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6 Good, Bad and Ugly Beer Partnerships

Redhook Game Changer Pale Ale
Partner: Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD)

As Tim Robbins' and Morgan Freeman's inmate characters Andy Dufresne and Red make so plain in the 1994 prison drama The Shawshank Redemption, there comes a time when you either have to get busy living or get busy dying.

Redhook Ale reached that point roughly a year ago. Founded in an old transmission shop in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood back in 1981, Redhook made a play for bigger market share in 2008 when it teamed up with Portland, Ore.-based Widmer Brothers Brewing to form the Craft Brewers Alliance (BREW). In a move that elicits grumbles 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 Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) a 32.2% stake in the operation in exchange for access to its sprawling distribution network.

Brewery founder Paul Shipman retired shortly thereafter and Redhook found itself a brand adrift. It had varieties with meaningless names such as Rope Swing, an ill-defined core audience that could best be described as a white, near middle-age hippie-yuppie hybrid and a declining position within its own company. It makes up only 28% of of the now-Craft Brew Alliance's sales, compared with 39% for Widmer and 33% for 2010 pickup Kona. It was a situation that was only getting worse, as Kona's brand grew 34% last year alone.

Now based in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville, Wash., just far enough from its Seattle birthplace to fade from city dwellers' memory, the folks placed in charge of relatively faceless, listing Redhook faced a decision: Either continue on course and let Redhook die a slow death akin to those of other craft beer pioneers including Pete's Wicked Ale, or get motivated and shake things up a bit.

They took the latter path and aimed their Longhammer IPA, Wit, ESB and everything else they had at an 21- to 35-year-old male demographic still smitten with light lagers made by Anheuser-Busch InBev and MolsonCoors/SABMiller joint project MillerCoors. Armed with the knowledge that behind every male craft beer acolyte and beer snob is a 21-year-old Pabst-Blue-Ribbon-swilling bro, Redhook set itself up as a gateway beer and the next logical step away from Bud, Miller, Coors and even Blue Moon.

But it would need some help from places craft brewers don't generally associate with. Redhook first teamed up with former ESPN SportsCenter host and current Fox Sports Radio personality Dan Patrick to make the relatively low-alcohol Audible Ale pale ale. Redhook and Patrick launched the branded beer by giving away a rolling "man cave" trailer laden with tech toys and beer gadgetry. It also teamed with the Emerald City Supporters, one of the fan groups backing the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer, on an amber lager called No Equal.

The biggest move came in July, when Redhook announced a partnership with Buffalo Wild Wings that would put its Game Changer pale ale -- a mild, amber ale made especially for the casual dining chain -- on tap at more than 925 locations across North America. For a brewery that once organized mud runs for its fans at its Woodinville facility and once elbowed its way onto taps next to light lagers to become many Gen Xers' first craft beer, it was a homecoming. With folks drinking 12% more Craft Brew Alliance beer last quarter than they did a year ago and 9% more year-to-date, Redhook seems happy to be back -- even if craft beer's cool kids aren't the ones throwing it a party.

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