Read my Beer! Er... Drink my Book!

The Ale Master, Bert Grant, with Robert Spector
Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 1998
142 pages, ISBN 0-935503-19-6, $19.95
Redhook: Beer Pioneer, Peter Krebs
Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 1999
208 pages, illus., ISBN 1-56858-106-8, $22.00

Everyone in brewing wants to tell their story these days. Peter Van Munching broke the ice with his irreverent and self-congratulatory Beer Blast, followed by Pete Slosberg’s "Gee, I’m sure a happy lucky guy, why not buy my beer" book. Now the gates are open and two more have come in swift succession; Bert Grant’s pamphlet-sized autobeerography and Peter Krebs’ socio-business history of how Redhook rose to heights sufficient for an embarrassing fall.

Grant’s book appears to be a creation of pure spin, from its hired gun ghostwriter to its gorgeous design and production. You feel good about Grant’s ales just by holding the book in your hands, and that should make you suspicious. Bert Grant is blunt, opinionated, at times irascible; how could these qualities find their way into a marketer’s artifact such as this?

Quite easily, it turns out, and it makes for great reading. From sideways shots at the big brewers’ practice of high-gravity brewing — "I thought, ‘This is better than any Coors I ever had.’ Of course, that was before they put the water in." — to beautifully Bert-ish statements on contract brewers — "These guys get my dander up! …They may know how to make money, but I don’t think they know much about beer." — there’s plenty of Mr. Grant in this book. What’s more, when Bert takes a shot at someone, it’s telling, because Bert, as opposed to Peter Van Munching, actually knows beer rather than beer marketing.

It quickly becomes clear from Redhook’s text that brewery founders Gordon Bowker and Paul Shipman didn’t know a lot about beer when they started Redhook and didn’t know much about beer drinkers when they signed their momentous deal with Anheuser-Busch. Krebs tells the story straight, including the fabled original Redhook ‘banana beer,’ Shipman’s falling-out with original brewer Charlie McElevey, and the quirks that drove Bowker and Shipman’s personalities. Krebs also does a great job of showing the story from both sides of the bar, giving the reader a rare look at what things were like for drinkers and bar owners in the early days of the microbrew movement.

But Redhook’s unanswered questions leave the book ultimately dissatisfying. Why has Redhook been unable to make the move to national status with its microbrew cachet intact, while breweries like Anchor and Sierra Nevada retain broad appeal and respect? Was the joint venture with Anheuser-Busch a net positive or negative move? Can Redhook survive without growing, so long as a driven man like Paul Shipman is at the helm? There is plenty of information here but not much analysis, and the story remains merely a story.

The real question is why brewery books have become popular suddenly. It may simply be the next marketing "thing." Redhook and Pete’s have taken a beating as they reached national distribution, for varied reasons, but at least somewhat because of a perception of selling out, a bad bigness that went against what craft brew enthusiasts and fellow traveler trendies saw as the David-Goliath appeal of the small brewers. These books, these stories aim to burnish the breweries’ micro roots, to show Shipman and Bowker struggling to start a brewery in those very early days, to show Pete Slosberg as a real guy rather than the bloodless brother of Miller’s "Dick The Creative Genius."

Grant needs to tell his story for a different reason. Bert Grant is authentically an Ale Master—the adulatory quotes from industry figures that sprinkle the book affirm it—but most people don’t know how knowledgeable and passionate he is. His ales languished through years of slow growth. His shrewd alliance with winemaker Stimson Lane provided money and distribution muscle that have produced double-digit growth. The book is part of the push to put Grant’s Ales into strong national distribution and sales…which is right where Redhook and Pete’s ran into trouble.

Can a microbrewery succeed and grow at a national level? We’ve already seen some crashes along that path—Nor’Wester comes to mind—and there are plainly more to come. After years of hearing "local and fresh beer" was best, the macro-micros’ change in tune to "well-made beer delivered to your state in peak condition" puts a hitch in one’s quaffing arm. This problem of perception deals a body blow to the cherished idea that people drink craft brewed beer because it tastes so darned good.

But consider Sierra Nevada. There are no slogans, no plethora of styles (except at the Chico pub), and no deals with any big money devils. Almost everyone has come to try this beer by recommendation; it grows through word of mouth and critical praise. This is a brewery that has spent frugally on advertising, always putting its energies into the beer, the beer, and the beer. Such a defiance of marketers’ models is a story that would make a good book…but not just yet. It isn’t really needed.

This review was written before Bert Grant's death in 2002. I miss Bert; he was an original, an incorrigible, and he brewed his beer as he saw fit.

Copyright © 2003 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: March 04, 2003