A Pioneer, Reinvented: The Humble Beginnings and Hopeful Future of Seattle’s Redhook Brewery

Feature by | Jan 2018 | Issue #131
Photo by Will Foster

Walking into Redhook Ale Brewery’s new experimental brewpub facility, Brewlab, you might experience a moment of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, you’re in the center of Seattle’s hippest neighborhood, Capitol Hill, inside a bright, shiny new watering hole, surrounded by beer lovers of all kinds—from tech nerds to indie rockers. On the other, you’re in a Redhook facility, a realm no longer associated with recipe excitement and brewing innovation. So your next thought might be, “Wait, what’s going on here?”

Founded in Seattle in 1981, Independent Ale Brewing Company (now Redhook) is Washington’s first—and still largest—craft brewery. In 1982, the company sold its first beer. In 2014, Redhook’s highest grossing year, the brewery produced upwards of 257,000 barrels, quite a bit more than the nearly 56,000 made by its closest in-state competitor, Georgetown Brewing. But now, Redhook, which has seen its sales shrink in recent years, including a 27 percent decrease in 2017’s winter quarter, is attempting to remake itself, to alter its course before hitting the proverbial iceberg of doom: irrelevance. Toward this aim, the company has decided to focus on experimental small-batch brewing, regional input, and rejuvenated grassroots marketing efforts.

With Brewlab, built out inside the cavernous Pike Motorworks building (a former BMW dealership), management can now create and taste-test new recipes and more nimbly offer them to local drinkers, observing in real time what Emerald City beer lovers respond to and purchase. No longer does Redhook wish to be the sluggish, though virtually ubiquitous, colossus of the craft industry. Rather, the company, which rose to fame in the ’80s by selling beer out of a refurbished trolley car barn, wants to earn back some street cred. “A lot of the beers we’re making now aren’t necessarily for national release,” says Nick Crandall, lead innovation brewer at Redhook and head honcho at Brewlab. “As we launch new beers, we’ll stick to Washington [distribution]. And after we plant those seeds, we’ll see if they grow a little bit.”

Gordon Bowker, co-founder of Redhook Brewery. | Photo courtesy of Redhook Brewery

“People Bought the Hell Out of It”
Established just three years after President Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing in 1978, Redhook gained prominence almost immediately in Seattle, especially in local pubs and taverns. “We carried Redhook from the get-go,” says Robert Brenlin, co-owner of Seattle’s Latona Pub, which opened in 1987 and remains one of the city’s favorite oases for beer. “It was so popular back in the ’80s, people bought the hell out of it.”

After creating a firm foundation in Washington in the 20th century’s final decades, Redhook aggressively expanded. It began operations in a converted transmission shop in the Ballard neighborhood, moved about a mile away to the trolley barn in Fremont in 1987, and finally expanded to a much larger, though out of the way, 70,000-square-foot facility in Woodinville, Wash., seven years later. Until recently, its headquarters remained there. “I knew it was going to be big when we were selling beer in Spokane,” recalls co-founder Paul Shipman, who retired from day-to-day operations in the early 2000s. “Eastern Washington in those days was America.”

The brewery’s original beer, Redhook Ale, which many called “Banana Beer” because of a “kooky” Belgian-style yeast used by brewer Charles McElevey, the former brewmaster at Rainer Brewing Company, sold well at the time in the face of few other options. Even so, some drinkers complained of inconsistencies. Yet as an alternative to the domestic light beers and the imported ales that many of the otherwise “disenfranchised” beer drinkers would go for, Redhook took the state by storm. In 1983, it released Blackhook Porter and the following year ditched its unidentified yeast and released Ballard Bitter, the foundational beer for its IPA, Long Hammer. Redhook raked in the profits and became the first West Coast brewery to open a facility across the country (in Portsmouth, N.H. in 1996). Eventually, Redhook sold its beer in all 50 states. “I pushed the company very hard to grow,” Shipman admits. “We really did have a history of being on the cutting edge.” But Redhook closed the Trolleyman pub in 2002, signaling a departure from Seattle.

As Redhook’s sales increased, though, so did its expenses. In 1995, the company went public (trading as HOOK). Stocks soared to $35 a share, but crashed in December 1996. To create an influx of cash and to help offset costs, Redhook’s founders sold a quarter of the company to Anheuser-Busch InBev, which now owns about 32 percent of Redhook parent company Craft Brew Alliance (CBA). To many, though, nothing about this partnership said craft or underdog—two qualities many want in their local beer—and “Budhook,” the nickname coined by Boston Beer’s Jim Koch, began to stick.

“That’s a big regret of mine,” says Shipman. “In retrospect, the one thing I didn’t understand about doing a deal with Budweiser is I had lost intimate contact and understanding of my core consumers and they really didn’t like that. You have no idea how powerful the Redhook brand was in the ’90s. But it became less after the Budweiser deal. We still had a ton of momentum and we continued to grow, but it was not the same brand after that.”

And today, the success and massive growth of the microbrewery industry in the 2000s, which Redhook helped create, has forced the juggernaut to contend with much smaller, hyper-local breweries in a battle it’s ill-equipped to fight. “Redhook expanded to a bunch of places in the ’90s and early 2000s where there [weren’t] a lot of local craft beer options,” says Crandall. “Now you see those local options everywhere and we’re not able to compete. We’re striving to find our right size.”

Finding that perfect size will take time, of course. Redhook is part of the country’s 10th largest brewing company, CBA, which also includes Widmer Brothers Brewing (itself experiencing similar troubles in Oregon), Kona Brewing, Omission Beer, Square Mile Cider, Cisco Brewers, the Appalachian Mountain Brewery, and Wynwood Brewing Company. And now, as the brewery begins to take a long and hard look at itself, Redhook has had to make some big decisions—and cuts.

