A hastily dispatched phone chain the previous evening mustered about half of Elysian’s 240 employees to the brewery’s production facility in Georgetown the morning of January 23. Everyone knew something was up; the last all-hands meeting in the company’s history happened the day the original brewpub opened on Capitol Hill 19 years earlier.
Once everyone assembled inside the 35,000-square-foot building on Airport Way, two of Elysian’s three founders, Joe Bisacca and David Buhler, walked out on the brew deck, overlooking the uneasy group below before Buhler broke the news: Elysian Brewing Company, one of the most respected craft beer operations in the state, would be acquired by Anheuser-Busch. After that bombshell dropped, two executives from the conglomerate’s craft beer division stepped forward to assure the group that nothing was going to change.
Dick Cantwell, Elysian’s outspoken head brewer and one of its cofounders, was down on the floor, standing with the shell-shocked employees. The face of the brewery—blue eyes and a mouth prone to the slightest of smirks beneath a thatch of silvery blond hair—didn’t waste much time telling both the media and his own employees that he was outvoted, that he never wanted the sale to happen.
While Elysian’s staff processed the news, word of the deal spread outside the brewery’s walls. The drinking public would spend the coming weeks going through its own range of emotions. Some Seattle bars immediately removed Elysian tap handles. Things got especially rough at the company’s original Capitol Hill brewpub. People called just to yell at the bartender. A server approached a couple to take their order only to have one of them respond, “Why would I want to drink here?” There’s also the story of the guy who purchased a beer from the bar for the sole purpose of pouring it on the floor, leaving a trail behind him as he walked out the front door. Everyone loved pointing out the newfound irony in Elysian’s Loser Pale Ale, conceived as a tribute to Sub Pop Records on its 20th anniversary in 2011; labels bore the tagline “Corporate Beer Still Sucks.”
In Seattle, after all, beer is personal. People who drive Toyotas, text on iPhones, buy Diet Coke at Fred Meyer, and draw paychecks from Amazon swore off Elysian as soon as they heard the news, unable to stomach an IPA now associated with a multinational corporation. But Elysian’s journey from irreverent three-man startup to nationally respected craft brewery to property of the world’s biggest brewing company reveals a complicated mix of commitment, capitalism, personal loss, and adapting to the sort of breakneck growth that has seized the city in recent years.
Beer is exceptionally personal for 57-year-old Cantwell, whose brusque tendencies belie a tender core. While his participation was necessary for the Anheuser-Busch deal to go through, he resigned from Elysian just 13 days after the acquisition took effect. He never plans to speak to his former partners again.
In the tech world, Google or Microsoft acquiring your startup is the ultimate prize. In beer, it’s quite the opposite. Matt Lincecum, who founded Fremont Brewing in 2008—now it’s one of the largest brewers in the state—says independent breweries are forever fighting Big Beer’s considerable lobbying and distribution clout: “To this day they actively try to kill our industry,” he says. “We’ve come up as the rebel force taking on the evil empire, and that gives us a community.”
And that community is very unsettled by the recent acquisitions at the global beer concern—formally known as Anheuser-Busch InBev after a series of mergers. In 2011 AB purchased Chicago brewery Goose Island, going on to acquire Blue Point on Long Island and 10 Barrel in Bend, Oregon. As Lincecum puts it, a local operation with access to AB’s capital disrupts the brewing ecosystem. Fremont has one of the largest barrel-aging programs in the Northwest, he says, and now Goose Island has the financial firepower to buy up every barrel in sight, making it hard for his guys to find any. He fears Elysian will do the same thing with hops.
“We’ve come up as the rebel force taking on the evil empire, and that gives us a community.”
Thus Cantwell’s resignation cemented his hero status in Seattle’s craft beer community. In July, more than 100 people packed the red-walled screening room at Naked City Brewery and Taphouse in Greenwood; the emcee joked that the multitude of beards in the room resembled a scene from Game of Thrones. A small stage held a row of chairs, their occupants spanning nearly three decades of Seattle brewing. Every person invited on stage arrived with a singular mission—roasting Dick Cantwell.
Brewer Kevin Forhan, whose gray stubble and wry drawl is more Deadwood than GoT, told the audience Cantwell can be “prickly and kind of scary.” Naked City owner Don Webb lamented Cantwell’s lack of facial hair, calling the brewer “a little drunken 12-year-old.”
