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Sunday, September 10, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Burgeoning Brew -- Beers Carefully Crafted In The Northwest Win A Bigger Audience

THE NORTHWEST AND GREAT beer. Beer and the great Northwest. They go together. They're synonymous now.

Not that we haven't always had beer. The original brewery that introduced Rainier suds, Sicks, was founded in 1878, making it one of the earliest breweries in the Western United States. And what long-time Seattle resident doesn't fondly remember Sick's Seattle Stadium and the old Seattle Rainiers ball team? It's part of our early history.

But we're talking craft beers here, or microbrews. They're wild, hoppy, malty, intensely rich, zesty, mouth-filling and drop-dead delicious - everything that American beers were not the past 50 years. Their palate-stopping, sudsy, old European style has swept the nation like Microsoft and Starbucks, and nobody's quite quenched their thirst yet. And it all happened right here (at least we're given credit for much of it). The Northwest is on the crest of that foamy wave of microbrewing, and it hasn't peaked yet.

How did this come about? How did we go from virtually nothing 10 years ago to something like 200,000 barrels of quality brew produced annually? How is it that in sophisticated, worldly San Francisco, Redhook is the most popular brew on draught? Why does Michael Jackson, the London beer guru, call us the microbrewery capital of the U.S.? How is it that beer lovers all over the U.S. genuflect toward the Northwest? And what freed this avalanche of suds anyway?

There are several answers. The fact that the Yakima Valley is one of the major hop producers in the world has something to do with it. Our water, running from forested mountains, is fresh and pure. We're a young part of the country, thirsty for new things. But there's more.

Here's one answer, which may seem a trifle glib at first. But listen, it's from someone who should know: "It happened because we didn't expect it to happen."

Meet Gordon Bowker, a private man who doesn't grant many interviews. He was co-founder of Redhook and, before that, Starbucks Coffee. Like many in the early stages of the microbrewery industry, he had no inkling it would explode. He often thinks back to that fertile period in Seattle a decade or so ago when everything seemed to be gearing up - wine, beer, coffee, chocolate, even ice cream.

"Mostly," he says, "I think the climate was right then. Seattle gets lots of attention, now. but there was less pressure on ideas then. Less tradition. It was a firm ground for sowing the seeds of new ideas. You could create something and be ignored. It didn't have prove itself immediately." In many ways Bowker's experiences paralleled those of other Americans of his generation who traveled abroad in the 1960s and began developing a taste for quality. The big difference is that he came home and did something about it.

Bowker eventually teamed up with Terry Heckler to produce the now-legendary Rainier beer commercials of the mid-1970s (remember all those cute little beer cans with legs?). Next he was a founder, along with Zev Siegl and Jerry Baldwin, of Starbucks Coffee. He then met Paul Shipman, who was working for Chateau Ste. Michelle and had just developed the immensely successful Farron Ridge line of inexpensive wines. Something even more exciting was about to occur.

If you track the major players you soon discover they are on top of, in the background of and/or lurking around virtually every product that has put Seattle on the map in recent years.

With his Starbucks background, Bowker is a classic example. And he continues to be on the cutting edge. Right now one of the hottest coffee businesses on the West Coast is Peet's in Berkeley. Guess who's one of the founders? Bowker isn't even talking about other interests he's looking into.

Shipman wasn't the only one to cross over from wine. John Stoddard, one of the owners of Hart Brewing Co., previously owned Paul Thomas winery. Pamela Hinkley, vice president for marketing at Redhook, spent years in the wine business here and in California. Charles Finkle, who owns the Pike Place Brewery, was a vice president at Chateau Ste. Michelle in its formative years.

Even the Fratelli Brothers of ice-cream fame (actually John and Peter Morse) are in the beer business. They jumped in when Hart Brewing came up for sale six years ago, becoming two of five owners.

Sometimes these visionaries team up, as in the case of Bowker and Shipman. When they met, Bowker wanted to make good beer in Seattle and knew he had found his man. He whispered in his ear. Brewery. Something called Redhook.

