As Elysian Brewing Celebrates 20 Years, Local Beer Drinkers Have Mixed Emotions

June 2nd, 2016 · 5 Comments · Events, Washington Breweries

These days, I find that local beer drinkers typically fall into two camps when it comes to Elysian Brewing, which was bought by Anheuser-Busch back in early 2015. Camp A might be jaded by the deal, but they love Elysian beer and continue to buy it. Camp B represents people who refuse to support the corporate monster that is Anheuser-Busch, which means wanting nothing to do with anything Elysian, regardless of how much they like the beer or want to support the great people who still work there locally.

Regardless of which camp you fall into, there is no arguing that Elysian has had a huge impact on Seattle’s beer scene since opening in 1996. Many local brewers have been influenced by their beer, and they continue to churn out well-made, interesting beer. On June 11, Elysian will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a big party featuring some great bands (The Black Lips, The Raveonettes, Ming City Rockers and The Gits) and plenty of beer. 100% of ticket sales will go towards some worthy causes, as well as net proceeds from beer & merchandise. You can read more about the party and purchase tickets here.

Below, I’ve included a piece on Elysian that I wrote that appeared in the February 2015 issue of the Northwest Brewing News. I did an interview with Dick Cantwell for the piece on January 2, and the sale to AB was announced on January 23. They must have been right in the middle of negotiations for the deal at that point, and I’m sure it was awkward to talk about the future and history of Elysian from Dick’s perspective. It also illustrates how woefully inadequate some forms of print are at relaying timely news in the modern era; this hit stands a week or so after the deal to AB was announced. There is some good background on Elysian in the piece, though.

“Brite Tanks” Article on Elysian Brewing for Feb 2015 Issue of Northwest Brewing News:

Staying relevant is a challenge that any brewery that has been around a long time must deal with. No matter what the brewery’s reputation in the beer world, the buzz and excitement these days is often centered on newer businesses as opposed to the stalwart brewery that has always been there for you. But, as Elysian Brewing enters its 19th year of business, it is safe to say it is still very relevant. Through slow growth, collaborations, new facilities and what some consider a strange love for pumpkins, one thing has remained constant: Elysian makes award-winning beer across a wide spectrum of styles, and they have fun doing it.

Dick Cantwell, Joe Bisacca and David Buhler opened up their original Elysian Capitol Hill brewery in 1996. While the neighborhood has certainly changed drastically over time, the original brewpub is still a popular drinking and dining destination almost 20 years later and the 20-barrel brewing system there continues to churn out beers. Over the years, Elysian has opened several other locations throughout the city. Almost right off the bat, they operated a 4-barrel brewing system at Gameworks, an arcade game-focused entertainment restaurant in downtown Seattle, for about 5 years from 1997 until 2002. Cantwell says, “That was a curious situation. In those years, people were putting breweries everywhere, and Gameworks wanted a brewery. We were brand new. When we had our first conversations we were like 6 months old. All of a sudden here we were talking with this Hollywood organization (Gameworks was a partnership with Dreamworks, Universal Studios & Sega). It was an uneasy arrangement, because that just really wasn’t us.” Cantwell says it was a challenge, but overall it was a great experience for a new brewery. “It helped us grow up quickly in terms of running a larger organization. It also gave us a little experimental brewery, which really became a central operating tenet for us throughout the years.” After they exited their agreement with Gameworks, Elysian opened their Tangletown location the following year in 2003. The 3-barrel system at Tangletown let them continue with their experimental nature, and today they still use this location as a bit of a teaching brewery. In 2006, Elysian Fields opened in the stadium district south of downtown Seattle. With its location directly across from Century Link Field, this has become one of the most popular destinations for Seahawks fans on game days. The 8-barrel brewing system at Elysian Fields is where many of the new creations and specialty beers are born these days.
The next few years marked a bit of a change in direction for Elysian. In 2008, Elysian entered into a partnership with New Belgium Brewing that allowed them to produce large batches of core beers, like Immortal IPA, at New Belgium’s facilities in Fort Collins, CO. Cantwell says, “It was about that time that we started ramping up and thinking more in terms of production than essentially just being a pub company with some limited distribution. Once we got going with New Belgium we started thinking about building a bigger brewery ourselves.” At that point, they switched to a larger distributor to help them grow and also hired a new sales and marketing director. All of these things together led to them opening their own production brewery with a 240-barrel brewing system in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood in 2011. This facility allows them to expand with their core flagship and seasonal beers and has plenty of room for growth.

