The beer community of Portland, Oregon is suffering a major blow this week, as Hair of the Dog Brewing Co. founder/brewmaster Alan Sprints announced not only that he will retire from the company he founded in 1993, but that Hair of the Dog will close up operations with him. When the brewery closes its doors this summer, the Pacific Northwest will lose one of its most decorated and beloved beer institutions, one that has arguably been among the most influential craft breweries of the last 30 years.
Hair of the Dog wasn’t always the best known brand on a national stage, and never expanded its distribution to be omnipresent in package stores around the country, but their plethora of awards and penchant for experimentation/extreme beers made a huge impact in the development of several beer styles in particular. Sprints was heavily inspired by British old ales/barleywines, and this appreciation for strong, malty and boozy styles gave Hair of the Dog a very unique philosophy in a time when such styles were very rare in the American craft beer scene. Personally, we imagine that trying to convince people to try barleywine in the mid-1990s was probably quite a challenge for Sprints and co., considering that even the vast majority of “microbrew” drinkers had likely never experienced anything like it before. Ultimately, Hair of the Dog was especially well known for classic beers like the 10% ABV English old ale Adam, or the equally powerful American strong ale known as Fred. Indeed, Hair of the Dog beers were frequently named with such monikers, including the legendary, 29% ABV barleywine Dave, made by ice concentrating batches of Adam until they were three times stronger. Along with breweries such as Goose Island and Founders, Hair of the Dog was on the cutting edge of the barrel-aged beer revolution at the time.
In a message announcing the closure on Facebook and Instagram on Monday, Sprints says that “beer has been very very good to me,” and that “I feel so fortunate to have been able to spend over half my life doing something I love so much.” He goes on to say that he still has a few more beers to release, and lots of inventory to sell through before an eventual closure in the summer of 2022, although no specific date has been set. Those wanting to make a final pilgrimage to Hair of the Dog will probably want to do so sooner rather than later.
One can’t help but note that this particular closure stands out as unusual in the modern craft beer scene, where the retirement of a longtime figurehead/owner/brewmaster often is announced alongside the sale of a company to another brewing entity or private investment group. It’s genuinely unusual for a brewery like this to simply close up shop and shut down operations for good because an owner is retiring, to the point that I can’t really think of any comparable closures of this nature.
It begs the question of what kind of options were really available to Sprints. It would seem that there certainly was no heir apparent for Hair of the Dog, no assistant or family member who was interested in inheriting the business. It could be that no reasonable offer was made to buy the company, or that Sprints was adamant on not selling it to anyone else. And of course, it also seems entirely possible that the retirement of Sprints is an acknowledgement of how much more difficult, highly competitive and overcrowded the beer business has become since the early 1990s. Coupled with long closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we would hardly be surprised if Hair of the Dog had been in considerable financial duress during the height of the pandemic, and now as it (hopefully) recedes. It may be that “I’m retiring” is simply a more palatable version of “operating this business is no longer tenable in this climate.” We certainly can’t say anything for certain, beyond noting the unusual nature of this particular closure.
What is certain is that Portland, the Pacific Northwest, and beer geeks around the U.S. will all miss Hair of the Dog, and remember it as one of the true progenitors of many of the most popular barrel-aged beer styles that are now craft beer staples. We wish Alan Sprints and the entire Hair of the Dog crew the best as they say their goodbyes over the next few months.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.