Craft Beer in Washington

  • By Brad Holden
  • Posted 12/27/2021
  • Essay 21374
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The craft beer boom in Washington officially began in the 1980s, though its origins can be traced to early hop farms that were first planted here over a hundred years ago. It's a saga that involves an old transmission repair shop in a quiet Seattle neighborhood; a colorful Scotsman from Yakima; and a visionary entrepreneur who led an entire region to develop new tastes for unique varieties of beer. Liquor laws stretching back to the Prohibition era played a key role in the timing of some of these events, though the path was later paved by local breweries that were known for doing things just a little differently. It is an industry that continues to evolve, with new craft breweries opening across the state on an ongoing basis. 

The Hop King of the World

From the very beginning, local hops have served as one of the principal cornerstones of the Washington state craft-beer industry. Hops are the flowers of the plant Humulus lupulus that, when dried, are the principal ingredient that gives beer its bitter, often citrusy kick. A member of the Cannabaceae order (a relatively small family of flowering plants that includes cannabis), hops were first cultivated in Germany for purposes of brewing, and later spread to other countries. 

In Washington, hops were first cultivated in 1865 after Oregon Trail pioneer Ezra Meeker (1830-1928) was given some cuttings from a friend and planted a small crop on his Puyallup farm. He and his father, Jacob Meeker (1804-1869), later harvested these hops, which earned them $157.27 -- an impressive sum at that time. It was the state's first crop of commercially grown hops, and word spread fast that this easy-to-grow plant could yield a good financial return. Every farmer in the area was soon growing hops, and it quickly became Puyallup Valley's biggest cash crop. By the early 1880s, Meeker had become a wealthy hop merchant. He opened an office in London to help sell hops on the world market and was also the direct hops supplier for Oregon brewer Henry Weinhard (1830-1904). Meeker soon became known as the "hop king" and was one of the nation's largest exporters of the plant.

While Meeker was building his hops empire in the Puyallup region, a farmer on the other side of the state was just getting started on his own. In 1868 Charles Carpenter (1838-1918) -- the son of a hops farmer -- arrived in the Yakima Valley and established his own farm just south of present-day Yakima. He planted his first crop of the plant using cuttings from his father's farm in New York. Because the region gets more than 200 days of sunshine per year and the soil is especially fertile, Carpenter quickly realized how perfect this land was for his agricultural enterprise. By the 1880s, he had helped transform the Yakima Valley into one of the most productive hop-growing areas in the world. 

Carpenter's new agricultural venture was flourishing in Eastern Washington, but things had grown dire on the other side of the state. In 1892, a type of aphid known as the hop louse had infested crops in the Puyallup Valley, and the region's entire hops industry, including Meeker's farm, was devastated. Facing financial ruin, Meeker was able to avoid losing his entire fortune by venturing into other types of business. Puyallup's farms were never able to rebound from this, and by the turn of the century hops had all but disappeared from the local area. Yakima, by contrast, had managed to avoid Puyallup's fate, as the region's hot weather was able to stave off any invasive lice species. To this day, hop farming continues to thrive in the Yakima Valley, where it remains one of Washington's top cash crops while also providing piquancy for the region's signature style of hop-fueled beers. 

Prohibition and the Demise of Washington Brewing  

While the hops industry was taking off in Eastern Washington, several different breweries opened throughout the state. These included the Seattle Brewing & Malting Company in 1893; The Capital Brewing Company (later the Olympia Brewing Company), opened in Tumwater in 1896; and Spokane's Schade Brewery, which was built in 1903. Washington state's working-class population helped propel the success of these breweries, including the Seattle Brewing & Malting Company, which by the turn of the century had become the largest brewery west of St. Louis. 

All of this came to an abrupt halt in 1916, when every brewery in Washington was forced to shut down due to statewide Prohibition. Thanks to an active temperance movement, the state's Initiative Measure 3 -- which was voted into law on November 3, 1914 -- made the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal. Four years later, with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, nation-wide Prohibition began on January 17, 1920, banning the production, transport, and sale of any intoxicating liquors. In response, all of the nation's breweries were forced to close their operations. This would last until Prohibition was repealed with the passage of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933.

During the 17-year period during which commercially produced beer was unavailable state-wide, illegal home brewing gained in popularity. Throughout Washington, many stores sold "malt kits" that, when mixed with water, would produce different styles of beer. It was a clever way to bypass national liquor laws, as it was not illegal to sell beer-making ingredients. This would mark the first big wave of home brewing in Washington state, an underground movement that endured beyond the Prohibition era and would help usher in the craft-beer revolution decades later.