The commentary got raunchy fast, as tends to happen when the night is fueled by beer. Cantwell’s longtime girlfriend Kim Jordan, cofounder of the well-respected New Belgium Brewing in Colorado, also received some ribbing in absentia. Still, speakers inevitably concluded with an observation that wasn’t couched in insults: Cantwell’s love of literature, near-photographic memory, the incredible palate that aids in judging beer competitions (as the joke goes, he can sample a beer and know whether the brewer changed her perfume).
Eventually Cantwell took the mic. “I think there was a lot of missed opportunity,” he reproached his comrades. Then he launched into a litany of suggestions of his various foibles that might have made for better material.
The moment was precisely Dick Cantwell: an overachiever known for both his temper and his talent, but mostly for how much he has done for the cause of local beer. And to the people who make beer in Seattle, it’s absolutely a cause.
Cantwell quite literally wrote the book on craft beer—a volume called The Brewers Association’s Guide to Starting Your Own Brewery that must be the only brewing guide that includes references to Samuel Coleridge, the Beatles, and classic Swedish literature. His discussion of big breweries’ strategies for keeping craft brewers down starts on page three.
In the days following the Anheuser-Busch announcement, he was candid about his reservations, but tried to balance them with pragmatism. He told his brewers that, should they choose to stay, working for the very company that’s the antithesis of why most of them got into brewing in the first place does come with opportunities—the travel, the training. “There were a lot of pretty exciting possibilities for someone in my position if I were a different person,” he reflected later. “I just can’t turn my stripes.”
William Richard Cantwell Jr. was born in Germany in 1957 while his father, a Rhodes scholar, served in counterintelligence in the U.S. Army. The family, including Cantwell’s two younger brothers, eventually settled in Minnesota, where his dad was a language professor at Carleton College.
After graduating from artsy Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts, Cantwell lived in a flurry of cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, Ann Arbor, New York, Philadelphia, Madrid—following his college girlfriend (later his wife for roughly two decades) Chiyo Ishikawa as she pursued a PhD in art history. Along the way, Cantwell waited tables, bartended, and wrote two novels that never saw the light of day. Traveling through Belgium as Ishikawa studied Northern European painting gave Cantwell some eye-opening exposure to beer, like walking the streets of Antwerp and seeing locals drinking glasses of reddish-brown De Koninck. It was a charming thought—a town having its own local beer.
An old college friend showed Cantwell the basics of home brewing while he lived in Boston; he attempted his first batch in their apartment kitchen while Ishikawa was expecting their daughter, Lucy. Soon he found himself at home taking care of a newborn—spending six hours a day writing fiction was out the window. Cantwell was in his early 30s, with a palate built on years of increasingly ambitious cooking and food sensibilities honed during years working in restaurants. He needed a creative outlet to replace writing and a job beyond waiting tables. Brewing began as a hobby, but America had begun exploring life beyond Rainier and Bud Light; he resolved to make it a career.
When Ishikawa accepted the job of assistant curator at Seattle Art Museum, the moving truck that rattled into town in the very first days of 1990 contained nearly 20 cases of Cantwell’s home brew. Once settled in a house in Madrona, Cantwell assembled mixed six-packs to drop off at the city’s smattering of breweries—a liquid resume of sorts. He’d been making beer for less than two years, but he was ready to go pro.
As the 1990s dawned, Seattle’s brewing community was still so small it could have fit at a communal table, but Kevin Forhan was dining alone. The number three brewer at what was then known as Pike Place Brewery had heard about a new brewpub called Duwamps Cafe opening “in one of those cursed spaces on Lower Queen Anne that was something else every year or two.” When the waiter approached, Forhan asked if the brewer was on the premises. His server drew himself up taller—“I’m the brewer.” It was Dick Cantwell at his first-ever professional brewing gig, making a lofty $7 an hour and doing double duty as a server.
Forhan still gets a kick out of his first meeting with the man who would go on to be his colleague and close friend. “I have a very clear picture of it in my mind, which I treasure greatly: Dick Cantwell standing there calling me sir and explaining the appetizers.”
