Seattle is the biggest small city (or the smallest big city, if you prefer) that I’ve ever encountered. I’ve traveled all over the world and seen people and things that connect back to the Pacific Northwest: a bartender in the British Virgin Islands who went to O’Dea High School on First Hill, or the schoolboy in Uganda wearing a Mariner’s baseball cap, or a KEXP t-shirt in a small Irish coastal town. This urban identity of home-grown grown up is presenting an odd comparison of local vs. big business, similar to “green washing” in the building industry – the act of appearing local and independent rather than actually being so.
When you go to the store, you’ll be hard pressed to find a product that is owned by the company on the packaging. Unilever, Nestle, Johnson & Johnson and a small handful of other companies own almost everything on the grocery shelves of national chains. Many local companies in the Seattle area are truly independent; some started that way, then got bought by larger companies but continue to perpetuate their former grass-roots identity. This is especially prevalent in Seattle’s two favorite beverages: coffee and beer.
Elysian Brewing began in 1995 as an independent company founded by a homebrewer who went pro, a wholesaler and the vice president of Seafirst Bank (which was absorbed by Bank of America in 2000). The first brewery location opened on Capitol Hill in 1996, and over the next 11 years, added several more locations near Greenlake and CeturyLink Field. The inventive beers that Elysian produced gained national recognition, including the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival. Elysian had a reputation for partnering with other local organizations, including the rock radio station KISW and Sub Pop records – that is, before the company was bought by Anheuser-Busch in 2015. Fortunately, the Elysian slogan for their Loser Pale Ale is a good reminder for consumers of where their money is truly going: “Corporate Beer Still Sucks.”
Storyville’s roots start on Bainbridge Island as a mail-order specialty coffee roaster in 2006, and eventually expanded into selling coffeemakers and grinders as well. The company currently has three locations around Seattle – Pike Place Market, downtown and Queen Anne. If the ambiance in the cafes is far ritzier than many other corner coffee shops in town, it’s because Storyville is inextricably linked with the megachurch Mars Hill. Storyville founder Jon Phelps has collaborated on several publications with Mars Hill’s anti-gay, misogynistic former pastor Mark Driscoll, who does things like shaming women for being a victim of sexual assault. Driscoll resigned from Mars Hill in 2014, after controversy around his arrogance, bullying, consolidation of power and plagiarism. With literally hundreds of coffee shops in Seattle, why choose this one?
Redhook Ale and Widmer Brothers
Redhook was founded in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood in 1981 by Paul Shipman and Gordon Bowker, and expanded to locations in Woodinville, WA and Portsmouth, NH. Widmer Brothers was similarly launched in Portland in 1984 by Kurt and Robert Widmer. Both companies grew within their local communities, and partnered together for East coast distribution. In 2007, the two companies announced plans to officially merge to form what is now called the Craft Brew Alliance. Although Kurt Widmer is the chairman of the CBA board, unfortunately the group of 5 beer and cider brands are no longer considered craft brew by official standards; to retain the Brewers Association’s “small, independent and traditional” label, no more than 25% of the company can be owned by a non-craft brewery. The Anheuser-Busch corporation owns over 32%.