photo from Michael Rietmulder for seattlemag.com
What a long strange trip it’s been: from tiny pioneering Seattle “microbrewery” in 1981, to larger Seattle production brewery and taproom, to regional brewery in Woodinville in 1995 (and a second regional brewery in Portsmouth, NH in 1996) to, well, a small Seattle-based brewery and pub again in 2017. Redhook’s three and a half decades in craft brewing could make a significant chapter in a brewing business textbook. The first Redhook Ale that came out in 1982 was thick, bready, fruity with banana esters, and wildly different from the mainstream light lagers and import beers common in Seattle and the rest of the country at the time. When Redhook made its debut, it was one of only two “microbreweries” in Washington state; the other one, Yakima Brewing and Malting, brewed the Grant’s line of ales, and managed to stay in business for more than twenty years before shutting down in 2004.
Redhook, though, was a survivor, or so it seemed. The major expansion that built the big Woodinville plant in 1995 was funded by a stock offering, and the nation’s largest brewing concern, Anheuser-Busch, had already invested in a 25% stake of Redhook, adding Redhook’s beers to its distribution network. Then came the First Great Craft Beer Flattening, when craft beer’s seemingly unstoppable growth curve went dead flat. Redhook’s access to a strong distribution network helped, but change was in the air. In 2008, Redhook and Portland’s Widmer (in which Anheuser-Busch had also invested) merged to form the Craft Brewers Alliance (now Craft Brew Alliance, or CBA), with Anheuser-Busch continuing to own a substantial portion of the new combined entity’s shares. Widmer’s bigger, newer, more efficient brewery took over an increasing proportion of production. By 2017, Redhook’s once-mighty Woodinville facility was running at 30% of capacity. The Redhook brand was a shadow vestige of its former self. A deal with Pabst had Redhook-Woodinville brew a new beer, Rainier Mountain Ale, in hopes that it would gain market traction and make the brewery an attractive acquisition target. It didn’t, and in June 2017, the Woodinville production brewery was shuttered. Simply put, if you went into a beer shop, a supermarket, a convenience store and buy a bottled or canned Redhook beer, chances are better than good that the beer was already being produced in Portland at Widmer. The problem was, Redhook had become less and less of a significant brand in an evolving craft-beer market.
It was in the midst of this turmoil came the announcement, as long ago as fall 2015, that Redhook would be, in a way, returning to its roots. A new core-urban-ara brewpub would open on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, just uphill on Pike Street from downtown. It would be unfettered from the usual constraints of production volumes, and brewer Nick Kanarr would be given free rein to brew a broader range of styles. And so it has come to pass: after a week of previews, CBA’s Redhook Brewlab opened its doors to the public on August 17, 2017. Make no mistake about it, though, this is not the Redhook from 35 years ago, or even 10 years ago. This is a reboot and a rebrand. Redhook Brewlab is being repositioned as an urban craft brewpub, and the emphasis is less on the “Redhook” and much more on the “Brewlab.”
In the brewery…
This brewery, though, is a little different from your typical startup craft enterprise. The most obvious difference (and not pictured) is the odd-looking contraption in the compact, efficient brewhouse: a mash press. Instead of the typical lauter tun used in many breweries, the mash press or mash filter adds efficiency to the brewing process; for a given amount of malt and water, the resulting wort yield can be significantly greater. For greater detail on brewing with a mash press, the Brewing with Briess blog has published a good article entitled “The rise of the mash filter.” A brewery so equipped is a highly efficient brewery, but there’s a good reason you don’t see mash presses everywhere: they’re expensive. The typical startup brewer usually doesn’t have that kind of cash on hand. CBA may not be the growth enterprise it once was, but there was enough cash to put in a very well-equipped small brewery, and innovation brewer Nick Crandall has been putting in plenty of working hours to fill the tanks.
Lots of collaborations on tap
Samples for tasting…
For its preview and opening, Redhook Brewlab offered an impressive selection of collaboration beers, made with brewers from across Washington and Oregon. Washington collab brewers included Poulsbo’s Sound Brewing (Wheat Tripel), Kirkland’s Chainline Brewing (Tandem Storyline lager), Bellingham’s Wander Brewing (Numbers Before Names Belgian IPA), Longview’s Ashtown Brewing, Washougal’s 54-40 Brewing (Quinn-Cidental dry-hopped pale ale), Bremerton’s Silver City Brewery (Coastal Distortion Imperial California Common), and Seattle’s Georgetown Brewing (Marzano IPA), Elysian Brewing (Step Bretta Brett IPA), and Naked City Brewing (Hot Legs Scottish ale). Oregon collaborators included Portland’s Wayfinder Brewing (Classic Special Premium lager) and ice-cream maker Salt & Straw (Grapefruit Sherbet IPA). Redhook’s own Washington Native IPA was on as well, and will be a regular draft offering. The Brewlab beer menu will be regularly updated, and it looks like brewer Crandall will be working to keep the beer selection fresh and interesting. In the current craft beer world, doing anything else just won’t succeed, so wish Crandall well in brewing a solid range of beers in a highly competitive market.
Front bar taps
Back bar taps
Inside, the place looks great. If you’ve been to any of the Weimann and Maclise restaurants in Seattle, like Ballard’s Stoneburner, you’ll see some familiar design elements, including the big hoop-style “carousel” chandeliers over the front bar. Weimann and Maclise consulted on the interior, designed and developed by Graham Baba Architects with Arup Engineering. As with the well-equipped brewery, there was substantial Craft Brew Alliance backing for the Brewlab public space, with its two bars, open and roomy feel, and wood-fired oven in the kitchen. CapitolHillSeattle.com published a great preview photo of the front bar and chandeliers.
Pizza and more from a wood-fired oven
The kitchen, helmed by executive chef Richard Adair, features a food menu centered on its wood-fired oven, with artisanal pizzas, roasted brussel sprouts, and more, as well as a tasty selection of bar snacks. It’s also in a densely populated urban area, and the Brewlab is the ground-floor anchor of a 250-unit residential development.
The one aspect that isn’t easy to ignore is, perhaps, the branding emphasis. Scroll back up to the picture of the entry door at the top of this review. Note the relative sizes of the words “Redhook” and “Brewlab” in the logo. CBA still keeps the Redhook brand active, but here, the emphasis is on the new. If you want a touch of the older Redhook, Redhook’s Woodinville pub is still operating, and features a range of CBA brands on tap, including Widmer and Kona. But in a world where legacy craft brewers have to run as hard as they can just to catch up, Brewlab may give a hint as to CBA’s future direction. Those of us who pay attention to goings-on in the brewing world will be keeping tabs.
714 E. Pike Street
Seattle, Washington 98122