Sometime this summer…when our world is warm and sunny and optimism is easy and maybe even a little cheap, many of us who have reveled and participated in the American and Pacific Northwest craft beer cultures will experience a brief (well, we can hope it’s brief) cold front of the type that occurs inside us; the kind that blankets and heaters and long underwear cannot touch: the chill of Loss. Of the expected but still jarring departure of something, someone, in which we have invested heavily, emotionally, for what seems like a very long time but has been, in retrospect, far too short.
Sometime this summer, Hair of The Dog Brewing will close down and an Era, an epoch, will be only memories.
But, ooooh, what memories...
When asked to name my all-time favorite breweries, I frequently do NOT name Hair of The Dog. Not that it isn’t one. In fact it is probably the MAIN fave. But I don’t think of founder/owner, brewmaster/genius Alan Sprints and that brewery in the same way I do Deschutes or Stone or Dogfish or Reuben’s or Jester King or any other group or company or collective that makes beer, anywhere on Planet Earth. Hair of The Dog occupies a category of One. It’s remained the very definition of what “small independent craft brewery” means and SHOULD mean.
Every word of that description is true in the most literal sense and the beers not only do not pander to current tastes, many of them were NEVER in fashion…which mattered to Alan not at all. From the day the doors opened, in 1993, Alan Sprints has made the beers that interested him, that he found worth making and wanted to drink. At first they were, without exaggeration, a radical departure from everything that was popular, existing, selling in American beer, all the Pales and Ambers and ESBs. (This was before the IPA Boom, even) They were strong, malty, HUGE flavors, complex as differential calculus, somewhat impenetrable, even. I knew beer pretty well, having been studying it since my college days, back when Jesus was in grade school and dinosaurs still roamed the earth. But all the Freds, the many iterations of Adam, Doggie Claws(!), and all the rest – were just fundamentally Different from every other brewery’s. I was living out here in the Soggy Corner, by then, and of course heard about HoTD, because – “Daaaaamn! Have you heard about this?!?” – was what every beer geeky type I knew in Seattle was saying. I was acting, at that time, and one of the guys in the cast of my show brought a bottle of Fred to a cast party, one night, and 12 of us each had ONE ounce. That did it. I just barely knew what was going on in my mouth. What I did know was that I wanted it to happen again, very soon.
That very night, I wandered into The Virginia Inn, in downtown Seattle, and found both Fred and Adam on the taplist. I was walking home that night, about another half mile, and wasn’t quite tipsy yet, so I ordered schooners of both. The Fred was sensational in a quantity of more than an ounce and Adam was a total fuggen revelation. I finished the Fred a full hour later and the Adam about ten minutes after that. I savored every single molecule. I can taste them even now, in this weird sense memory I am blessed/cursed with. At that point, I was BY GOD tipsy; hammered, in fact, and somehow managed to walk home without getting arrested for Drunk in Public or pissing myself. I don’t even remember getting undressed or into bed and really do not remember eating half of the chocolate bundt cake that laid uncovered on my kitchen counter. (Or where the dammed cake came from) But I damned sure remembered Adam and Fred and when an actor pal I didn’t like all that much called and invited me to have lunch, I said, quite honestly, “Sorry, I already made plans with Adam and Fred.” Which I did, going back and back to the Virginia Inn until the last pour from each keg was gone.
I scoured local beer shops and supermarkets, drove all over Western Washington, and bought up every bottle of anything with that portrait of Roswell Barker, the HoTD mascot, on its label. I hoarded them, allowing myself a bottle now and then. At that time, I owned an old van that might have made it down to Portland but would likely not make it back, so I didn’t chance it. Finally, a friend said he was driving down and I went along…walked into their old taproom, turned to my buddy, and said, “I feel like I’m at home.“
I came back with beers. Many beers; at least six of everything Alan had put into a bottle. (No cans, back then) I never drank any of these with friends, with distractions. I would wait for one of those fabulous Seattle sunsets, go out onto the patio of my Issaquah apartment, later to the rooftop deck in my Seattle apartment building, open one – ONE – and sit with it, all alone, sipping meditatively, registering what was on my tongue. Those beers remain among the very top experiences I have ever had in a beer journey that dates back to the late 1960s. They were strong, boozy, rich, powerful…and absurdly complex and yet artful, compositions in a glass. They were just unlike anything else, even my beloved Belgian abbey ales, even my lovely Scottish and Scotch ales and Wee Heavys, even the Flanders sours and those one or two Brett ales I tasted. I had maybe ten evenings like that before moving from that apartment and I remember every single one.
