Here's to the 'Hook

Puget Sound's first microbrewery comes of age.

Twenty-one years and one month ago, our beerfathers brought forth in Ballard a new brew, dedicated to the principles that Rainier and Olympia were not enough and that you shouldn't have to go to the liquor store to buy a brew worth drinking. And they called it Red Hook and hoped that it was good and hoped other people would think so, too. So simply was the microbrew revolution igniteda revolution that has made the Pacific Northwest the biggest market (if you skew your criteria just right) for premium beers in the United States, perhaps North America, conceivably even the world. And, even more remarkable than the raw or fiddled numbers, the makers of that revolutionGordon Bowker and Paul Shipmanare still among us, still active, and still speaking amicably to and of each other. As a matter of cold fact, Red Hook version 1.0 wasn't all that good. "We went to market before we were ready," says Bowker. "We'd set a date for the mayor and governor to taste the first pint, and didn't have the guts to cancel. The brew had its fierce loyalists, but a lot of people called it 'banana beer,' though I personally got more cardamom, anise, and black pepperdefinitely a real complex beverage. I was sorry to see it go." But go it ultimately did, replaced, along with the strain of yeast that made it, by a far more mainstream brew based on the company's highly successful seasonal Winterhook Ale, the foundation for Red Hook's mainstay today, ESB. Before its departure, though, banana beer may have served a purpose its makers never intended. Shipman says, "I think maybe other people tasted it and said to themselves, 'Gee, if they can do this and get away with it, maybe I can do it better!" Microbrews began popping up like chanterelles after the first rains of autumn. RED HOOK SET one precedent that its competitors have rarely dared drift froma strict adherence to the spirit, if not the letter, of Germany's nine-century-old Reinheitsgebot: that beer is to be made of malted barley, hops, yeast, and water, and from nothing else. The discipline involved was easier to maintain because even before Red Hook (and its Yakima-based rival for the title of first brewkid on the local block, Bert Grant), the Northwest was benefiting from firsthand exposure to some of the best European beers aroundSamuel Smith of Yorkshire, Pinkus of Munster, Lindemans of Belgiumimported by local firm Merchant du Vin. Red Hook came about in large part because Bowker (also a co-founder of Starbucks and Seattle Weekly) couldn't find a local beer fit to drink. Similarly, Merchant du Vin started bringing in beer as well as wine because its founder (and still owner) Charles Finkel couldn't find decent American beers to sell (apart from San Francisco's venerable Anchor Steam). It's interesting that all three of the men who laid the groundwork for today's astonishing bounty of locally brewed beers were not brewers but rather marketing menamong the most able marketing men of their day. Shipman, who shared office space with Finkel one late-'70s summer at Chateau Ste. Michelle, didn't originally plan to make beer. Until talked around by Bowker, his dream was to found a company to make premium sparkling wine. "But I have no regrets about the direction I took," Shipman says. "You can't really build up a wine brand in a single lifetime, whereas we've been able to create a brand with national stature, admired in Southern California and Texas and New England, in less than 20 years." One thing Shipman does regretand resentis the apparently unkillable canard that Red Hook has, metaphorically or literally, "sold out" to the Evil Empire, aka Anheuser-Busch. "In order to sell our product outside the Northwest, we needed national distribution," he says. "A-B is widely recognized for its distribution network, its connection with the best wholesalers, its concern to take good care of the product. I sought out the relationship with A-B on strictly business grounds. I've never had any reason to regret it. When I hear people say that A-B 'bought out' Red Hook or that it calls the shots about our products, I can't help wondering if some of the people repeating the story know better but repeat it anyway for reasons of their own." SHIPMAN DOESN'T downplay his and Bowker's role in igniting the microbrew scene hereabouts, but he attributes their success as much to the spirit of the place as to their efforts. "Seattle was and, I think, remains a wonderful place to be an entrepreneur. This was a completely unprecedented effort, and, on paper, you would have had a hole in your head to put money into it. But Gordon came up with a list of local people he thought would be interested, a list that ultimately grew to about 300 names. And I gave about that many presentations to people willing to listen and able to write a check if they liked what they heard. We raised $350,000 that way at $17,500 a share. No big players, no big names, just successful people who decided it might be a good investment, people above all willing to be patient. They are why we were able to do it. And I think with the right idea, you could do the same thing here today." sips@seattleweekly.com

 
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