now carries the Miller logo. Miller itself has been absorbed into a multinational entity that calls itself SABMiller. The two biggest breweries in Washington state are Redhook and Pyramid, but size hasn't worked out to be all that advantageous, as sustained profitability is a quarterly challenge for these two. Thomas Kemper has been absorbed by Pyramid. Hale's relocated its brewery to Seattle and opened up a splendid pub on the premises. Grant's is now owned by an out-of-state corporation.
New breweries have come along in the intervening 15 years, including Pike, Maritime Pacific, Mac & Jack's, Pacific Crest and others that have opened and closed in the meantime. Brewpubs are no longer a rarity; in fact, craft beers are nearly ubiquitous, and one can find interesting beers even in places that used to be considered fairly remote. Rare is the tavern or restaurant that doesn't have at least a Redhook or a Pyramid handle, even if it's one of their less adventuresome beers. What makes them less adventuresome? Fifteen years ago, perhaps we weren't quite so jaded, but we had yet to discover the great beers brewed at places like the Big Time and Elysian. We couldn't drive up to Mount Vernon, La Conner, Anacortes or Bellingham and find more brewpubs up in those towns, although a new place in Bellingham, the Archer, would show us big-city folks how it was done. We didn't have Diamond Knot and Flying Pig.
We do now. Those two guys who opened up that fancy brewpub in Palo Alto in 1988 opened their first Seattle place 10 years later. Gordon Biersch is still doing solid business at its brewery-restaurant in downtown Seattle. Another couple of guys, brothers with the family name of McMenamin, expanded their brewpub chain from Oregon into Washington state to cover the Pacific Northwest.
Fifteen years ago, it seemed inevitable that craft beers would grow and take their place alongside the big brewers' beers. Well, almost. Craft beer has penetrated further into the beer markets of the Pacific Northwest than most regions, but the big regional breweries didn't go under because of the might of Redhook and Pyramid; they succumbed to decisions that were largely out of their hands, made in corporate headquarters offices thousands of miles away. Fifteen years ago, our craft breweries were the antithesis of Big Corporate Beer; they were about flavor first. Absurd, then, the notion that the biggest Washington craft brewery would eventually go public and work with the largest brewery in the United States in a cooperative marketing and equity arrangement.
Fifteen years ago, it would have been a bit of a stretch to consider opening a pub dedicated to serving Belgian-style beers on tap, not to mention that several of those Belgian styles would be American-brewed. Seattle's Stumbling Monk pub sports nine taps, all pouring some sort of Belgian style, and usually four or five of those taps pour locally brewed renditions of Belgian double, triple or grand cru, beers that would be well received in their country of inspiration. Alehouses dot the city landscape in Seattle, places like the Latona (which celebrated its own 15th anniversary in August 2002), the Hop Vine, the Fiddler's Inn, the Wedgwood Ale House, the 74th Street Ale House, the Hilltop Ale House, the Reading Gaol, the Old Town Ale House, the Full Moon and so many more.
Fifteen years on, and the little tabloid from California now covers brewing in California, in the Pacific Northwest, across the United States and around the world. The craft-brewing revival has been with us for over 20 years, and with just a wee bit of luck, we'll still be reading about it in the Celebrator Beer News five, 10 and yes, 15 years hence.
Here's to 15 years of the Celebrator Beer News. Prost!

Don Scheidt is the author of the Northwest BrewPage at www.nwbrewpage.com. He also edits BeerWeek. He can be reached via e-mail at dgs1300@hotmail.com.

Copyright 2003, Celebrator No material herein may be reprinted without permission of the Celebrator Distributed On the W3 For personal, non-commercial enjoyment and use only. Cheers!

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