"I had this idea of starting a brewery, and Paul struck me as the one to run it," he says.

When Shipman talks about beer he wears a constant grin and one gets the genuine impression that here is a man who truly loves what he is doing. His story of the beginnings dovetails with Bowker's.

"In Seattle you could have a chance to perfect something before it exploded," Shipman says. "In California, it explodes before it gets perfected."

He admits that he was anything but the hard-nosed businessman in 1980 and paid little attention to the local economy. "We didn't necessarily create it (Redhook) with the expectation of being big," he says. "We wanted to create a little city treasure. It was to be a European-type brewery and we thought it might be successful based on a customer base of two percent of the population of Seattle."

Redhook arrived with much fanfare (even the mayor attended the opening) but was inconsistent in quality at first. In fact, because of its odd fruitiness, critics gave it the nickname "banana beer." It wasn't exactly a compliment.

It took Michael Jackson, the noted English beer writer, to discover it and give it an identity. Before Redhook, Jackson felt there were really only two American beers worth noting: Anchor Steam from San Francisco and the fondly remembered Rainier Ale made here.

Jackson, who visited Seattle recently, recalled a London meeting with Bowker, who was wildly enthusiastic about the new enterprise. "Gordon and I went off and did some serious drinking that night," he likes to tell. "I fell asleep and the next thing I remember is waking up and Redhook had opened its brewery."

Actually, Jackson was here for the opening at the tiny little brewery in Ballard. He remembers noting the now-legendary banana taste, but it reminded him more of Belgium beers. The tag stuck and a new reputation was born.

Today Redhook is pumping out some 175,000 barrels a year from its Fremont plant and its new 70,000-square-foot facility in Woodinville. The new Redhook plant in Portsmouth, N.H., (an hour from Boston) is close to completion. Redhook has gone far beyond the microbrewery stage, but still considers itself and is still generally regarded as a craft brewery.

IF IT BEGINS to sound as though Redhook, with all its size and clout, was the pioneer, it's not quite true. No history of the Pacific Northwest craft breweries would be complete without first mentioning Grant's ales and the Yakima Brewing Co.

Bert Grant, a successful hops grower and founder of his namesake ales, becomes testy when anyone even hints that Redhook started it all. Even Shipman concedes that Grant's beat him to the market by a couple of weeks. It also would be fair to say that Grant's Scottish Ale was more perfected when it arrived on shelves. Hoppy, rich and flavorful, Grant's struck a cord with beer lovers and has remained consistent since.

Other craft brewers followed, notably Hales Ales in Colville in Eastern Washington, which ultimately moved to Kirkland (and is now putting the finishing touches on a new brewery between Fremont and Ballard, not far from the first Redhook Brewery). By 1984 things were really exploding. Vince Cottone, author of "Good Beer Guide" (a guide to Northwest breweries and pubs), called it the "year of brewery madness in the Northwest." New breweries opened and were warmly embraced by local beer lovers. Thomas Kemper - first on Bainbridge Island, now in Poulsbo - and Hart Brewing of Kalama, with its Pyramid ales, became major players. The two later merged, and Hart opened its showplace brewery and brewpub near the Kingdome this year.

This year looks to be another one of "brewery madness." How many cities have seen the emergence of four major breweries plus several smaller ones all in one year? First there was the new Woodinville Redhook and the Hart Brewing in Pioneer Square. But hold on to your beer mugs: There are more fermenting right now. The most anticipated new brewery (particularly by the 4,300 investors who ponied up $2.7 million) is Aviator Ales (Seattle Brewing Co.), an operation that is just brewing up its first batches in Woodinville in a 19,000-square-foot facility. Three beers are due out this month, all with labels showing historic planes (one sports the great Boeing World War II bomber, the Flying Fortress). Aviator Ales, which is only draught at present, is brought to you by the same man who developed the successful Nor'Wester Brewery of Portland in a similar public investment program.