Immediately after national Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) was established to help navigate the now legal alcohol industry. The board drafted a series of strict rules that were intended to ensure that Washington avoided "the evils connected with the liquor traffic." Keeping a careful eye on alcohol content, one of the first rules imposed by the board mandated that beer and wine could be no higher than 3.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). That amount would later be inched up to 4 percent, where it would stay in place for the next several decades. 

In 1934, local brewery owner Emil G. Sick (1894-1964) purchased the former Seattle Brewing & Malting Company building, and a year later he acquired the rights to the Rainier beer brand. This allowed him to return production of the iconic beer back to its original Seattle location, and within a few years he had expanded the beer into a regional favorite that helped to galvanize early Pacific Northwest brewing. Over the next few decades, until his death in 1964, Sick helped to pioneer quirky and creative ways to champion this local beer. This included a series of unique and decorative beer cans, known as the Rainier Jubilee Series, that were sold through the 1960s. In the early 1970s, the Rainier brewery hired a Seattle advertising firm, Heckler-Bowker, to create a series of clever and off-the-wall TV commercials. The firm was composed of Gordon Bowker and Terry Heckler, who would each later play a key role in establishing Seattle's first craft brewery. The memorable commercials they created were an instant hit. They helped propel Rainier to become the best-selling beer in Washington, as well as influencing future Washington brewers to be creative and unorthodox in their approach to making beer.  

The Trailblazers of Washington Craft Beer

While Rainier beer was captivating local audiences with their quirky TV commercials, Charles Finkel (b. 1943) was hired by Chateau Ste. Michelle -- a winery in Woodinville -- to help run their marketing department. Finkel started his position at the winery in 1976, and in a short order had used his skills to help Chateau Ste. Michelle gain national prominence. In 1978 Finkel quit his position and founded Merchant du Vin, a wine import store in Seattle. During one of his many wine-purchasing trips abroad, Finkel discovered European beer and quickly developed an appreciation for all the different and unique styles.

This was during a time when bland, commercial lagers dominated the American beer market, and Finkel recognized an opportunity to change that. He decided to use his marketing skills to introduce traditional English, Belgian, and German styles of beer to the Seattle market to cultivate local tastes. Merchant du Vin soon added imported beer to its inventory, and these European varieties of ales, stouts, and hefeweizens quickly became immensely popular throughout the local area. For this, Finkel is widely credited with helping the region develop a more sophisticated beer palette and paving the way for a robust movement that would soon be sweeping across the state. 

Meanwhile, at the national level, legislation was being passed which would help ignite a new beer revolution. At the time, post-Prohibition laws continued to make homebrewing illegal, though underground clubs were springing up around the country as hobbyists tried their hands at making different styles of beer. Thanks to Charles Finkel's influence, Washington boasted a particularly active network of home-brewing enthusiasts, even though such activity was operating outside the law. That all changed on October 14, 1978, when President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) signed bill H.R. 1337 into law. The bill included Amendment Number 3534, which authorized the home production of wine and beer. This new bill took effect on February 1, 1979, and mobilized an entire new legion of legal home brewers. In turn, the WSLCB was encouraged to loosen up some of its regulations, and in June of 1982, beer with an ABV of up to 8 percent was finally allowed to be manufactured and sold statewide.  

The Godfather

In July 1982 -- a month after the Washington finally relaxed its beer laws -- Scottish beer connoisseur  Bert Grant (1928-2001) opened the Yakima Brewing and Malting Company (also known as Grant's Pub), which had the distinction of being the first American brewpub to open since Prohibition. This brewery and pub combination would serve as a template for other microbreweries that would soon be opening throughout the state.

Grant was known for his colorful persona, and he would often greet guests in a traditional Scottish kilt and tartan. Further flaunting his Scottish roots, his brewery's first offering was Grant's Scottish Ale. The following year, in 1983, Grant launched the state's first India Pale Ale (IPA). The unique ale, known for its hoppiness, was first brewed in England to withstand long sea voyages to India, though Grant's version took advantage of locally grown hops -- specifically Cascade and Chinook hops -- to produce a beer that was low in malt content to put the focus on its hoppy flavor profile. It gradually gained popularity up and down the West Coast and became one of the most influential beers for the state's craft breweries. Grant's high standards of quality of his product, his inventive line of beers (particularly those beers that embraced the region's bitter hops), and his establishment of the state's first microbrewery all cemented his role as the godfather of Washington craft beer.   

