Pushing the Envelope West Coast Style

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 24, Issue 4
September 1, 2003 By

To those of us in the rest of the country, “ the West Coast” is a world apart. Despite the vast geographical spread from California to Alaska, despite a cultural spread that brought us both the Grateful Dead and Ronald Reagan, viewed from the outside, the West is one strange singularity. It is Hollywood glitz, Haight Ashbury, Microsoft, and the ANWAR; the acceptable face of hedonism and the last outpost of the renegade.

The restless people who kept moving west and further west had to stop here or step into the ocean: maybe all that restlessness got channeled into innovation?

Viewed from afar, West Coast-style brewing is a phenomenon: audacious, ground-breaking, and hop-heavy. There are communities “ out West” where craft beer outsells the Big Three, where it must be as daunting to open a new brewery as it is to open a new restaurant in New York.

The hard brewing facts support the sense that this is special territory: the four American states and one Canadian province that make up the West Coast of the United States and Canada contain over 30 million people, about 15% of the total. However, they are home to over 440 breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs: about 25% of the total.

The western states and British Columbia gave their countries their first brewpubs and they take home a disproportionate share of national brewing awards. In short, things are happening there.

For 15 years, Celebrator Beer News has been the voice of West Coast beer. We asked Tom Dalldorf, Celebrator’s publisher, to help us make sense of it all.

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A Stanford University graduate student in Japanese studies had only lunch and a cold beer on his mind that fateful afternoon in July 1965. But when Fritz Maytag ordered his usual Steam Beer, the server suggested that he savor it because the brewery was to be closed.

Fritz, the scion of the Maytag washing machine family, was by his nature positively Jeffersonian in his eclectic pursuit of quality and substance in everything he found worthy. He saw in that quirky beer brewed under primitive conditions something that was distinctly San Francisco and he had to learn more. Thus began an almost single-minded dedication to reviving lost traditions of brewing that is the hallmark of the Anchor Brewing Co.

Fritz dropped by the brewery and discovered that it was indeed to be closed after so many years, having survived even the devastating consequences of Prohibition. He wondered what he could do to help out. With a small investment and a lot of hard work, Fritz became the proud owner of a historic brewing property with rather poor prospects. Even with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Fearless Spectator Charles McCabe singing its praises, Anchor’s Steam Beer was a bastard child of the beer business and an unruly one at that. Fritz set to work cleaning up the brewery and stabilizing the beer.

Eventually, Maytag discovered the adage to be true in beer as it is in wine: the way to make a small fortune is to start with a really big one. This expensive avocation could not continue for long. A new location and some more modern equipment and quality control improved his product to the point where Maytag could actually sleep at night without worrying about the beer going bad.

Anchor produced fewer than 800 barrels of Steam the first year, but demand increased after the quality issues were addressed. Maytag’s research and travels to England and Europe convinced him that other styles might be equally attractive to a country notably devoid of beers of color or flavor. He introduced Liberty Ale in April 1975 to commemorate the midnight ride of Paul Revere, and the beer became so popular that he had to make it a year-round brand. Old Foghorn, a traditional English-style barley wine, was introduced that same year—another first. This was Anchor’s most extreme beer yet. Given its high alcohol and robust flavor profile, it must have been quite a radical move in a beer market awash in an ocean of light industrial adjunct lager.

The Pioneers

Maytag’s slow but steady success with full-flavored beers was not lost on other fans of brewing. A young merchant seaman by the name of Jack McAuliffe, who had tasted good beer on his many travels, opened a microbrewery in the wine country town of Sonoma just north of San Francisco in 1976. He called his brewery New Albion, a name Sir Francis Drake gave to California. McAuliffe produced ale, porter and stout and had definite ideas about what constituted good beer. He hired an early UC-Davis fermentation sciences grad by the name of Don Barkley to do the brewing, but quality issues plagued the brewery from the start. His beers were like the girl with the curl on her forehead: “When they were good they were very, very good,” etc.

