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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Pyramid at Thirty

What does Seattle taste like?

The old Hart Brewing building in Kalama, WA.
Source: Brewers Association
Last week, Pyramid brewing had a media event to celebrate its 30th anniversary.  That's a big milestone, and by any definition, Pyramid is correctly described as a founding member of craft brewing.  The brewery launched a wheat beer in 1985 (not Hefeweizen, which came in '93, but a recognizable family member) and Snow Cap in '86.  Apricot Ale came in '94.  All those beers were born in Kalama, where the brewery was originally located.  By 1994, it had become a top-five craft brewery and a fixture in the Pacific Northwest.  The brewery still makes those three beers and is still brewed in the Pacific Northwest.  But Pyramid has gone a long way from Kalama.

In 1989, Beth Hartwell, Pyramid's founder (then Hart Brewing), sold the company to Seattle investors.  In 1992, Pyramid merged with Thomas Kemper, a lager brewery, and in 1995 went public.  It was one of the fastest-growing breweries of the 1990s, and added a Seattle brewery and then expanded to Berkeley.  Unfortunately, it was one of those semi-casualties of the 1990s, when a number of breweries get caught up in mergers and expansion, seeming to loose their sense of identity as they raced ahead to capture market share.  A few years later, the mergers continued anew as they bought MacTarnahan's (now Portland Brewing) and were later bought by Magic Hat and then North American Breweries, a collective that included Genesee, Labatt USA, and Dundee.  And then still later they were purchased, as if from an SNL skit, by Cerveceria Costa Rica, a unit of the Costa Rican company Florida Ice and Farm Co.  Seriously

To make things all the more confusing, Pyramid is actually brewed in Portland at Portland Brewing.  Unlike CBA, where Widmer, Kona, and Redhook have separate breweries and brewers, Pyramid and Portland are essentially two brands of the same brewery.  Ryan Pappe, the head brewer, oversees the beer from both lines. There is also a small Pyramid brewery at the Alehouse across from Safeco Field in Seattle, but that's where Kim Brusco, a veteran of Northwest brewing, makes house specialties that never see the inside of a bottle.  Meanwhile, there were PR folks in from Buffalo, NY who had organized and promote the event.

The whole thing is odd--like a brewery having an out-of-body experience.  My relationship with Pyramid goes back to the late 1980s, and I think of it as an old standard.  For four years, though, until the Alehouse brewery opened back up in 2012, Pyramid made no beer in Seattle.  Their presence in Seattle is still somewhat spectral, especially when you add the dislocation of people converging from Oregon and New York.

It's not to say that Pyramid isn't making good beer.  Ryan Pappe has quietly honed the process at the brewery in Northwest Portland, and recent selections from both Portland Brewing and Pyramid have been excellent.  Portland's Royal Anne Cherry Stout and the current Rose Hip Gold are both accomplished and tasty.  If you looked at the recent year-end numbers, Oregonians have quietly been drinking quite a bit of Portland's beer, too.  Pyramid's line is pretty familiar, but they launching a hoppy lager called IPL that is really nice--lots of floral hop flavor and aroma and a crisp, sessionable body.  I'm less thrilled with the spring seasonal, a strawberry saison that is a bit muddled and indifferent.  But hey, different strokes.  Whatever ill you might say about Portland and Pyramid, it won't be about the quality of the beer.

Still, the event was like a tour of the future, and I wasn't sure I understood what it meant.  We have had the luxury for the past thirty years of being able to associate our favorite beers with places.  It's the kind of thing that leads to endless debates about best beer city.  But what happens when breweries start to become disconnected from their home place.  Can they still be considered "local?"  And more to the point, what does "local" even mean?  Is Seattle beer so particular you could tell if it was brewed in Portland?

Stan Hieronymus has been working on a project that tackles this very question. I thought I'd see if he could make sense of this future that looms in front of us.  He agrees that "place" is a tricky thing to define.
The first brewery opened in Louisville/Lafayette (Colorado) in 2012 and now there are six (with more planned). Their total population is about 45,000 and they have easy access to at least 30 other breweries in Boulder County - and then there is Denver....  To use one example in Louisville, Twelve Degree Brewing (as in Belgian brewing degrees) is totally Belgian inspired. Using yeast sourced from Belgium, etc. It doesn't taste "like" Louisville, but maybe it will in 10 years.
He added a little later, "I'm not arguing that I can taste two beers blind and say, 'This one is from Michigan' and 'This one is from Wisconsin.'"

But we do know what Belgian, English, Czech, and German beer tastes like.  Those places have a taste.  They come partly from ingredients, but largely from process and culture.  America has evolved enough that we have a typical range of beer styles (hoppy, low-ester ales usually inflected by caramel malt).  But cities? 

Pyramid is firmly in the American tradition.  Their current line-up includes three hoppy beers (all use American hops and caramel malts) and three wheat beers.  It has three beers that go back twenty years or more.  With that heavy emphasis on wheat, you could even make the case that there's a Northwest influence.  I know that most craft fans will place a brewery owned by a Costa Rican company in a different category than one owned by a guy who lives down the street.  For now that's fine.  But in another thirty years (hell, in another five), we're going to have a ton of beer of unknown or murky provenance.  Will we have a solid enough sense of place that it will matter whether Pyramid is brewed in Portland or Seattle--or whether Sierra Nevada is brewed in Chico or North Carolina, for that matter?

Pyramid's 30th anniversary gives us a great opportunity to mull these things over.  And if you haven't had a Pyramid for awhile, buy a sixer of the IPL and see what you think.  It's quite nice.

Full disclosure: Pyramid paid for my visit to Seattle.


  1. Why are you still on Blogspot? You need to self-host.

  2. When is a Seattle beer not a Seattle beer? Apparently when it's Pyramid brewed in Portland. The fact is, some of these Portland Brewing/Pyramid beers are decent enough. I think they suffer from brand confusion they've created via the various name changes and acquisitions. Consumers don't quite know what to make of Pyramid/Portland Brewing/MacTarnahan's. That puts them at a competitive disadvantage in this market, even at discounted prices. The beer isn't the problem.

  3. Yet another very thoughtful and insightful article on the _____* beer world, in our neck of the woods and beyond.

    *I know you're not fond of the term "craft", but I have yet to find a good substitute to distinguish the industry in question.