Back in 2010, I hopped in the ratty old van my business partner owned (yet another van that MIGHT, possibly, with a stiff tailwind, even make it to Portland) and set out to find this new Hair of The Dog place, down on Yamhill, almost under the I-5 off-ramp to Belmont Street, at the corner of Yamhill Street and Water Avenue. The taproom felt more like my church when I went in. I was with a friend who was not a big beer geek and I hesitated to take him there at all. But he noticed that I got quiet and asked me what was so special about Hair of The Dog. I thought about it for a couple of LONG minutes, opened my mouth, and this fell out: “Here be persons of skill and attainment, doing serious things without taking themselves too seriously. To paraphrase Mozart, ‘They make beer as a sow piddles’, casually brilliant, all measuring done before cutting. Mixed metaphor, I know, but actually describing this place is impossible. It really is, You Get It or You Don’t.“
I Got It. MAJOR case of it. And I seriously doubt I will ever see its like again.
From the beginning Alan did everything right. (Maybe not in a financial sense. I dunno, none of my business.) He named the beers simply and directly, for people who inspired them. Fred Eckhart, the man best known as “The Dean of American Beer Writers”, had a historic recipe that Alan admired and, with Fred’s permission, that became Hair of The Dog “Fred”, a beer variously called an American Strong ale or a Golden Strong ale or just “Fred”, letting it explain itself. Ruth was named for Alan’s grandmother. “Adam” was named for an ancient Dortmunder “adambier” recipe that Fred Eckhardt gave him. Adam is a malt-dominant Strong ale that’s dark and chewy and complex, very different from the current lighter Dortmunders we see today. Both Adam and Fred have been produced in a number of variations, most notably “Adam from the Wood”, “Fred from the Wood”, “Cherry Adam from the Wood”, “Bourbon Fred from the Wood”, “Bourbon Fred from the Stone”, using the nation’s first stone beer fermenter, and my beloved “Doggie Claws” and “Maja” – American style and an English style, respectively – Barleywines directly inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Ale, the definitive British Barleywine and Alan’s admitted muse for all the Hair of The Dog beers.
All of this biographical detail is readily available with a basic google search, so I’m going to leave it to you to satisfy your own curiosity, nice as it is to rehash these beautiful memories. I tried once before, back in April of 2015, to write about HoTD and just went back and reread it. It was okay and I didn’t miss by miles, maybe, what I wanted to say about Alan and his extraordinary Vision. But one part jumped out at me and resonated like a struck gong and it seems like a great way to end this post, just as it ended that one, only with far more relevance now than then:
“Alan…I owe ya, man. Can’t possibly repay it but I promise to keep buying your beers as long as I live and maybe even crack an Adam on my deathbed. (“You can have my Fred when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!”) You and your weird, quirky Vision opened me up like a can of tuna to the idea that beer can be more than just “beer”. It can be something that comes within at least haling distance of the profound and the spiritual.“
Alan is not entering a monastery. He’s still going to brew beer, It will just be in collaboration with other brewers and breweries and will, therefore, be a shared vision, a cooperative idea and the essence of what has made Hair of The Dog one of the greatest ongoing experiments in experimental, resurrectional (Hey, I invented a word!) brewing in America’s history may well be gone. So, as I summed up in 2015, so will I do it here…
“Drinking anything from that dusty, studiously down-home building down there at Yamhill and Water Street, almost under the I-5 offramp, is a soul-deep skinny dip into the Deep End of American craft brewing and an experience that anyone who claims the title of “craft beer fan” must have, at least once.”