I purchased some of the first releases of New Albion for my wine shop despite the high cost (the most expensive beer at the time) and the irritating $4 deposit I had to pay for the wooden box it came in. Little did I know that had I just bought the New Albion logo boxes, I could have been an eBay millionaire by now.

Other early efforts that set the stage for assertive brewing included DeBakker Brewery in Novato, CA; River City Brewery in Sacramento, makers of a great bock beer before there were such things; and Palo Alto Brewing Co., which brewed London Real Ale (definitely way ahead of its time) and produced the first Pete’s Wicked Ale.

And talk about homebrewers letting their hobby get out of control! Paul Camusi and Ken Grossman lived in opposite ends of California but met through their mutual love of bike racing and home brewing. A business plan and some money from friends and family got the fledgling Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico off the ground in 1980. A salvaged 10-bbl brewing system and the old bottling line from Anchor Brewery were the foundation of the brewery.

The company’s first beer, an uncompromising bottle-conditioned pale ale redolent of Cascade hops, put the young brewery on the map and the beer’s fame spread quickly. Sierra introduced Celebration Ale in 1981, a very hoppy and richly flavored seasonal, and a few years later challenged the beer world with Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale with heaps of hops and monster malt to match! These are the breweries that set the standard—and suggested the possibilities—for those that followed.

Enter the Brewpub

The early eighties also gave birth to a movement to change the laws regarding brewing (producing) and serving the product on premises (retail), a notion that was strictly forbidden by the alcohol laws of the time. Grass roots legislation made it possible for North American brewpubs to come into existence and begin making assertive and characterful beer. Horseshoe Bay Brewing north of Vancouver, BC, and Bert Grant’s Yakima Brewing & Malting Co. in Yakima, WA, were the first to produce and serve craft-brewed ales on draft in a restaurant setting.

The late Bert Grant was a larger-than-life Scotsman with an equally large opinion of his beers—mostly justified. His signature beer was a Scottish ale on draft that took the style to a much hoppier level. He brewed the way he drove—pedal to the metal—causing this reporter to question riding with him at all.

Grant had a sound background in commercial brewing and hop production, causing author Michael Jackson to observe, “He brought a combination of individualism and perfectionism and love of beer on the one hand, and technical brewing experience on the other.” Many brewers that followed had Grant’s passion for beer but few had his fundamental understanding of the process.

A short time later, Paul Shipman launched his Independent Ale Brewery (later Redhook) in Seattle. Paul tells the story of bringing some of his first beers to Bert to get his opinion. Bert tasted and replied, “Interesting.” Paul knew his first tries were somewhat flawed and said, “When Bert Grant tells you your beer is interesting, watch out!” Redhook improved greatly thereafter.

From British Columbia to Modesto, CA, the “good beer” movement was now in full swing. New places were opening at a feverish pace in the mid-eighties. Stanislaus Brewery (St. Stan’s) in Modesto was making “alt” beer before most people knew what it was, and—talk about simultaneous creativity—Widmer Brothers Brewery in Portland dedicated its initial “biers” to the German alt tradition at about the same time. Widmer’s hefeweizen, also a pretty wacky idea at the time, went on to become its flagship beer. In later years, Widmer partnered with the Portland Brew Crew to make commercial quantities of award-winning homebrew recipes with the Collaborator series.

BridgePort Brewing, Oregon’s longest-lived microbrewery, began life with the wine-growing Ponzi family and reached another level with ownership from Gambrinus producing authentic award-winning cask-conditioned English-style ales. BridgePort’s neighbor, Portland Brewing, grew out of its original location in the Pearl district (before it became “hip”) and evolved into the regional MacTarnahan’s, making assertive beers such as its IPA and Black Watch Porter.

Seattle’s Pyramid Brewery had a schizophrenic beginning with its lager half, Thomas Kemper, uncomfortably sandwiched in the mix. Try to imagine veteran brewer Rande Reed making world-class dobblebocks at a dairy farm brewery on an island west of Seattle and world-class ales at Pyramid in Seattle.

