It's been a long, weird road out of Seattle for one of that city's pioneer craft breweries but, somewhere along that more than 30-year odyssey, Redhook got lost in the woods.
Founded by Paul Shipman and
co-founder Gordon Bowker in 1981, Redhook rode the early success of simple, yet flavorful brews including its Wit, Pilsner, Long Hammer IPA and especially its flagship ESB to tap handles across the country. With its Evergreen State big fir logo and Pacific Northwest creativity, it expanded its empire to an East Coast brewery in Portsmouth, N.H., and became the first bicoastal craft brewer decades before West Coast breweries such as
started scouting out real estate in North Carolina.
Like those breweries, however, Redhook had to find a way to make its '80s and early '90s microbrew success relevant in a new craft beer climate. While die-hards still loved its timber lodge style tasting rooms in Portsmouth and Woodinville, Wash. -- where it relocated when its operations outgrew existing space in Seattle -- its beers were a familiar face being taken for granted on store shelves.
In 2008, Redhook made a big play for market share and visibility when it teamed up with Portland, Ore.-based Widmer Brothers Brewing to form the Craft Brewers Alliance. In a move that polarizes the craft beer community to this day -- and stripped Redhook and Widmer of their "craft" distinction in the eyes of the Brewers Association craft beer industry group -- the brewers gave
a 32.2% stake in the operation in exchange for access to its sprawling distribution network.
As far as Redhook's critics are concerned, this is where we can end the story. It's not. Despite the alliance, now known as the
Craft Brew Alliance
(BREW - Get Report)
, and the A-B distribution, Redhook was pretty much the same beer it ever was. It released a 30th-anniversary brew in 2011 that tasted a whole lot like a banana-flavored German Aventinus and began a brewmaster's series to go back to its small-brewing roots. At the same time, it changed its packaging to snub-nosed bottles to distinguish itself on shelves.
Those stubby bottles should have been a big red flag warning about what was to come a year later, when Redhook decided to remake itself as the SpikeTV of craft beer. It turned its Pale Ale into "Audible Ale" and partnered with sports radio host and former ESPN fixture Dan Patrick to promote it -- with Redhook and Patrick sponsoring a contest featuring the
"Redhook Ultimate Mobile ManCave"
as its prize. In July, Redhook begins a partnership with chicken-and-jumbo-TV chain
Buffalo Wild Wings
that will put Redhook's Game Changer Ale -- being brewed especially for the sports-centric casual dining spot -- on tap at more than 900 locations nationwide. Its annual concert series at its Woodinville brewery, meanwhile, has been redubbed "Sausagefest."
That term could easily be applied to Redhook's new business plan as well. So why is a more than 30-year-old company diving so deeply into the sports-and-bro market and leaving its more earthy, feminine side behind? Because it has to. Simply put, it's not pulling its weight in the Craft Brew Alliance and makes up only 28% of sales, compared with 39% for Widmer and 33% for 2010 pickup Kona. Sadly for Redhook, Kona is leaving it in the dust with 34% growth last year alone.
That doesn't mean Redhook is on the wrong track, however. After the sportier, manlier push that included an official beer for the Emerald City Supporters -- the giant fan group that backs Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders -- Redhook's sales increased 10% last year and have continued climbing through the first quarter of 2013. The blatant push for the 21- to 35-year-old male demographic seems cynical on its surface, but those bros may just save the brand.