Soon after, Cantwell joined the staff at what later became the Pike Brewing Company. Owners Charles and Rose Ann Finkel originally imported European craft beers to the U.S., exposing Seattleites to more exotic styles—a stout, perhaps, or an all-but-extinct British creation known as IPA. Eventually they felt the public might be ready for locally made versions. Charles Finkel hired brewers who shared his obsession—a group that proved Seattle’s beer equivalent to the cast of Saturday Night Live; so many Pike alums went on to be head brewers elsewhere that the Finkels at one point made up baseball-style trading cards.
Back then, brewing happened in a 750-square-foot room beneath Pike Place Market on Western; within its tiled walls was a relatively tiny four-barrel brewing system and three—later four—full-time brewers who ran it nearly continuously to keep up with demand. Cantwell was one of several big personalities (one year the brewing staff posed for a Christmas card photo standing in a river, completely nude save for some strategically placed garlands of hops) who spent long hours together in that small space. He and the head brewer, Fal Allen, shared a mutual intensity, both about beer and everything else. One rainy day the two placed bets—heated ones—on which raindrop on the front window near the copper brew kettle would trickle down to the windowsill first. They’re best friends to this day.
The night of May 10, 1996, was a bit of a mob scene at a former Packard dealership on Capitol Hill, on what was then the quiet upper reaches of the Pike/Pine corridor, four blocks removed from the action down on Broadway. The space was big enough that Fal Allen drove his motorcycle through the open front door and parked it on the concrete floor. What little furniture there was came secondhand from auctions. One guest leaned back in a chair only to have it fall apart, dumping him unceremoniously on the ground.
It was the era of the three-tap brewpub—something pale, something amber, and something dark; Elysian’s bar had space for an astonishing 16 taps. By then Cantwell was 39 years old, with a reputation as a brewer to watch. But he only had one beer ready for opening night.
He and his two partners filled the remaining taps with handles from other breweries they had worked with—Hale’s Ales, Rogue, Pike Place, Big Time Brewing. But when it came time for the three guys to toast their new venture, they hoisted pints of Elysian’s first beer, the Wise ESB, a British style resurrected and reimagined with Northwest hops.
The alliance outlined in Elysian’s business plan made so much sense: a numbers guy, a marketing guy, and a beer guy joining forces in a moment when Seattle was getting its first inklings of proper European beer styles. It traces back to an afternoon when Cantwell was working at Pike. A visitor with dark curly hair, neatly trimmed as befitting a banker, dropped by for a visit. Joe Bisacca had moved to Seattle to work for Seafirst Bank. He liked to home brew; his older brother, a friend from Cantwell’s New York days, told him to look the brewer up.
Cantwell and Bisacca took to meeting at bars around town. Eventually these outings turned into discussions of opening their own brewpub. Bisacca was tired of banking; Cantwell was tired of deferring to other people.
In the fall of 1994, Cantwell, now working at Big Time Brewery in the U District, caught a ride back from a conference in Portland with an acquaintance from the beer scene named David Buhler, a broker for brands like Rogue and Newcastle Brown who played guitar in his off hours and sported a relaxed attitude and effusive Vandyke beard to match. As his boxy old Volkswagen Vanagon barreled up I-5, Buhler told Cantwell of his dream of opening a restaurant that served good beer alongside higher-end food.
Cantwell introduced him to Bisacca—the two had been looking for someone to handle the sales side of their theoretical brewery—and the three men decided to move forward, despite not knowing one another very well. Buhler suggested the name Elysian Brewing Company, a nod to the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology—a place of perfect happiness.
The guys landed upon a former Packard dealership at 1221 East Pike Street, a rundown pocket with just a few scattered haunts that reflected the character of the neighborhood—Moe’s, the Comet, Wildrose, and the Cuff. Fueled by Piecora’s pizzas and kegs of Cantwell’s beer, the partners tore down a wall, dismantled a mezzanine, and stripped away beige-painted lathe and plaster to reveal the timbered ceiling. Nearly one-third of the scant budget went to the 20-barrel brew system still in place today. Long before he became mayor, Ed Murray kicked off his first-ever election campaign for state representative at the not-quite-open brewery because it was the biggest gathering place on the hill.