In the West  

West of the Cascades, another brewing revolution began when Gordon Bowker set out with a goal of "brewing Seattle a better beer." Bowker was no novice when it came to local beer, having been one of the masterminds behind Rainier's famous series of television commercials back in the 1970s. His goal was to revolutionize the brewing industry, something he later would do with coffee as a co-founder of Starbucks coffee.

Joining Bowker in the beer endeavor was advertising ace, Paul Shipman (b. 1953) who, like Charles Finkel before him, had managed the marketing department of the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery. After some initial market research, Bowker and Shipman established their headquarters in Seattle, which had the highest per capita draft-beer consumption in the entire country. The next task was coming up with a name for their product. For this, Bowker enlisted the help of his former business partner, Terry Heckler, who possessed a knack for developing catchy business names (over time, he would be responsible for coining such familiar brands as Panera and Cinnabon), and was also a skilled design artist. He had helped Bowker come up with the Starbucks name, and was also responsible for designing the first iteration of the coffee chain's famous mermaid logo. (In 1987 Howard Schultz asked that the logo be significantly modified, and the new design was created by Doug Fast, a longtime designer with the Heckler firm). Together, Bowker and Heckler came up with the name Redhook, and the company was officially incorporated in May of 1981.

Bowker and Shipman set up shop inside a former transmission shop in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, transforming the space into a 5,000-square-foot brewery. Their first beer was named Redhook Ale, and had its official debut on August 11, 1982. The initial reception to Redhook Ale was less than favorable -- many people disliked its fruity pungency, earning it the nickname "banana beer." The taste problem was eventually traced back to an infected yeast strain, and the brewery quickly changed gears, using a new strain of yeast to develop a cleaner-tasting series of ales. As a result, Redhook Ale was replaced with Extra Special Bitter (or simply, ESB), which became one of the brewery's most popular offerings. Other inventive beers were also introduced to much fanfare, including Ballard Bitter (whose motto was "Ya sure ya betcha"), Blackhook Porter, and Long Hammer IPA. Before long, Redhook's line of beers became immensely popular in bars and taverns across the state, thus cementing Seattle's role in the craft-beer revolution. 

Other breweries soon began opening across the state, including Hale's Ale Brewery, which opened in Colville in 1983; Thomas Kemper Brewing, which launched its operations from Bainbridge Island in 1984; and Hart Brewing (later Pyramid Brewing) which opened in Kalama in 1984. In 1989, Charles Finkel threw his hat into the ring, opening the Pike Place Brewery (later known as Pike Brewing Company).

From the Taproom to the Boardroom

By the late 1980's the market had exploded in popularity, and many of Washington's top craft breweries, grappling with commercial success, were forced to make important business decisions and shifting the industry in a more corporate direction. The beginning of this process was in 1989, when the original owners of Hart Brewing sold their growing operation to a small group of Seattle investors. Three years later, Hart Brewing merged with Thomas Kemper Brewing, and two years after that, in 1995, Hart went public, selling over two million shares of stock. The company soon expanded its operations and moved to Seattle, where their Pyramid Hefeweizen -- an unfiltered wheat beer -- became a best-seller throughout the region. The company would eventually change its name to Pyramid Breweries, Inc.  

Meanwhile, Redhook's success was forcing them also to navigate new terrain. They had outgrown their original brewery, so the entire operation was moved to a much larger space at the historic Fremont Trolley Barn, where they opened the Trolleyman Pub in 1988. Continued growth would prompt a relocation to an even larger site in Woodinville. Looking to expand their distribution, Shipman sold a 25- percent share of the company to Anheuser-Busch, both to gain access to a large distribution network and for capital for a second brewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Redhook's line of beers were soon being sold in all 50 states, though the move elicited a strong backlash. Throughout the state, the craft-beer community was growing weary watching cherished local microbreweries growing cozy with mass-produced, corporate-owned beer. After Redhook's decision to partner with Anheuser-Busch, critics began to refer to it as "Budhook."

But such deals reflected a national trend; many of the nation's top commercial breweries had taken notice of their new market competition and were thinking of ways to incorporate these new craft beers into their lineups. By the mid-1990s, major domestic breweries had formed business alliances with various craft breweries to capture some of this new market share. In response, the National Brewers Association implemented a rule under which membership and the designation of being a "craft brewery" was not granted to any brewery that didn't retain at least a 75 percent ownership of its business. This led to several local breweries losing their craft-beer status due to financial partnerships with larger, commercial breweries.

