Twenty Years of Better Beer

The Northwest leads the charge.

Ah, grasshopper, I see you have your favorite microbrew in hand. C'mon, join me at my Stammtisch, and we'll tip a glass together. It's great having to choose among all those taps, isn't it? And yet, t'wasn't always so. So clear your mind, and set the Wayback Machine to a time when that nice little thicket of taps, that wonderful selection of fresh, local beer that you take for granted, just plain didn't exist. It was the bad old days, when you'd go to a tavern ("alehouse?" Geddadahere, ya furriner) and settle for Rainier or Oly on tap. Oh, maybe there would be something a little heartier on tap, an exotic import from Europe (stale tasting, but what did we know; maybe European beer was supposed to be like that). Or, being a lucky West Coaster, you might see a tap featuring Anchor Steam, brought all the way up from San Francisco. But if the choice was American beer, you didn't have to think too hard. We're back in the days just before Jimmy Carter was about to lose to Ronald Reagan, a time when the American beer industry had dwindled from around 2,000 breweries at the beginning of the 20th century to about 750 in 1934 (killed off by Prohibition, the Depression, and consolidation) to just about 50. By this time (the late 1970s), brewers were competing hardly at all on things like body and flavor. American beers were almost all pale, bland, slightly sweet, fizzy lagers, differentiated mostly by ad campaigns and price. The cheap stuff was brewed with the help of lots of adjunct ingredients, particularly corn syrup, lightening the body and keeping prices in check, while still delivering a modicum of alcohol content. "Premium" beer meant the likes of Bud or Miller, the main premium being that they didn't give you a nasty headache. "Super premium" Michelob or Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve from Portland actually had a whit of body or flavor, the result of higher amounts of honest beer ingredients, like malt and hops. My formative beer-drinking years were spent in Portland, so I had it pretty good, comparatively—not just Weinhard's, but imports like Guinness from Ireland, Watney's Red Barrel from England, and Löwenbräu from Munich, all served at a little Portland pub, the Produce Row Cafe, opened in 1974 by Mike McMenamin. I thought I had it good. But my standards were about to get a badly needed boot to the ass in the summer of 1977.

Beveridge Place Pub offers more pulls than you can shake a stick at.

(Ron Wurzer) Ah, that first trip to Europe: We came, we backpacked, we were exchange students, we parrrrr-tayed, we went to Oktoberfest, and damn, did we get drunk. But I wasn't a part of this "we." I didn't go to Munich to suck down liters of lager. I went to visit family, and they lived in the Rhineland, in or near Düsseldorf and Cologne. My introduction to freshly brewed on-premises German beers included Alt and Kölsch, and, yes, pilsner, painfully fresh, bursting with noble hop aromas and flavors. The Alt beers, especially, were a revelation, with rich malt flavors and sturdy hop bitterness; they were sort of like British ale yet so Teutonic, and in those days, they didn't export Alt to the Americans. Kölsch was puzzling—it was very pale, light, and not really assertive, but damn, it was soooo easy to drink. I was hooked. I was starting to get a little bit educated, too. I knew that German beers were made according to guidelines with origins dating back to 16th-century Bavaria and known as the Reinheitsgebot, or "purity law." The rules were modified and updated, but the basics were still in place: Only four ingredients could legally be used in making beer— water, malt, hops, and yeast. The rest was up to the brewer. (Since Americans ignored the Reinheitsgebot and brewed ordinary, flavorless industrial megalagers hereinafter to be known as IMLs, I assumed that any beer not made according to such purity rules was to be avoided. I've learned better since.)

Charles Finkel: pioneer importer of out-of-the-way brews.

(Roger Downey) When I came to Seattle the following summer, I found I wasn't the only one who'd been delighted with beers sampled in Europe. A couple of restaurant entrepreneurs, Mick McHugh and Tim Firnstahl, had opened up a big new place across the street from the big new Kingdome: FX McRory's, which featured, along with a huge selection of bourbon, a whole lotta beer—mostly imports, at the time. Some of those beers were imported by Charles Finkel's Merchant du Vin, a Seattle-based company concentrating on the tiny, fractional market of imported beers and its promise for growth, fueled by young-adult baby boomers like me who'd come back from Europe and found American beers wanting. Merchant du Vin wasn't about bringing in yet another alternative to Heineken, Löwenbräu, or Watney's. There were German beers from out-of-the-way Münster and Aying, there was this English beer, Samuel Smith's Pale Ale, which kicked Watney's red-barreled ass up one side of the bar counter and down the other. And there were some Belgian beers, including the wonderfully idiosyncratic Orval Trappist Ale. And stuff called Lindemans Lambic. Gueuze. Kriek. Bizarre. The aromas were out of this world—stinky, funky, sour, strong, as far from ordinary beer as Gorgonzola is from Kraft singles. With all this interest in these European imports, it wasn't long before a domestic "craft beer" movement would emerge, and in 1982, the Pacific Northwest fully joined in, fueled by the likes of Seattle entrepreneurs Gordon Bowker and Paul Shipman. Redhook Ale was this odd, bready, fruity beer with the unmistakable aroma of bananas; Will Thomas and Andy Kemper opened a Bainbridge Island microbrewery making lagers, but odd lagers they were. They were called "Helles" and "Dunkles," after the Munich-style beers they were supposed to resemble, but a glitch in the fermentation process gave these lagers blueberrylike aromas. (In both Redhook's and Thomas Kemper's case, fermentation temperatures and yeast behaviors were creating a by-product in their beers, called esters, typically noted for fruity aromas, something that can happen when brewers don't fully understand what they're doing.) Bert Grant's Yakima-based microbrewery also went into production in 1982, but he knew his brewing processes well: Grant's Scottish Ale had flavors strongly reminiscent of imports from Britain. But Grant's biggest contribution to the evolution of Northwest beer came when he decided to set up a few barstools in his brewery's entryway where he could sell visitors beer instead of giving it away. Washington state law, as it turned out, allows a brewery to operate one (and only one) tavern. Thus was born something most had never encountered—a pub that brewed and featured its own beers, a brewpub.

Mike Hale among the tools of his trade.

(Roger Downey) Brewpubs—and more craft breweries—popped up everywhere, and with so many superior beers to choose from, multitap alehouses proliferated. Craft brewers like Mike Hale learned to make consistent, high-quality beers, India pale ales and porters, Hefeweizen and barley wine. Some craft brewers have even taken to emulating wonderfully idiosyncratic Belgian ales, as the market for their fruity and spicy flavors has grown. Like all good things, the market has matured. Craft-brewed beers have gained ever wider acceptance and now account for a small but solid segment of the Northwest market. But to appreciate how much the scene has changed, you have to look at it from a perspective of 25 years. Twenty-five years ago, nobody would have dreamed that it would be a common experience to go to a restaurant or pub and find a variety of locally brewed flavorful beers. Nor would anyone have thought that former neighborhood dives would be remodeled into the likes of Jeff Eagan's Hilltop Ale House, the Latona, or the Reading Gaol. With maturation has come some fallout. Not every craft brewery and brewpub opened in the last 25 years has survived. But the business has grown to be in better shape than ever, and I've grown along with it (and have the girth to prove it). It's been a great ride. You shoulda been there. Drink up.

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