Back then, says Cantwell, to have an exit strategy would show a lack of sincerity. Now he considers it a critical component of starting a business. He also wishes the trio had devised a mission statement for their new company, “so you have words to refer your partners to when you encounter challenges.”
Cantwell’s beer undeniably established Elysian’s reputation. First came interpretations of classic styles like the Dragonstooth Stout and Immortal IPA, long Elysian’s most popular offering. As Elysian added locations in Tangletown and SoDo, those smaller brewing systems allowed Cantwell and his growing staff to get creative.
Over the years experiments at Elysian included a bock beer brewed with golden beets, a tripel made with yerba mate, even a golden ale made with frankincense, gold, and myrrh called Stranger Manger. In his role as Elysian’s experimental brewer, Steve Luke remembers handing in a $350 receipt for green tea, “and they didn’t bat an eye.” But those types of experiments bred successes like the Space Dust IPA, now set to become the brewery’s top seller.
By 2011, Elysian opened a 35,000-square-foot production plant on Airport Way, a brewery big enough to supply beer to 11 states, Washington, DC, and three Canadian provinces. Brewers applied for jobs here or at Elysian’s three brewpubs around town hoping for a chance to work with Dick Cantwell. His own son, Nap, started working at the new Georgetown facility when he was 18, and soon developed a habit of dipping into his dad’s vast collection of Elysian T-shirts when getting dressed for work in the morning.
It really wasn’t at all surprising that Anheuser-Busch came calling. Craft beer’s market share had climbed from microscopic to a healthy 11 percent. Operations like Elysian, started on a shoestring in the nascent days, are mature, successful businesses, in this case making beer that regularly brought home medals from competitions. Annual growth of 50 to 60 percent had become standard. Unlike Budweiser, whose appeal lies in its uncomplicated sameness, craft beer is always changing as brewers lead drinkers to new styles like sour beers or quadruple IPAs, a syncopation that’s hard for big breweries to ape. But that’s where the growth is.
Cantwell, Bisacca, and Buhler had spent a little time thinking about what might happen once any or all of the partners moved on; they quietly agreed to groom the company for sale.
Over the years, the men who founded Elysian developed different visions of what it should be, a splintering that produced friction. Bisacca was focused on expanding the business into new markets. Cantwell was writing, speaking, and traveling more than he was brewing, building prestige on a national level for the relatively small brewery. Buhler was writing and performing music; he released his first album in 2013.
Most of all, nobody was waiting in the wings to take over.
Cantwell had agreed to let his son work at Elysian after a series of rough high school years that took a toll on both his parents, who by then were divorced. Nap got in trouble at school, threw parties at his dad’s condo when he wasn’t around, and eventually quit going to Garfield High School before he could graduate. The job was pure grunt work, but also an unexpected form of salvation. Nap was a bright kid and a hard worker; he took to the structure at the plant and the guys on the production line liked him. He talked about working at New Belgium, the Colorado craft brewery cofounded by Cantwell’s girlfriend, to learn more about making beer.
On May 29, just a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday, Nap was riding his father’s borrowed bike to work when he was hit by a van at an intersection. He died eight days later.
Sitting on his rooftop watching a particularly vivid sunset over Lake Union and the Olympics, Cantwell remembers the short chapter where his son found his footing through his father’s vocation. “It was too soon; impossible to imagine how that might have gone,” he says. “It’s not like I assumed Nap could take it over; it was a complicated picture. But when he was gone, I knew it was something that could never happen.”
As Cantwell weighed the Anheuser-Busch offer a few years later, he often thought he would have liked to hear his son’s opinion about what he should do.
In April, 2014, Cantwell judged the biennial World Beer Cup in Colorado. One of his fellow judges, a friend and a longtime Anheuser-Busch employee, first brought it up casually: Would Elysian ever be interested in selling?
The question left Cantwell feeling slightly sick. He wished he could simply undo that conversation, but he had a responsibility to share the overture with his partners and the two other guys that comprised the company’s five-person board. Differences aside, “I was counting on alignment,” says Cantwell. “I figured we would be in agreement about being in opposition to this.”
Bisacca and Buhler were open to hearing what AB had to say. The board agreed that Bisacca, as CEO, would talk to a few private equity firms to gauge whether Anheuser-Busch’s numbers were attractive. The firms he spoke with followed a general model: Grow Elysian like crazy for a few years, then sell it once again to the highest bidder. “They’ll run you 100 miles per hour, and then they’ll dump you,” says Bisacca.
