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The /W/h/o/ Elysian Sells Out

The Big Time Brewery & Alehouse opened its doors in 1988. I noticed. I had moved to Seattle four years earlier in part for the "beer, beans [coffee], and bud," but it was still early enough in the microbrewery revolution that new breweries in my vicinity were something I noticed. The Big Time was in fact the first brewpub in my experience, so it was even more noticeable than usual. Still, I don't remember that I became a regular at first, and maybe even not for a while after I started working full-time in Schmitz Hall, just a block away from the Big Time, in 1989. My well-cultivated (meaning possibly reformulated) memory would say that I became a regular in 1991, in the aftermath of the breakup of a long distance romance with a German girl, when I transferred my affections to a beautiful barmaid at the Big Time.

My affections went unrequited, but I spent a lot of time in the brewpub anyway. Thus I got to know much of the bar staff, and eventually largely through them and some of the other regulars I got to know the Big Time's second brewmaster, Dick Cantwell, who had started his career at Seattle's *other* brewpub in those days, Pike Place Brewing. I didn't get to know Dick all that well at the Big Time, but in 1996 he and two partners started up a new brewpub called the Elysian. They hired the beautiful barmaid, after whom I sadly still pined, and so I transferred my brewery allegiance to the Elysian, even though it was a greater distance from my home and work. There I got to know Dick a lot better -- or at least I talked to him a lot more -- and he was the first person who told me about the wonders of Belgium, where he had started leading tours for rich Americans looking for an exotic beer adventure. At the Big Time Dick had introduced a Belgian tripel recipe that he called Trombipulator ("it will funk you up"), and at the Elysian he brewed a tripel called Bête Blanche and a saison that I suggested Dick call Saison d'Infer, after Rimbaud. Alas, although he'd called his Dublin stout at the Big Time the Buck Mulligan, he wasn't interested in my literary tip. Still, he was the first to introduce me to the splendors of Belgian beer.

1998-02 Matt and Becky at AP's birthday
Friends of a friend outside the Elysian in February 1998

Once again I got to know the bar staff very well -- to the extent that I more than once stayed for after hours parties that one time memorably included smoking pot with the punk kitchen staff up in the attic space above the brewing kettles, where sacks of malt were stored. That period was probably as close as I got to being a true beer geek, with a ringside window on the cutting edge of the American brewing world. Dick's advocacy of Belgian brewing was mind- and palate-expanding, and I also fondly remember a night at the bar when a guy introduced himself to me as an actual Belgian and proceeded to give me the goods on open fermentation in the homeland. It seemed to me at the time that the Elysian was at the forefront of the American brewing revolution, as Dick also experimented with an Aventinus-style bock (tasted like bananas and bubblegum) and a weak sour beer style called Berlinerweisse that they flavored with homemade woodruff syrup. I turned up my nose at the Berlinerweisse at the time, but twenty years later it's a style I love, at least sans woodruff. Dick was ahead of his time.

Twenty years later. Yeah, a lot has changed in those twenty years. I eventually gave up my infatuation with the beautiful barmaid, although we are still good friends. The Elysian grew and expanded, first with a somewhat more upscale brewpub called Tangletown, then with a cavernous brewpub down by the sports stadiums that was called Elysian Fields, and more recently with a production brewery in Georgetown aimed at increasing their bottling operation. Over this time they built themselves up into the second largest brewery in Seattle. I gradually found myself going to the Elysian less and less, for a variety of reasons. The American brewing scene continued to evolve, and other breweries became more interesting. The Elysian followed the woodruff syrup with other strange flavors that weren't as interesting to me as sour styles and saisons and wood-aged beer. (Although Dick was the first person to tell me about barrel-aging, the Elysian has never gotten into it to the extent that other brewers have.) The Elysian still brews sours and saisons too, and I still hit the old brewpub whenever I'm in the area to see what special things are on tap, but they've long since stopped being my favorite brewery.

As far as Seattle goes, the Big Time is my regular again, even if that's largely because it's just a block from where I work. These days the great beers are coming from all over, and the number of breweries has grown so astronomically that I can't keep up with everything that's going on. To say that I don't always notice when a new brewery hits the scene is an understatement. Last year I realized that you could do a pubcrawl from Fremont to Ballard that would hit a different brewery every half a mile. It's a different world than it was in 1988 or even 1996.

All this by way of preface to the news last week that the Elysian had been acquired by the multinational conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev, and my reason for going into all this detail is to establish that I have had a pretty personal relationship with the Elysian. It was an important stop in the development of my knowledge and taste for beer. What has struck me in the aftermath of the deal is how disconnected I feel from all the rage being expressed at the Elysian selling out. Part of it is that we just went through this with 10 Barrel, not to mention Goose Island, which has never been a favorite of mine but which I observed didn't decrease in quality after it was acquired.

From my perspective the reason Anheuser-Busch InBev is acquiring these breweries is that they are losing market share with their current products and are looking to get a piece of a growing market segment. It represents a victory of the "craft brewing" movement, if only in the sense that more people want to drink something other than the pilseners that dominated the American market in the middle of the 20th Century. Now, I can sympathize if the Elysian is your favorite brewery and you really, really don't want to put a penny in a multinational conglomerate's pockets, but I don't sympathize at all with the general sense of betrayal people are expressing at the Elysian's decision to cash their business in. The nerd rage expresses a sense of entitlement that fans commonly feel for the objects of their affection, and it isn't pretty.

Most maddening of all is the argument that somehow Anheuser-Busch InBev is going to crush "craft brewing" by buying these breweries and then forcing their taps into every pub and tavern in the country. That cow left the barn long ago. Big bad ABIB can't force taps into the Big Time or Fremont Brewing or the Cascade Taproom or Upright or anywhere else that just serves the beer they make themselves. We really do live in a Golden Age of brewing, with well over two thousand breweries in the US alone. Even if a bunch of those are bought up or die off, we're still talking about undreamed of diversity compared to the days of my ill-spent youth. Even if the Elysian turns into something I shun completely, it's hard to feel much sense of loss. There's plenty else to occupy my palate.

I did read an article this week that claimed that Dick Cantwell opposed the deal, while the other two partners wanted it. If true, it will be interesting to see what Dick does now. If Anheuser-Busch InBev lets him continue to experiment and he decides to stick around, I don't see why I wouldn't continue to stop by now and again to see what strange brew he's come up with lately.

Update: The Elysian just posted an announcement of the deal on Facebook. Amongst the points made: "Loser, with the tagline Corporate Beer Still Sucks, will continue to be brewed and packaged. Yes, we still think corporate beer still sucks. Yes, we get the joke." This is one of the things people have been very sarcastic about, apparently forgetting that when Kurt Cobain wore the T-shirt saying "Corporate magazines still suck," it was on the cover of Rolling Stone, i.e., in the belly of the beast.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 29th, 2015 09:27 pm (UTC)
Or you could give the complainers copies of The Who Sell Out A riposte nearly half a century old!
Feb. 1st, 2015 09:51 pm (UTC)
How's the food at the Big Time, and how late do they serve it? I recollect it isn't far from the Deca. Our flight gets in at 8:30 and I'm thinking that making a beeline to the BT could be in the cards...
Feb. 1st, 2015 10:03 pm (UTC)
They have good pizzas and decent sandwiches, but nothing really spectacular. (The food at the Elysian is much better, but much further from the Deca.)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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