The Mother of Microbrews

Photos by Rodrigo DeMedeiros

When you hear the term “bitter” it typically evokes a sour reaction or puckered face. But when the words “extra” and “special” are added at the beginning, it makes those who enjoy a well-crafted beer salivate. Redhook Brewery, with its flagship label ESB along with a variety of high-quality local microbrews, has become synonymous with premium craft beer not only in the Northwest but across the country. This year, Redhook celebrates its 30th birthday with a year-round effort to toast the brand that has grown from a two-man Northwest operation to one of the most noteworthy breweries in the nation.

Redhook was started in 1981 by Seattleites Gordon Bowker and Paul Shipman. Bowker was familiar with the commencement of innovative ventures, as he was one of the co-founders of Starbucks, and Shipman was a veteran in the wine business. They collaborated to address what they identified as a need for a brew that distinguished itself from the flood of ubiquitous domestic lagers. Such a move required moxie, as the beer industry was in decline at the time and breweries were shutting down left and right. It proved to be a worthwhile gamble as they created a fresh, local product that quickly became a trailblazing name in the beer industry. They have since retired, but the Redhook brand continues on.

Rocky Beginnings

The early days of Redhook posed challenges, since there was essentially no craft brewing industry at the time. Bowker and Shipman engaged in a slew of experimentation and trial and error. Most of the equipment they originally utilized didn’t exist before they borrowed machinery from the dairy and wine industry and retrofitted it to fit their need to create small batches of beer.

“Unlike today, where so many people have done it (and) you can talk to other brewers and ask questions (and) solve problems — that didn’t exist at the time,” explained Redhook brand manager Robert Rensch.

The first batches of Redhook’s original ale seized customer attention swiftly, as it earned the nickname “the banana beer” due to the lingering flavor of bananas which came from the yeast used in the brewing process. They weren’t looking to create a fruity novelty beer. Soon they got better, and word got out.

To read the full story see 425’s July/August issue.

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