Elysian is a well-known brewery throughout the industry, but for a long time you could not find Elysian beers outside of the Northwest. The reputation was due in large part to Cantwell’s active involvement at the Brewers Association (where he served on their Board of Directors) and Elysian’s long history of winning medals on a national stage at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). It won the Large Brewpub of the Year award at GABF three different times, in 1999, 2003 and 2004. Elysian started distributing to the East Coast right before it began its partnership with New Belgium. “I think we’ve always been a brewery that had a bit of an outsized reputation compared to how big we actually were. That being the case, we wanted to go to New York. We wanted to be there and compete in that market.” Elysian currently distributes to 11 states, and it will soon add California to the list.

With such a large organization these days, being creative takes more planning. Cantwell says, “With five locations now, it’s good to make everyone get together every now and then. We’ve instituted once-a-month meetings where all the brewers and cellar guys get together and taste beers, talk about ideas for the next couple of months, projects that are under way and really it is just a chance for us to all see each other and collaborate. The innovation not only helps us stay relevant, it helps us stay interested (as brewers).”
Elysian’s creativity and experimentation led to what it is possibly known best for across the country: pumpkin beer. 2014 marked the 10th year Elysian has held its Great Pumpkin Beer Festival. What started as a small festival has taken on a life of its own and is now a large festival embraced by the city and brewers from across the country. The 2014 fest featured more than 80 different pumpkin beers, including at least 17 brewed by Elysian. Cantwell says, “It gives us a chance to show how serious and ridiculous we can be. We can come up with a totally ridiculous idea, but then do it really well.”
In recent years, Elysian’s experimentation with different IPAs has led to a very successful series of releases. Cantwell elaborates, “When we started Elysian, I came up with The Immortal which was pretty hoppy for back then. Now, I describe it as our entry level IPA, because compared to everything that is out there now it just isn’t that hoppy. The Immortal is still the beer we sell the most of, but we wanted to be able to try and build other hops into different IPA recipes. Space Dust is now year-round, and Dayglow was a big success for us in 2014. The Savant is back out now, and then next fall we have a new IPA coming featuring the new Mandarina and Equinox hop varieties.” In addition, 2015 will also bring a new Noir Series of beers featuring some of Elysian’s more successful darker beers from the past few years. That series will include The Fix (possibly under a new name), which was the beer they brewed with the guys from Brewdogs, which won a silver medal at GABF.

Elysian owes much of its success to Cantwell, who has been leading the creative charge since the beginning as the Head Brewer. But, these days one of Elysian’s biggest assets as well as challenges is personnel. Lead brewers Kevin Watson, Steve Luke and Josh Waldman, as well as the rest of the brew team, continue to help drive that creativity that helps keep Elysian at the forefront of the industry. But, filling open positions can prove to be challenging. Cantwell says, “Staffing has been our biggest challenge (of growing). It goes back to Washington being a state of mostly small breweries. There are very few people who have the kind of experience we’re looking for in an ideal candidate to work on larger tanks and with automation systems.” He goes on to say, “I don’t want to be stealing people away from other breweries. I try to be extremely contentious about that by not ever approaching someone. I never talk to anyone about a job unless they come talking to us first. Even so, we can’t always be hiring away from each other, so what we try to do much more is bring people up from within. That creates a lot of churn, but also creates a lot of opportunity. It just takes time.”

With a large production brewery and multiple smaller locations providing a creative pipeline, Elysian is well-situated for the next several years of growth they are anticipating. They will hit their 20th anniversary in 2016, and whatever the future holds beyond that is sure to be exciting.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • dominic

    june 11th? what a dick move. that’s the same day as sierra Nevada’s beer camp festival.

  • Dennis

    I would argue there is a third camp of local beer drinkers…those who don’t follow the industry and don’t really think or worry about who owns a brewery. Sadly, I think this is a majority of the beer drinking population.

  • Bob Shoemaker

    Yes. Elysian is owned by ABI. But for 19 of those 20 years, they weren’t. Celebrate that. Thanks for making craft beer special in Seattle. Then sat your goodbyes, if you must.

  • dominic

    whatever floats yer boat, bob. i say if i ever get divorced from my wife i’m not likely celebrating our anniversary.

  • Kaiser

    Dennis – you are 100% correct.

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