Growth and Greater Consolidation

Into the 2000s, the local craft-beer industry continued to grow. In 2008, Pyramid was purchased by Independent Brewers United, which was then later acquired by an even larger firm. That same year, Oregon's Widmer Brothers Brewery merged with Redhook to form Craft Beer Alliance. In addition to making beer, Craft Brew Alliance was in the business of acquiring other breweries, including Hawaii's Kona Brewing Company, which it purchased in 2010. That same year, Anheuser-Busch purchased a third of the business, and by 2012, Craft Brew was one of the largest brewing companies in the U.S., and the company's stock was traded on the NASDAQ exchange. By 2019, Anheuser-Busch owned 100 percent of the company. Another of Seattle's larger brewers, Elysian Brewing Company (founded in 1995) was purchased outright by Anheuser-Busch in 2015. Just as Rainier and Olympia -- cherished brands that were once produced by locally owned breweries -- eventually succumbed to corporate acquisitions, so too have many Washington craft breweries. 

Despite the corporate takeover of some of the state's larger craft breweries, the industry has continued to flourish, partly thanks to legislation passed at the state level. In 2009, Washington State Senator, Ken Jacobson (b. 1945) sponsored Senate Bill 5060, which allowed home brewers to take as many as 20 gallons of beer off their property for private non-commercial use. Previously, the limit was set at one gallon. Under this new law, aspiring brewers could now bring large batches of their homebrew to neighborhood barbecues, beer festivals, and tasting competitions, giving their products more public exposure and introducing new styles of beer to a continually growing movement. A decade later, on March 31, 2020, Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951) signed House Bill 2412 into law, which increased the number of retail locations that a brewery could have from two to four. This allowed breweries to offer more off-site taprooms, thus increasing their opportunity to expand their operations and sell their product directly to customers.

No End in Sight

The craft-beer scene in Washington is one that continues to evolve. According to current estimates, there are now over 400 craft breweries operating throughout the state. Improvements in brewing technology as well as new trends in the beer world continue to shape the industry, though the regional market will always be largely defined by the pioneers who helped create it. 

Going back to the state's first hop farms, Yakima continues to produce more hops than any other agricultural area in the world, supplying 75 percent of the nation's total harvest. As a result, the region serves as a location for many of the state's breweries that rely on all the different varieties of hops available there. Most of these varieties were developed over the past 30 years to satiate the craft-beer industry's voracious appetite for new and more flavorful hops. The Carpenter family still owns the farm that Charles Carpenter started over a hundred years ago, and it is still used to grow hops. In fact, it's one of several multigenerational family-run hop farms in the Yakima Valley. Ezra Meeker's original hop farm is now Pioneer Park in downtown Puyallup.

Of the original wave of craft-beer personalities, Charles Finkel continues to own and run the Pike Brewing Company (currently the oldest independent brewery in Seattle), and in 2006 Draft Magazine named him one of the top ten innovators who helped shape the American craft-beer renaissance. And while Redhook is still owned by Anheuser-Busch, they opened a new brewery and pub (aptly named Brewlab) in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood in 2017, with the company celebrating its 40th anniversary there in 2021. Neither Gordon Bowker nor Paul Shipman were affiliated with the company any longer.

Currently, the oldest independent brewery in Washington state is Hale's Ales, which opened in 1983. The founder, Mike Hale, was one of the few craft-beer patriarchs to avoid entangling his business with larger, commercial interests, and he continues to serve as the company's CEO. The brewery moved its headquarters to Spokane in 1992, and Hale later opened a second brewery which currently operates in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Mac & Jack's Brewing Company, which was founded in 1993, was also able to retain its independent status, and continues to brew in the converted transmission shop where it started.

The man who started the state's first craft brewery, Bert Grant, died at the age of 73 on July 31, 2001. Soon after, an Atlanta-based company acquired Grant's brewery and pub, but without Grant there to provide direction, Yakima Brewing struggled financially and went out of business in 2005. Nonetheless, Grant will always be remembered for his important contributions: He created the original prototype for the modern brewpub and he is widely credited with popularizing IPAs by establishing a strong connection to the region's hops. It was Grant's efforts, along with the other craft-brewing pioneers, that put Washington on the craft-brewing map and have influenced the generations of brewers who followed.


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