Nick Crandall at Redhook’s Brewlab. | Photo by Will Foster

“We Have to Return to the Pioneering Roots”
Before launching Brewlab, CBA officials closed Redhook’s Woodinville brewing operations (though the restaurant remains open to the public), moving the vast commercial output to Widmer’s facility in Portland, Ore. “If they had stayed in the Trolleyman,” Brenlin says, “they’d still be doing great.” But while overall sales are diminishing nationally, Crandall will soon release his first Brewlab creation, My Oh My Caramel Macchiato Milk Stout, a drastically different beer compared to the traditional offerings like Blackhook Porter, Long Hammer IPA, and Winterhook Ale, which earned the company its last GABF medal.

Digging into Seattle’s history with coffee—as well as that of Gordon Bowker, who co-founded Redhook and Starbucks—Crandall is hoping to re-solidify the company’s bond with the city. (Local baseball fans will also appreciate the beer’s nickname: “My oh my” was a famous catchphrase of longtime Seattle Mariner announcer Dave Niehaus, who passed in 2010.) Other beers Crandall is working on include a peach-mango IPA and a raspberry Saison. “In my mind,” he says, “we have to return to the pioneering roots of what we were when we were young. I want to interact with the customer, let the beers grow organically. I intend to throw a lot of paint on the wall and see what colors people like.”

When Brewlab opened in August, Crandall unveiled a large collection of collaborations. The tap menu featured a selection of 16 beers created by Redhook, many in conjunction with other local breweries, like Fremont Brewing and Georgetown. Brewed at the other breweries’ facilities while Brewlab was under construction, these collaborations signaled that the younger generation still respected their founding beer grandparent. And the collaborations implicitly acknowledged the importance of the brewery, which was one of the first in the country. “Blackhook Porter was the first beer I ever fell in love with back in 1992,” says Georgetown co-founder, Manny Chao, adding that he worked with the brewery for its Brewlab launch “out of respect for their history.”

Derek Hahm, vice president of sales and brewpubs for CBA, who has been with the company since 1994, believes this level of respect, along with Crandall’s insight, creates a sense of renewed hope for Redhook. And that hope is anchored in concrete on Seattle’s Pike Street—a landmark that should have been built years ago, he says. “The Brewlab concept,” explains Hahm, “was in the works for the last four years. But in hindsight, we should have done something 10 years ago. But 10 years ago we were still growing, we had national brands, national partners. Right now we’re saying let’s make sure we’re deeply rooted in Seattle again and not forget where we came from.”

Many, however, wonder if it’s too late to find a future in Redhook’s storied past. Consumers might have lost interest as thousands of other options vie for their dollars and their attention. What Redhook could have on its side is the fact that beer drinkers can be forgiving. They’re also always willing to try something new. It’s why, for example, Seattle standout Cloudburst Brewing makes a different IPA seemingly every two weeks: there’s a thirst for invention. One thing remains certain for Redhook, though—the business will not succeed if it doesn’t regain a sense of excitement. “I don’t want to see Redhook disappear,” says Kendall Jones, editor of the popular Washington Beer Blog. “But at this point, if they don’t get more interesting and start impressing people, they’re at risk of fading into nothingness.”

“People Have to Understand That We Never Left”
Over the past five years, the number of craft breweries in the US has increased from 2,000 to about 6,000. And while large domestic brands still generate billions of dollars in sales, craft breweries now represent more than 12 percent of a US market that’s changing fast. In an age when beer is more popular than ever, it’s unclear what it will look like five or 10 years from now. But, says longtime Seattle Times beer journalist Geoff Kaiser, Redhook has a chance to succeed thanks to its leading man. “The Brewlab is a step in the right direction,” he says, “[Crandall] is making really good beers there.”

Perhaps the lesson for everyone examining Redhook, though, is that while the national market for craft brewed ales and lagers is thriving, a craft brewery with elaborate national distribution aspirations might not be as viable as it was even five years ago. Instead of countrywide, Redhook is thinking statewide. “Our number one objective for Redhook,” says Hahm, “is to take back Washington. Number two, we have to get back our street cred. And number three, people have to understand that we never left. We may have moved to Woodinville, but we’re still Seattle’s beer.”

Shipman says he sees new positive possibilities for the company that he founded 36 years ago with 20 investors and a 25-barrel copper brewhouse made in Germany. “This pub they’re doing in Capitol Hill, it really is extraordinary,” he says. “I studied the equipment with [Crandall] and I got a feel for it and I like him a lot.” And Shipman’s praise doesn’t stop there. He also appreciates the current Redhook CEO, Andy Thomas. “In many ways, he is the best CEO in the history of the company.”

Of course, it’s Crandall’s shoulders that are asked to bear the responsibility of reinvention. He’s the one charged with brewing the next Redhook sensation. Fortunately it’s something Crandall believes he can do. “I’ve been in a creative role with the company since 2014,” he says.

Today’s tap lineup at Brewlab backs him up. Visitors might encounter Big Ballard, the company’s Imperial IPA, or ESB, a beer famed beer critic Michael Jackson praised for its “appetizing dryness,” but they’re equally likely to find a number of surprises, from an India Brown Lager to a Saison brewed with Pacific Jade hops.

“For years, we’ve done these surveys within the company about what we think is done right and wrong,” Crandall says. “My comments have always been to create a new smaller brewery to establish more credibility—so that we can go to music festivals and offer something besides Long Hammer and ESB. I think the founders set out to make good beer. And now I want people to say the beer we make is money. That’s my goal every time. I want people to drink the beer and say, ‘Wow, this is freaking awesome!’”