He’s been called the “Dean of America’s craft brewers” and the Wall Street Journal called him “The Patriarch of the micro movement.” Personally, I prefer Bert Grant as the “Neil Young of Microbrews.” Neil didn’t invent Rock ’n Roll, but he was the Godfather of Grunge. Likewise, Bert didn’t invent beer but what he did to change it made an indelible mark.
Most people know Bert Grant as the man who gave us Yakima brewing and Malting Co., or Grant’s Ales. While he launched that business in 1982, his passion for beer, and hops in general, started decades before.
Bert was born in 1928 in Dundee, Scotland. Before he reached the age of 10, the Grant family moved to Toronto, and Bert had consumed his first beer. I should say his first of many beers. I don’t even know if it’s possible to quantify what Bert consumed over his lifetime. As a child, Bert’s father let him drink opened beers left behind, and his first job at age 16 was to taste beer; 50-100 per day — you do the math.
The thing about beer drinking for Bert was that he truly enjoyed it. It wasn’t about the feeling, it was about the flavor. And, it was about the science behind the flavor. Bert was a chemist and loved studying why one beer could taste remarkable, and another could ruin your evening.
Part of his career included working for Canadian Breweries (parent company of Carling) and Stroh Brewing Company, doing experimental brewing. He had the freedom to try new things, but sadly neither company utilized his research or expertise. Finally, Bert realized consulting was the best direction for him. He eventually worked with large breweries spanning the globe such as Guinness, Coors, Foster’s, Anheuser-Busch and Yakima hop company, S.S. Steiner.
Steiner was the business that really changed Bert’s world, and ours as a collective of beer drinkers. They convinced him to move to Yakima and redesign a hop extract plant. After great success, Bert and Steiner changed gears — literally. Under Bert’s supervision, Steiner built the first hop pellet plant in the United States. This was a game changer for the beer industry. It took the varying aroma of a whole hop cone (based on time from harvest) and replaced it with exacting smell and bitterness. It was similar in nature to the extract, but far easier and more precise for the brewer to use.
With over 40 years of beer tasting and testing under his belt, Bert wanted to share his knowledge with the world, or at least the people of the Yakima Valley. It would be a daunting task because at the time, no one even knew what a microbrew was. In the early ‘80s, there were two little known breweries in California, Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing, that were making something entirely different than the “King of Beers.” In 1982, when Bert was ready to start brewing professionally, his only competition in the state was Redhook. On July 1st that year, Yakima Brewing and Malting Co. poured its first Grant’s Scottish Ale in the old Opera House on Yakima’s Front Street.
Bert was at the helm as one of the chief investors and brewmaster, and the recipes and ideas all stemmed from him. He started with his son-in-law and a few others to round out the investment team and hired Rick Desmarais (who he had worked with at Steiner) as his first head brewer and Dan Boutillier as production manager. Within the first few years the Scottish Ale shared tap space with an Imperial Stout and an India Pale Ale (IPA). A few years beyond that, a low calorie “Celtic Ale”, Weis (white beer), “Spiced Ale” (winter beer) and Yakima Cider (a hard cider made exclusively from apple concentrate) were added to the lineup.
The unique thing about Yakima Brewing and Malting is that it started without a bottling line. It was only available in plastic bottles that the consumer could bring or purchase like a crude precursor to today’s growler. It was also available for consumption on premises. This is what really stood out because it was the first time anyone had an establishment of that nature in the United States since before prohibition. Yakima, Washington was the home of the first “brewpub” in America in over 60 years.
In 1984, Bert hired Darren Waytuck who eventually became head brewer. Waytuck said it was a tremendous learning experience working for someone like Bert. “He wasn’t only into the chemistry of the beer and that process, but in hops as well. That was really his forte. But he also had incredible experience. Someone new might know if a beer was flawed but wouldn’t know why. It was Bert’s job to understand why and how to correct it.”
As brew master, Bert was still in charge of all things happening with his beer. All ideas would come from him on the brewing process and ingredients. When asked about what hops they used to brew with, Waytuck said, “I preferred the whole hop cone and didn’t care for the smell of a hop pellet, but Bert insisted. When I still didn’t use them, Bert ran us out of whole hops so I had to use the pellets.”
Bert was a risk taker though, and had no problem with pushing the envelope for something he was passionate about. “No one was out there getting their beer in front of people like Bert did, it just didn’t happen before his time.” Waytuck said. With that success they had to build a bottling line directly behind the brewery in the Opera House. They also expanded into a space to the north for a larger pub which my mother, Jana Johnson, ran for the better part of two decades. When that wasn’t enough, the brewery expanded to a 20,000 square foot building off Washington Avenue and the pub moved across the street to the old train depot.
Waytuck and the crew enjoyed their craft, but he said, “it was a lot more fun at the Opera House. It became more corporate at the new brewery and was more of a task.”
Shortly after the locations changed, Bert continued to push the envelope, but this time with an organization that no one beats — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, (ATF). Bert had done some testing on his beers and found that a 12 ounce bottle of Scottish Ale contained beneficial vitamins and nutrients, including 170 percent of the U.S. RDA of Vitamin B-12. He had table tents printed, added it to his 6-pack cartons and even made shirts advertising the news (although a bit tattered, I’m happy to say I still have mine).
Of course the ATF wouldn’t allow someone to suggest that beer was actually healthy for you and ordered him to stop. At the same time, the Bureau looked into his cider making process which was not technically a beer, but considered by them as a wine. Not only did they prevent him from continuing to make the cider, they required he pay back taxes for the years he paid too little. Waytuck said, “It was tough for Bert. He didn’t like the confrontation, but he was going to push as far as he could.”
After achieving a greater success than I believe Bert imagined he could, Yakima Brewing and Malting was sold to Stimson Lane, the parent company of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and other wineries in Washington and California, in 1995. While his role changed, Bert stayed on with the company until he passed away in July of 2001. Stimson Lane sold the company only a few months later. Waytuck stayed committed to the brand and eventually became brewmaster, before the company closed in 2004. “I promised Bert I would see it through and make the best beer as long as we were open,” Waytuck said.
Over the years, numerous brewers, and breweries, have created a single rare or unique item in the beer world. Bert was somehow able to create many. The list includes:
Building the first hop pelletizing machine in the United States
Patenting the “isomerized” hop pellet strictly for aroma
Introducing the Cascade hop, now one of the most prominent and widely used hops in craft brews, to breweries worldwide
Developing the first brewpub in the U.S. post prohibition
Brewing the first Scottish Ale in the U.S.
Brewing the first Russian style Imperial Stout in the U.S.
Brewing the first IPA in the U.S.
Helping to develop the “fresh hop” ale in 1997. The hops he used for brewing were picked less than two hours before going into the kettle
I asked Waytuck what he considered to be Bert’s greatest achievement. He replied with, “Everything he did was his greatest achievement.” I couldn’t agree more. Thanks Bert for helping shape the craft brewing industry we know and love today.