Sighing in their beer

The business of Redhook and bravado of Grant: two very different accounts of the microbrewery saga.

HERE'S AN ODD POUR: two local beer books that aren't guidebooks. Instead, they're profiles of the two most interesting and influential exponents of what was variously called the Northwest craft-beer "industry" and microbrewing "revolution." Call it an industry and the book for you is Redhook: Beer Pioneer, the sort of deal-by-deal business history more often done on much larger firms. Call it a revolution and you might want to start with Bert Grant's slim, highly opinionated memoir of how he went to the barricades for strong beer, stronger hops, and full nutritional disclosure. Redhook: Beer Pioneer

by Peter Krebs

Four Walls Eight Windows, $22 The Ale Master

by Bert Grant with Robert Spector Sasquatch Books, $19.95 When they inaugurated the local industry/revolution in 1982, Grant and Paul Shipman, Redhook's president and co-founder, were about as opposite as two competitors could be. Grant, Scots-born and Canada-bred, was already a wise old man of brewing, with a lifetime's experience working for the beer barons while perfecting his own recipes. Prodded by fans of his homebrew, he finally built his own damned brewery in a former bordello/opera house by the Yakima train tracks. From the start, his Scottish Ale was well-made and fiercely hopped: "Made to please one taste and one taste only—mine." Shipman, a Philadelphia-bred marketing whiz with boundless ambition and a trial lawyer's bluff manner, knew little more than that he liked good beer and that other consumption-conscious '80s urbanites might be as ready to pay for it as for good wine and coffee. Shipman had cut his entrepreneurial teeth developing Chateau Ste. Michelle's "upscale" jug wine, but hit a ceiling in the wine trade. Then Gordon Bowker, the start-up visionary who'd helped create Starbucks, the classic Rainier Beer ads, and this paper, thought of transplanting the then-nascent microbrewery notion from California to Seattle. Shipman jumped up and, as the author Krebs tells it, hollered, "I want to be president!" From there, you'd expect Redhook's tale to follow the usual script: struggle, adversity, faith in the vision, seizing the opportunity, reshaping the paradigm, striking it big. But it departs from the myth at two points, one interesting, the other anticlimactic. The anticlimax arrived shortly after Krebs embarked on the book, and probably made his publisher fret over its prospects. After a dozen years of heady growth, the craft-beer business hit a wall, a shakeout began, and Redhook's stock plummeted only a year after its IPO. Imagine The Bill Gates Story ending on such a muted note. (Well, OK, imagine it.) REDHOOK'S OTHER DEPARTURE from the script was a triumph of pluck, persistence, and bad brewing—recalling certain Microsoft launches. Rushing to meet the scheduled kickoff, its brewmaster (a big-brewery veteran who was out of his element) brewed a weird, sweet, ester-ridden, yeast-crossed beer starkly unlike the intended classic English pale. But when the British beer pundit Michael Jackson declared this "banana beer" tasted "Belgian," Shipman and Bowker hyped it as though that's what they'd intended all along. Shipman bluffed his way out of this slow-motion crisis, spinning where he could and stonewalling on his plant's wayward microbiology when he had to; tirelessly opening new accounts and assuaging old ones to keep his beer flowing; and dueling behind closed doors with his brewmaster—who defended the recipe. Finally, in 1984, Redhook managed, with new yeast and much internal gnashing, to do what nearly every new microbrewery does off the bat: brew a decent, if overly mild, ale (which was still hardly the "Ballard Bitter" it claimed to be). Since then, "banana beer" has bit the dust (except for a nostalgic batch years later). Ballard Bitter became "Redhook IPA," and bitter. Redhook itself moved out of Ballard to a much bigger, slicker brewery in Fremont, then opened others much bigger yet in Woodinville and New Hampshire, then closed Fremont amidst its recent contraction. Still, it remains a star in the star-crossed beer business. But it will never do anything as remarkable as staying afloat for two years on "banana beer." Krebs deserves a salute for unraveling and recording this now-it-can-be-told saga (he gets another for citing my Weekly stories in such flattering fashion). He also insightfully traces Redhook's roots in Shipman's and Bowker's very different backgrounds, and in the cultural compost heap of Seattle circa 1980—a town at once cozily insular and giddy with new cosmopolitanism. Krebs catches the temper of the times, when a new local beer with some taste in it and conviction behind it could seem a radical advance in civilization. BUT THERE'S SOMETHING oddly anachronistic about the whole project. Peeking behind the scenes may interest those of us who watched Redhook evolve, but I doubt it'll mean much to those for whom it's just another beer. Krebs' prose is clear and readable, but his book is marred by odd non sequiturs, mispunctuations, repetitions, and gratuitous quotes—sad to see in a book from a highly regarded literary publisher. Remember when books were edited? Perhaps because Shipman and Bowker were so candid with him, Krebs relies overmuch on their inevitably partial recollections. He didn't check their accounts of things I said, and thus has me beholding the new, beyond-micro Fremont brewery and asking Bowker, "How are you going to sell all that beer?" As I recall, I asked Shipman just where they'd sell all that beer. "Where" mattered because of the deep local chords Redhook had struck as a proudly homegrown beer. The mayor and governor turned out for its rollout. Ballard Bitter's labels bore the Ballard High cheer, "Ya, Sure, Ya Betcha." And freshness was so cherished that bottles were individually date-stamped. Sic transit hometown brew. Redhook ales are now brewed in highly automated plants in Woodinville and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for all markets between. To gain a national distribution network, Shipman sold a 25 percent share to Anheuser- Busch—to micro diehards, the evil empire. Krebs closes with Bowker waxing ambivalent about national expansion and its effect on the all-important "mystique," while Shipman is unabashed: "We produce and deliver the finest craft beers in America. Sure, consumers will try the local beers, but once they try Redhook, they generally keep coming back for more." Busch couldn't have said it better. And what about Bert Grant, that uncompromising stalwart of small-scale, personalized brewing and "damn the wimps, full hops ahead" attitude, who threatened to decapitate smokers in his brewpub with a claymore? Any page of The Ale Master will show he's as opinionated as ever—cranky and charming by turns, full of himself and full of brewing yarns and wisdom. (The as-told-to form may make him wax even more; it's easier to brag to an amanuensis than to a keyboard.) His ales remain the hoppiest you'll find (unless, like him, you carry around a vial of hop extract as a booster). And they're more personalized in one way: Three years ago, they started showing his avuncular mug on each label. But that was actually a strategy of their new corporate owners. Grant remains lifetime brewmaster/consultant/crank in Yakima. But in November 1995, lamenting that "to stay in the game . . . would take far more money than I could raise," he sold out to a US Tobacco subsidiary whose many holdings include Ste. Michelle—where Paul Shipman started out. Sic transit vision.

 
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