“There were a lot of pretty exciting possibilities for someone in my position if I were a different person. I just can’t turn my stripes.”
Anheuser-Busch wasn’t initially his first choice, but talking to the leadership team changed his mind. These execs spoke of preserving the brewery’s culture, giving it more resources to make experimental beers, and using their distributors to take those beers to new places, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Meanwhile, Cantwell hoped New Belgium could put together an offer. The brewery shared a similar ethos to Elysian, was cofounded by his girlfriend, and is owned by its employees—a setup he admired. He says the board didn’t give New Belgium enough time; Bisacca says by the time the interest materialized, a deadline was looming with the Anheuser-Busch offer and it was unlikely something could come together that fast.
When it came time to vote, Cantwell was the lone “Nay.” Neither Elysian nor its parent company will disclose the sale price. (“There are a lot of rumors out there,” says Bisacca. “They’re all wrong.”) Elysian’s CEO says the Anheuser-Busch offer wasn’t the highest, but it was the one that felt right to him.
Of course, for the deal to go through, all three owners needed to be part of it. Cantwell considered—still considers—what would have happened if he had just refused. As a board member he was bound to do what was in the best financial interest of Elysian’s 26 shareholders, but he also feared saying no would immobilize the company (and torpedo its value). “The only other option I had was sort of an apocalyptic one.”
Cantwell’s former partners say they supported the Anheuser-Busch sale for the same reason he opposed it—they wanted to preserve Elysian.
The company doesn’t want to set Elysian’s brewers to work making Budweiser. Representatives for AB InBev say they don’t plan to shutter Elysian’s pubs, or make the brewery use cheaper ingredients, or hand down ideas for painfully market-researched “craft” beers that essentially slap an Elysian label on a bottle of Bud Light Lime.
Andy Goeler, who oversees AB’s craft division and considers the Northwest the epicenter of craft beer—“not even in the United States, I mean in the world”—says his company was looking for a brewery that, above all, makes great beer. One whose owners want to continue building the brand.
“Protecting the authenticity and their culture, that’s a core principle that we adhere to,” he says of his company’s craft acquisitions. “We have no intention of ever closing down Elysian Brewing. We’re in this for the long term.”
Since the deal closed April 1, employees got various levels of raises; some have health insurance for the first time. There’s also new equipment and AB-owned resources like the world’s largest contiguous hop farm in northern Idaho (street address: 822 Budweiser Loop).
Kevin Watson, the lead brewer at Capitol Hill, is an unmistakable figure there, thanks to his mop of curly reddish hair and a beard that would impress even the most devout of Amish men. “It might be easier to get an ingredient,” he says between sips of Dayglow IPA. “But it might be more difficult to make a beer with that ingredient,” thanks to a few extra layers of paperwork and meetings. As Cantwell advised, he’s trying to learn all he can from this new reality: Smaller breweries may have a lock on innovation, but bigger breweries are masters of consistency and quality control. Sitting beside him is Josh Waldman, who assumed the head brewer title after Cantwell’s departure. It feels odd to defend a big beer company, he says, but anyone willing to push through all that red tape has a massive platform to change how the American public drinks: “We can have a huge impact on what good beer is.”
Of course, Elysian’s new owners want to see more of its beer, enough to satisfy the entreaties of AB distributors around the country. Anheuser-Busch’s production plant in Fairfield, California, is being outfitted with the conical tanks used to brew ales (as opposed to lagers like Busch or Bud Light) in preparation for brewing IPAs. “We decide what beers go there at what times,” says Bisacca, still Elysian’s CEO. Thanks to some additional equipment he wishes he had at his own facilities, “The beer may wind up being a little bit better.”
Barely a week after the sale announcement came the Super Bowl, and with it the Budweiser ad that’s now infamous among Elysian’s fans. The spot showed prissy mustachioed craft beer drinkers quaffing delicate glasses of “fussed over” craft beer. “Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale,” the ad scoffed. Budweiser was for real men.