Rounding out the fearsome foursome is Hales Ales' new 17,000-square-foot plant at 4301 Leary Way N.W. Its first brew, a pale ale, is premiering this month. By October there will be a 120-seat pub. The Kirkland brewery will be closed.

And then there's the sleek little Lake Tapps Brewing Co. south of the city, which started brewing in June. Other new breweries pop up without warning. The last figures showed that there is a 40-percent growth in local beer sales, a record any business would envy.

It turns out that 1984 was a banner year in Oregon, too. It marked the first microbrewery, Bridgeport in Portland. Others followed: Full Sail on the Columbia River, Widmer, Deschutes Brewery and some with names like Hair of the Dog and Lucky Labrador. Oregon insists it has more breweries and brew pubs per capita than any place in the U.S. Portland likes to call itself "Munich on the Willamette."

But observers and critics of the scene tend to see it as Northwest, not Washington versus Oregon. And if there is a keen observer it's Larry Baush, editor and publisher of The Pint Post, considered the "official magazine of the Microbrew Appreciation Society" and is published in Seattle.

"I look at it as the greater Northwest brewing industry," he says. "Both Oregon and Washington contribute to the strength of each other."

HE IS, perhaps, the best one to explain what it is that makes Northwest craft beers unique. "The microbrews are mostly based on traditional ales," he says. "But they're given a Northwest interpretation by using raw ingredients that are grown here like grains, hops. Our beers have a real tendency to be more hoppy than malty."

There is, without doubt, a new spin on beer here. The recipe used to be universal - water, hops, yeast, malt. Not around here. Thomas Kemper puts blueberry puree in its Helles Blueberry Lager. And Pyramid tosses in essence of apricot in one ale. There's an espresso stout by Hart Brewing along with porters, bitters and brown ales, as well as amber and pale ales. Redhook caused a big bang this summer with the introduction of Redhook Rye, its first new bottled beer in eight years and a first for rye. Those wildly inventive brewers use hops with names like nugget and liberty and malts called caramel, black, Munich, chocolate and dark carastan. Wheat beers are becoming common. Portland Brewing recently released Wheat Berry Brew, a beer that has a hint of Oregon Marionberry flavor. Further proof that things come full circle is a new coffee porter this fall via a partnership by none other than Starbucks and Redhook. Where will it all stop?

Probably never. "The whole industry looks to the Northwest as the bellwether of their market," says Baush.

All this has given rise to another phenomenon, the pub. Not taverns, mind you, but real pubs in the traditional sense. They are places like the Red Door Ale House, Hilltop Ale House, Murphy's and the Triangle, where as many as 30 microbrews are on draught and folks sit about arguing over the merits of each. Likewise, we have the brewpub, a genuine European article where only the product made on the premises is served. Some, like the Big Time Brewery & Ale House, make up to 30 different beers during a year's time, and their devoted customers love it.

Despite the rosy picture of the microbreweries and their steadily growing reputations, there are cracks in the mirror here. Bowker worries that quality such as we have in the brewing industry here becomes a concept. Then, he says, it turns into something that investors are looking for. "And that destroys quality," he says.

Then there's the issue of Anheuser-Busch, the largest brewing firm in the world and maker of Budweiser, buying a percentage of Redhook. Many a Northwest brew fan cried in his suds over that one. Others rolled their eyes heavenward, proclaiming the giants were taking over and things would never be the same.

Anheuser-Busch owns 25 percent of Redhook now. But Shipman is quick to point out that it is allowed to buy only 5 percent more. Redhook made the decision to go public this summer and when shares were offered in August they doubled in value the first week.

"The golden age is passing," says Shipman, referring to those freewheeling days when you could start up a brewery with a few vats and a warehouse. "But in many ways it's even better now. The talent that is coming here because of what we do is great. They want to participate in what's new. But its definitely tougher to start up.

"But you know what?" I'd do it all over again in Seattle if someone told me I had to start from scratch."

Tom Stockley is a freelance writer and Seattle Times wine columnist. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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