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Friday, November 08, 2013

Hair of the Dog's Place in History

Alan Sprints (L) with Bill Night and John Foyston at FredFest
Nearly every year now there's an important anniversary.  Deschutes is concluding their 25th and BridgePort is gearing up for their 30th, with Widmer Brothers to follow.  These are all great opportunities to think about a brewery's past, and I enjoy seeing old photos of young and rakish mustachioed brewers standing around old warehouses full of salvaged dairy equipment.  This Saturday Alan Sprints will host a bash at his newish digs in the Fruit District to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hair of the Dog.  But in this case, we may think less about the brewery's own history than its place in history.  In many ways, Hair of the Dog was the first modern brewery, a 2013 brewery back in 1993 and an emanation of the future to come.

You have to shake yourself out of your 2013 mindset and go back to a different time.  Kurt Cobain had less than six months left to live; Bill Clinton was in the first year of his presidency and none of us knew the name Monica Lewinsky.  Frazier was just debuting on TV and Sleepless in Seattle was a big hit on the big screen (Seattle was having its Portlandia moment).  In the beer world, things were very different.  Although craft brewing already had 15 years under its belt, the beer landscape was still in its beta stage, one it would soon leave permanently behind.  In the mid-1990s, there were almost no IPAs on the market (even as late as 1997, only about 4% of the beers were IPAs).  If you pull out old guidebooks to the craft breweries of the day, the overwhelming majority had the same slate of English-derived styles--pale, amber/red, porter, stout--plus a few wheats and goldens for good measure.  (On the East Coast, a few breweries specialized in lagers, but these were the anomalies.) There wasn't a lot of diversity yet, and an extreme beer was a 7% winter warmer.

Alan Sprints and his then-partner Doug Henderson opened the doors to what was then an unprecedented business model based on obscure, strong styles of beer.  They began with Adam, inspired by a long-extinct style from Dortmund, Germany.  Whether or not it is much like the old adambiers (it's probably not--those were brett-soured--but it's closer than Alan is generally given credit for), it was, for 1994, almost inconceivable to most beer drinkers.  Barley wines existed then, so 10% beers were not unheard of, but this was unlike anything we'd encountered--smoky and dark, more tawny port than beer.  It was followed by Golden Rose, a Belgian strong ale in a time when no one knew anything about Belgium.  And these two were followed by Fred, of course, another titan and a direct precursor to the super hop imperial IPAs that people would only begin to make a decade later.

Source: Hair of the Dog
This unorthodox approach is now common now, even typical.  You can build a brewery on niche products.  In 1993-94, it was a whole lot harder.  There was a loyal (if small) cadre of homebrewers who loved what Alan was doing, but the market was focused on beers like Widmer Hefeweizen.  A weird, smoky strong ale was well outside people's expectations.  Distributors didn't understand it and didn't work hard to sell it to the retailers who also didn't understand it--and besides, you couldn't keep wheat and fruit beers on the shelves.  It didn't help that these were bottle-conditioned products offered to a town that at that time was all about draft beer.

It is often the fate of the pioneer to struggle to lay the trail for others to follow to greater success.  Other breweries have built empires, but they are in many ways following the mold Sprints and Henderson created two decades ago.  Almost immediately, Hair of the Dog started barrel-aging, acquiring a couple bourbon barrels in 1994.  Although I think it was always off the books, freeze-distilled Dave was a secret legend among friends of the brewery who would sometimes be offered a nip of the 20-something percent beer.  The most important landmark was Fred, which was a watershed beer in American brewing.  Released in 1997, it sounds like a typical 2013 beer: another 10% giant made with rye malts and ten varieties of hops.  Even though Hair of the Dog wasn't selling a lot of beer, it was getting quite a bit of press, and Fred was one of the most discussed beer at its release--not just in Oregon but nationwide. 

There is tons of debate on the point, but I think Hair of the Dog was the brewery that convinced America to go big.  Alan's beers were so unorthodox, so different from anything else happening in the US that they recalibrated expectations--particularly among other brewers.  In 1995, Malt Advocate (now Whisky Advocate) named Adam its beer of the year, precipitating all kinds of interest in the activities happening in that old warehouse by the train tracks in Southeast Portland.  National newspapers and magazines began writing about it, Michael Jackson became an advocate, and it achieved a status something akin to a Dupont or Cantillon (tiny, hard to find, but superlative) among beer geeks.  Alan has never sold a lot of beer, but his influence has been unmistakable.  He's like the Velvet Underground of the brewing world--only 30,000 people tasted his beer in those early years, but they all went on to found their own breweries.  (With apologies to Brian Eno.)

Beyond its place in history, Hair of the Dog rightly gets credit for making some of the world's best beers.  I know a lot of Fred devotees, but my favorite is Adam.  It's a pretty astounding fact that this is Alan's first release.  If I were forced to draw up a list of the world's 20 best beers, I'd quickly add Adam.  The last two autumns, when I traveled to Europe to do research for the book, I packed away bottles to pass out when I arrived.  I chose them for some combination of excellence and American particularity, and again, Adams were among the first to get the nod.  Doggie Claws and Blue Dot are not far out of that top 20.

If you live in Portland and haven't been to the brewery recently, go have a glass of beer.  If you live outside of Portland, make sure to put Hair of the Dog on your itinerary if you manage to come see us.  It's now two decades old, but it's one of the most contemporary breweries in the country.  

1 comment:

  1. Nice write-up. The beers are, of course, excellent. However, I think his most significant contribution is barrel aging. The idea of putting beer in a wood barrel to simmer was a lost art when Alan came on the scene. He resurrected the idea (along with old beer styles long considered dead). You don't see many places trying to emulate HOTD beers, but almost everyone has a barrel-aging program.

    A couple of years ago, I asked Alan (when he was pouring his "Little Dogs" at the Mighty Mites fest) how he felt about the fact that so many breweries were at that point immersed in barrel-aging. He smiled and said he felt imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Later, when interviewed for my book, he said, "It's nice to know my head was in the right place with barrel aging and I was ahead of the curve. Aging beers in wood is a challenge and can be good for your image."

    This guy is an icon here and around the world. Happy 20th!