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The class of ’88

February 1998

If you haven’t been paying attention, it may seem like brewpubs are an overnight success. One day you discovered them, and the next day there were more than 1,000. But while about half of them have opened in the last two years, an illustrious group of brewpubs will be celebrating their 10th anniversaries in 1998.

Any brewpub that opened in the 1980s and survived until today has influenced many of those that followed, but the Class of ’88 is exceptional. “It was an amazing year,” said John Hall of Goose Island Brewing Co. “The ones that survived are very good ones — of course, there are a lot that didn’t survive.”

The craft beer landscape was much different then; in fact, brewpubs were illegal in 23 states. Just 16 pubs were up and running at the beginning of 1987, when most members of the Class of ’88 were making serious plans to open. Today, there are chains with more pubs than that. According to Institute for Brewing Studies figures, 44 brewpubs began operation in 1988.

Brewpubs no longer served only trendy Californians and regionally retentive Northwesterners. Sure, things were booming on the West Coast. In Oregon, the McMenamin brothers started three more brewpubs in 1988, Deschutes Brewery & Public House opened in Bend, and the Rogue Ales legacy began in Ashland. In California, North Coast Brewing Co., Gordon Biersch and Anderson Valley Brewing Co. made an immediate impact. In Washington, Redhook Brewery added its Trolleyman Pub.

But Colorado also got its first brewpub — Wynkoop Brewing Co. — and Bill “McGuire” Martin added a brewhouse to his popular Irish restaurant in Pensacola, Fla. The Northeast saw the opening of Vermont Pub & Brewery and Gritty McDuff’s Brewing Co., the Midwest, Goose Island and Great Lakes Brewing Co., the Southwest, Bandersnatch Brewpub, home of the “Beer in the Face” club.

These joints set a standard for brewpubs as both restaurants and breweries. Future brewpub owners visited these places, then tried to emulate them. Brewpubs accounted for about 10 percent of craft beer sales in 1988 and, while those sales grew 20-fold by 1997, brewpubs continued to produce only 10 percent of craft beer. But those numbers don’t begin to measure the impact of brewpubs. They helped make the craft beer industry a grassroots movement.

“People forget you had to explain beer styles 50 times a night,” said Wynkoop co-founder John Hickenlooper. “It was like being the first one on the Santa Fe Trail … a lot of boulders to move.”

Greg Noonan found things much the same when Vermont Pub & Brewery opened in Burlington. “That first year, it was a real sell,” he said. “There was no built-in awareness of what a brewpub was. (Consumers) would look at you and think ‘You are a brewery, you must make Budweiser.’ There was no style awareness.”

Nearby Catamount Brewing Co. was producing Catamount Amber and Catamount Golden at the time, so when Noonan put a best bitter on tap for the first time, customers asked if the beer was “an amber or a golden. The styles were amber, golden, porter and stout.”

In Chicago the styles were lager and lager, so 70 to 80 percent of Goose Island’s production was lager beers during the first years. “But we always tried to educate people on ales,” Hall said. “How do you differentiate yourself with a pilsener?”

Goose Island gradually shifted toward ales, and today brews about three dozen different beers during the course of the year. Brewer Greg Hall has seldom been accused of making timid beers. “One thing that set us apart in Chicago — we didn’t care that a lot of people didn’t like our beer, we cared about the people who did like our beer,” John Hall said. “We spent a lot of time educating people. That’s the secret. You’re not going to outdo Anheuser-Busch, so you want to do something a little bit different.”

While they certainly don’t match A-B’s market presence, many members of the Class of ’88 boosted their profile because they became distributing breweries. What could be easier? Grab a spot on the cutting edge before everybody else does and cruise on over to Easy Street.

“People look at us now and don’t realize we weren’t always successful,” said Deschutes owner Gary Fish. “I certainly do, and I hope I never forget. We had a time we couldn’t make a batch of good beer (because of infections). We dumped 10 straight batches.”

Fish was a restaurateur who expected nothing more than to run a brewery-restaurant in downtown Bend, a town of 20,000 in central Oregon. From the beginning, more than half the pub’s sales were food. Everything is made fresh on the premises, and daily specials are posted for both lunch and dinner.

“I talked to people who said, ‘We don’t want the food to compete with the beers,’ ” Fish said “Why serve food if you aren’t going to serve the best food? Of course, why serve beer if you aren’t going to serve the best beer?”

Brewer John Harris, now at Full Sail Brewing Co., took good care of the beer part. Tavern owners from Portland, who had vacationed in Bend, told a distributor they wanted to put Deschutes beers on tap. “We said, ‘Great, where do we get kegs?’ ” Fish said. Soon the brewery was busting out the back of the building. “There were semis in the middle of the street. We had to do something,” Fish said.