One slight problem—Budweiser’s newly acquired sibling brewery actually has a pumpkin peach ale in its repertoire. It’s called Gourdgia on My Mind, created by experimental brewer Steve Luke for Elysian’s annual Great Pumpkin Beer Fest.
It wasn’t a specific slam against Elysian. Each arm of the company does what’s necessary to sell its product; Budweiser’s team chose a combo that to them rang too ridiculous to be real.
Three days later, Seattle was still smarting from its loss to the New England Patriots when a handful of Anheuser-Busch InBev executives, including CEO Carlos Brito, landed in Seattle. They were here on other business but wanted to visit Elysian’s new offices in Georgetown, a 1906 brick structure with the gravitas of a small city hall, originally the offices of the old Rainier brewery. The group toured the plant and answered employee questions (including plenty about that ad).
Before his new bosses arrived, Bisacca scanned the inventory sheet, looking for a suitable beer for his visitors. He laughed out loud when he saw it: one remaining keg of Gourdgia on My Mind.
After the tour, Bisacca offered the world’s most powerful beer executive a drink, and said, “It’s a pumpkin peach ale.” Brito, he says, responded with a grin and even had a second glass.
Since Cantwell’s departure, Bisacca has become more of the face of Elysian. He’s enthusiastic, not defensive, when speaking of the sale; he sprinkles congenial sentences with light curse words for regular-guy emphasis. He may show up to work in a new Maserati, but he relishes his self-appointed role as his staff’s protector from corporate drudgery. For him, the moment was proof that Elysian can still poke back at Big Beer, even if it’s now part of the same family.
That same Wise ESB that poured on the brewery’s inaugural night is still on draft on May 13, 2015. It’s Cantwell’s last day on the job 19 years—nearly to the day—after that opening party.
When Elysian announced its sale, Cantwell told reporters he would stay on board, but even then he knew otherwise. Like Buhler and Bisacca, Cantwell had signed a contract to stick around, in his case for at least two years. It took some maneuvering with his lawyer, and walking away from some of the money. Under the terms of Cantwell’s departure, he can’t “work or invest or collaborate” anywhere in the U.S. for a year; Washington, Oregon, and Idaho are off limits for five years.
On his final afternoon as an Elysian employee, he stands next to the bar, ringed by beer industry cohorts, Elysian brewers, and complete strangers who just want to toast the guy who created some of their favorite beers.
“Thank you for everything,” a customer in an Elysian hoodie tells Cantwell, twisting around in his seat at the bar to address the brewer. He’s a stranger, but Cantwell clinks his glass anyway.
The brewery founded on Capitol Hill 19 years ago has changed, but so has the city around it. These days Pike/Pine is hardly rundown; new mixed-use midrise developments are wedged into the shells of 1920s-era brick auto dealerships, preserving the look if not the essence.
Dick Cantwell isn’t the same, either.
By the time he left Elysian he was personally brewing once a month, tops, on the tiny Tangletown system. Some days find him waking up in his Capitol Hill condo—where a painting of Nap hangs on the landing over a collection of childhood mementos—and swimming in Lake Washington. Plenty of others find him on the road—speaking at a conference in South America, holing up in his second home in San Francisco to work on his latest book, or visiting various cities in his new role as quality ambassador for craft beer’s Brewers Association, whose guidelines are designed to discourage members from taking up with big brewing corporations.
Cantwell will undoubtedly brew again; it just won’t be here. “I’m not old old,” he says, “but I don’t want to wait five years.” California seems likely since he spends a lot of time there. In their own ways, both he and Elysian are bigger than Seattle. Our city has a legacy of sharing its creations with the world—Microsoft Office, Frappuccinos, free two-day delivery for Prime members, and now its beer.
Meanwhile, local beer’s self-made spirit endures. It’s Elysian’s former experimental brewer Steve Luke, now readying his own small brewery called Cloudburst, just a few blocks away from where Cantwell labored over Pike’s tiny brew kettle. It’s veteran brewer Kevin Forhan’s new gig at Flying Bike Cooperative Brewery in Greenwood, scaling up members’ best home-brew recipes for public consumption. It’s Kevin Watson and Josh Waldman and Elysian’s other brewers designing this year’s batch of pumpkin beers for the Great Pumpkin Beer Fest. Open a bottle of Elysian’s Immortal IPA and it tastes just the same. Only the story is different.