Redhook Ale – Anything Can Happen If You Put Your Mind To It

Posted on July 13, 2010 by

The first article in the Brewery Highlight Series for Redhook Ales. Click the link for more articles.

Redhook Ale Brewery Highlight Series Anything Can Happen

August 11, 1982, the room was packed with local news, beer fans and even the governor of the state of Washington. Anticipation was high, the band was belting out tunes as the doors flew open to reveal a wheel barrow full of ice, ushering in a mysterious keg adorned with the Redhook Ale logo. The first Seattle brewed ale was served. But not without controversy.

In a classic tale of entrepreneurship, the unknown, the underdog or what have you, Gordon Bowker, mastermind behind Starbucks, and Paul Shipman, a young marketing guru, teamed up in the early 1980′s under one notion, creating fresh, flavorful craft beer, locally. The import beer market was steadily growing and Bowker and Shipman saw an opportunity. That was all they needed as plans began to create a new brand of craft beer. But not all things go without some hiccups. First things first, neither Shipman or Bowker had ever brewed a drop of beer in their life.

In a fashion that is definitely the theme of Redhook’s inception, Peter Krebs writes in his book, “Redhook Beer Pioneer,”

“The idea was that nobody would rationally make a decision to build a brewery,” Shipman recalled later, “so we were not pretending to be rational about it. The decision to pick a date was made with the acceptance that the decision would force a series of other decisions. You could always come up with a reason for opening later, But one day you had to actually open the doors.”

This statement by Shipman goes much further than just the release date. It stems all the way back to the beginning. For example, no rational person with absolutely no brewing experience would open a brewery, right? Well, to Shipman and Bowker that was just another decision that had to be made. So it was made by hiring the decorated brewmaster, Charles McEveley. McEveley would be the scientist in charge of making the beer, but first he needed a brew house. Yet another decision that had to be made.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

The search was on to find an affordable place with enough space to create a brew house. This led Paul Shipman to an old transmission shop in Ballard, WA. The place was small, unique and dirty, but with a little elbow grease that old transmission shop would do just fine for brewing beer. Redhook had its brewmaster and a place to brew, but no equipment to brew with. Just another decision to be made. So McEveley went on a search of his own for some brewing equipment. His search would take him all the way to Germany, where you procured a used brew house for about $12,000. The brew house was then shipped back to the U.S. and installed a mere one day behind McEveley’s brewing schedule.

All the pieces were in place. Brewmaster, brewhouse, marketing, but there was no beer even brewed yet. After obtaining a couple of yeast strains from a local university, brewing began and an ale brewed to be a traditional British Ale was created. But would it past the taste test?

Redhook’s Big Reveal

That night in Jake’s Tavern proved both successful and humbling for the young start up. The beer had an off flavor of bananas which would consistently leave glasses far from finished, kegs half full and many bar owners irate with disappointment. Ironically enough, the off flavors actually helped Redhook Ale carve a niche out of the beer market in Seattle and sustained them long enough to create Blackhook, a dark Porter that had a more appealing overall flavor, but still fell short of stardom.

Tension was high, a couple competitors were gaining, Miller came out with the “Taste Great Less Filling” campaign and the brewery was losing money, and fast. Something had to change or Redhook Ale was going to fall prey to the idea of the time, “Breweries don’t open, the only thing they do is close.”

In perfect timing, McEveley had concocted a new recipe that was unlike anything Redhook Ale had been doing. He created a crisp, clean, hoppy and refreshing Pale Ale, later coined “Ballard Bitter” by Bowker. This was the beer they were originally trying to create. It had a local appeal, using the “Ballard” name and was marketed seamlessly to the highly Scandinavian culture of Ballard using phrases like, Yea, sure, ya betcha and the like. This beer quickly became the most popular Redhook Ale beer and propelled Redhook into even more uncharted territories. Wading in these waters would put Redhook in line to create a social beer revolution that we call “The Craft Beer Movement,” but not without scrutiny and adversity, two things that keep rearing their ugly heads in the short history of Redhook.

Up Next

Next we will discuss how Redhook and their quickly growing Ballard Bitter broke the mold and created a huge surge in The Craft Beer Movement.

I used various resources when researching the history of Redhook, but I have to thank Peter Krebs and his book “Redhook Beer Pioneer” for having so much good information it. If you want to know more about Redhook, and there is a lot to tell, I highly recommend checking out this book.

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