Deschutes built a separate brewery, also in Bend, then expanded and expanded again. Today, a plan is in place that will allow the brewery to sell up to 120,000 barrels of beer a year in eight Western states.

One thing many surviving members of the Class of ’88 share is a belief in slow growth. Hall was interested in distributing Goose Island beer from the beginning, but he didn’t think the Chicago market was ready for microbrewery beer in the late 1980s. After consulting with Karl Strauss and visiting breweries and brewpubs on both coasts, Hall decided “that in Chicago, the way to go was with a brewpub.”

Two years ago, the Goose Island Beer Co. opened a few miles from the pub. The brewery has the capacity to produce 120,000 barrels per year. “It’s been a real good 10 years,” Hall said. “We in the Midwest bemoan the fact that we lagged behind everybody, but the nice thing is, we got to learn from other’s mistakes.”

Ken Allen, who actually opened the doors to the Buckhorn Saloon and Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville, CA, on Dec. 26, 1987, initially considered being a wine negotiant, someone who blends wines and puts his own label on them. “But there were goofy things going on in the wine business, and I couldn’t afford to just play in it,” he recalled. “I had been going to Mendocino (Brewing Co.) for years, and I proceeded to go to visit every brewery I could.”

Allen entered the business with the idea that Anderson Valley would be a microbrewery with a taproom and that off-premise sales would have priority. He learned as he went along, receiving assistance from Dr. Michael Lewis and homebrew guru Byron Burch, among others.

“I thought we’d sell a little beer around Mendocino and Sonoma counties, and that would cover everything for us,” Allen said. Sales were eight to 10 times what he expected the first year, and the brewery has averaged about 20 percent growth over the decade. To keep up with demand, Anderson Valley has expanded gradually, with profits going into expansions. “I really didn’t want to progress from 10 barrels to 100 barrels right away,” Allen said. “We watched our friends take off and thought they knew what they were doing, but it turned out they didn’t.”

Today, Anderson Valley has a 30-barrel brewhouse on 30 acres of land, and waiting in the wings are an 85-barrel lauter tun and 100-barrel kettle from Germany. The brewery recently began bottling in 12-ounce bottles.

Allen likes to describe the brewery as one of the most international in the world, with equipment from the Dominican Republic, the former East Germany, Italy and Canada. Much of the other equipment the brewery has used over the years was designed by the people who use it. “We make everything,” Allen said.

Greg and Nancy Noonan needed that same sort of adaptability to coax Vermont Pub & Brewery to life. They spent three years lobbying the Vermont Legislature to legalize brewpubs. In the meantime, they worked at lining up investors for their brewpub. Just months before the new brewpub law took effect, the stock market crashed and the investors went scurrying.

“I was so deep into it, I wasn’t going to quit then,” Greg Noonan said. Bankers had no idea what a brewpub was and weren’t about to loan him money, so he turned to friends and relatives for backing and strapped together a brewery. “It’s mostly found items,” Noonan said. Parts of the brewery used to be a maple sap boiler, an ice cream maker and a pig-lot feeder.

Vermont Pub & Brewery didn’t go the distribution route. When the Noonans wanted to branch out, they opened another brewpub across the border in West Lebanon, NH. Travelers along Interstate 89 can see Seven Barrel Brewery’s brewing kettles and fermenting tanks glistening as they zip by. In Burlington, the brewery is tucked discreetly out of sight. “It’s not the prettiest brewery,” Noonan said.

Hickenlooper also got involved with a brewpub down the road, then another and another, some of them way down the road. No brewpub’s influence is broader than that of Wynkoop Brewing Co. There’s a reason why, when you look at the menu at pubs such as Crane River Brewpub & Cafe in Lincoln, Neb., or Blue Cat Brewpub in Rock Island, Ill., things look familiar. Before Wynkoop was a year old, Hickenlooper was helping to develop more brewpubs, many of which borrowed menu items, such as Parmesan Cheese-Artichoke Dip, from the Wynkoop menu.

“Nobody has done better (than Wynkoop). You had this geologist coming out of the mountains and this crazy homebrewer, and it seemed like they were a success from the start.”

More recently, Wynkoop Brewing Co. began forming partnerships with local investors to open brewpubs in historic buildings across the country. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently presented the business with a 1997 Preservation Honor Award for “inner city development in historic buildings.”

The company’s stated goal is to be operating approximately 34 brewpubs and 11 small satellite pubs by 2000. Hickenlooper likes to call this the “unlinked chain.” These clearly are not cookie-cutter pubs, although they share many traits and menu items — plus the fact that Hickenlooper has done sink duty there. “I’ve probably washed dishes in more brewpubs than anybody else in the country,” he said. “Lincoln, Omaha, Rapid City, I’ve been there.”

“My favorite task is busing tables,” he said. On a busy night at Wynkoop, he still will. “You get to talk to the customers and see what they really think. They have no idea who you are.”