Juneau, AK, became the site of craft beer’s most difficult location when Alaskan Brewing opened. Its award-winning Smoked Porter has become legendary. Talk about “last frontier” innovation!

In the late eighties, Anderson Valley Brewing Co. opened in the unlikely village of Boonville, CA—a town with a style and a language all its own. Boont was to become celebrated outside the enclave—and eventually nationwide—due solely to the inventive efforts of the brewery. Slightly north is the town of Fort Bragg, home of North Coast Brewing Co. and its early efforts toward introducing odd beers to locals and beyond. PranQster and Old Rasputin are world-class contributions to American brewing.

Oregon’s Rogue and Deschutes breweries were founded on assertive beer—Rogue thought outside the hop box and Deschutes taught beer lovers to embrace the dark. As the fabulous beer decade of the ‘80s drew to a close, Marin Brewing Co., and later Moylan’s, offered great beer, including exotic fruit-flavored beers and high-powered wheat bocks that took beer in a new direction. In Seattle, Charles Finkel and his brewer, Fal Allen, were producing cutting-edge beer five barrels at a time at Pike’s Place Brewery (later Pike Brewing).

The Next Wave

The decade of the nineties put the good beer movement on the map—in the stores, on the news, and in the investment portfolios of people of means. With so much good beer being made and so much public awareness of new styles of beer, the potential seemed limitless.

Seattle’s Elysian (Dick Cantwell) and nearby Boundary Bay (Skip Madsen) breweries continue the quest to contribute to exotic beer and develop new styles. Don’t ask about the AK-47 malt liquor. Veteran brewer Teri Fahrendorf brought Steelhead in Eugene, OR, into the brewing limelight and provided a “post-grad” school for many great brewers. These include the late Glen Falconer, who established Wild Duck as a brewing force in the same town. Down the Oregon coast, Darron Welsch put the Pelican Pub & Brewery on center stage with multiple wins at major beer judgings, while Anchorage’s Midnight Sun Brewery lit up the long winter nights with exotic brews of its own.

Back in California, Russian River Brewing’s Vinnie Cilurzo went to school on Sierra Nevada’s brewer Steve Dressler and tried his hand at making “fresh hop” beer. His contribution was the “estate” hop yard grown at the Korbel winery that allowed him to literally pick and pitch the fresh hops into the boil. Bear Republic in Healdsburg, Lagunitas in Petaluma, and Speakeasy in San Francisco contributed mightily to the growing reputation for northern California wacky brewing with assertive, non-traditional beers that defy categorization.

Southern California had never made much of a splash in the mash tun of life until a young homebrewer from a wine-making family in Temecula opened Blind Pig Brewery in the early nineties. Vinnie Cilurzo’s earliest efforts gave beer lovers a hop infusion and thirst for exotic beer that continues today in the brewing at PizzaPort in Solana Beach and Carlsbad. Brewers Tomme Arthur and Jeff Bagby have produced outstanding brews to rave reviews. The Tres Hombres must also include Tom Nickels, brewer at Oggi’s and fledgling publican at O’Brians in San Diego. The region is also home to the Arrogant Bastard himself, Greg Koch and his ragtag band of beer assassins at Stone Brewing in San Marcos. “You’re not worthy!”

The Herculean task of assessing West Coast brewing in a few short paragraphs is naturally fraught with peril lest the best be omitted through oversight or the worthy innovator, like Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing who never seeks praise, be ignored. Surely a book-length chronology will some day be attempted to ensure that this aspect of beer history is preserved. Just not today.

As you seek out that next pint of highly hopped bliss or an exotic yeasty beasty brew, give a moment’s thought to the many who labored over a hot brew kettle in an attempt to make a beer that is truly inspired and distinctive in our fast-paced, cookie-cutter world.


Tom Dalldorf
Tom Dalldorf is a long-time beer enthusiast and wine educator. He opened the Vintage Cellar Wine Bar Café in 1979 and took over publication of Celebrator Beer News in 1990. He loves to play the blues because “you’re never too old to play the blues.”