Speaking of Hickenlooper, Noonan said, “Nobody has done better. You had this geologist coming out of the mountains and this crazy homebrewer, and it seemed like they were a success from the start.”

The history of Wynkoop is well known. Hickenlooper was laid off from his job as a geologist in 1986 and shortly thereafter visited Falling Rock (soon to be called Triple Rock) Ale House in Berkeley, CA. There was a line out the door on a Wednesday night, and Hickenlooper — who began homebrewing in 1971 — was taken by the concept of serving fresh beer brewed on the premises.

He borrowed a book on writing a business plan from the library, hooked up with the late Russell Schehrer (the 1985 American Homebrewers Association Homebrewer of the Year) and, a mere two years later, Wynkoop was open. “Thank God for the huge severance,” Hickenlooper said. The business plan called for sales of $1.6 million per year after five years. Instead, Wynkoop did $4 million business in its fifth year.

Things weren’t quite as rosy as they looked from afar. “We had no financial controls,” Hickenlooper said. The pub had been open a little over six months when an accountant surveyed the books. “We were $45,000 in the hole,” Hickenlooper said, and there was no money in the bank. “I’d lay awake at night … we went back to working 60 to 70 hours a week.”

Today, most brewpub business plans include “exit strategies,” an optimistic section about how to sell the business at a profit. Yet almost every pub that began brewing in 1988 is still run by one or more of the original owners, and they are working owners.

Just before Allen sat down to talk about a decade of business at Anderson Valley, he was on a tractor, turning over dirt for a daffodil garden at the brewery. A week later, Noonan noted, “I haven’t bused tables in at least two weeks.”

In early September, John Hall surveyed the surroundings at the Goose Island neighborhood festival. Few of the nearby buildings had been there three years before, when the brewpub looked like it was in the middle of a war zone and residents of Chicago wondered if it was still in business. Now, there were new buildings all around, and the distributing brewery was about to celebrate two very successful years of business.

“We’ve been a part of this festival for a long time, but this year they asked us if they could put our name on it,” Hall said. A few hours later, customers were packed in front of each of the beer stations. Hall stood at one of the jockey boxes, pouring pint after pint for nearly an hour. “It’s a hands-on business,” he said, recently. “You have to do what you have to do. But if I spent all my time pouring beer we wouldn’t have a company, probably.”

Member after member of the Class of ’88 said they consider working the fun part. “In a way it was easier then,” Fish said, in talking about goals. “I knew I needed to get to the end of the day. I needed to get money to the bank.”

Class of ’88 members put money in the bank because they were focused. “I wanted to brew beer, and I thought, ‘I’m going to do it,’ Noonan said. “You had a lot of people who had real passion for beer. The love of beer was probably higher in that (1980s) group. That community of brewers pre-1990 was pretty tight … There was a lot more back-and-forth then.”

He spoke often with Peter Egleston, who started Northampton Brewery in 1987 and later opened two more breweries. They discussed subjects that aren’t even an issue today. “Like, could you really brew an IPA and have somebody buy it, or could you put three beers on tap instead of two?” Noonan said, chuckling.

Added Allen, “At that time brewers were so willing to share. They really shared their problems.” Today, he said, “I still think we share a lot.”

One thing they clearly share is the love of beer. Hickenlooper’s office is a few blocks away from Wynkoop, and he lives in one of the lofts above the brewpub. He lists his address as “above table 11 at Wynkoop” (ZIP Code 80202). Every evening he walks through the brewpub to get to his front door and remembers why his chose this business. “People don’t realize how strong our (nation’s) relationship is with beer and how far it goes back,” he said.

“When the homebrewers stop entering the profession, and the backyard breweries are squeezed out, then it will become stagnant.”

Hickenlooper can be as corporate as they come — flying to Evansville, Ind., one day to deal with a structural problem at a proposed brewpub, rubbing elbows with the elite while receiving a national award in Santa Fe, N.M., a few days later, then heading off to Buffalo, N.Y., to get another brewpub off and running — but he’d rather talk about a customer’s desire to find a good beer than about profit margins.

“Brewpubs are the perfect place for this,” he said. “If someone doesn’t like the beer they have, you can put another in their hand.”

Nobody can predict what will be written about the beers the Class of ’98 will put in our hands. Sure, the business is more corporate than in 1988, Noonan said, but that doesn’t mean the brewers have to be.

“When the homebrewers stop entering the profession, and the backyard breweries are squeezed out, then it will become stagnant,” he said. “You gotta keep getting the guys who say, ‘Cool, I can sell the beer I make. I can do it.’ ”

If the Class of ’88 actually had a yearbook, you’d find that quote under the picture of more than one member.

This story originally appeared in All About Beer magazine in February 1998.

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