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Originally published Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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They've got pull: Renton company creates beer tap handles

As beer gets more sophisticated, tap handles become little pieces of artwork — thanks to Renton-based Taphandles Inc., one of the country's largest producers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Here in the Northwest, we're high-end drinkers with sophisticated palates, and we know: Picking our beers based on their tap handles is like choosing our wines by their labels or blind dates by their Internet photos -- and we are soooo beyond that!

So at Seattle's Duck Island Ale House, bar manager Jeremiah Harrison is always ready to prop a menu of the bar's 24 available taps in front of his customers. Still, some just gaze past him and say, "Nah, just let me look at the taps."

What? Does the tap handle tell you anything about what the beer tastes like? Or what's in it? What the alcohol content is?

'Course not. Just the same, there's a reason Duck Island's ceiling is chandeliered with hundreds of used tap handles. As microbrews have exploded nationwide, so too has the competition for draft position behind the bar, making tap-handle design one more category in the draft-beer pageant to fret about. "You have to now, if you want to stand out," says Charlie Hutchinson, bar manager of Seattle's 74th Street Ale House.

The result? Tap handles shaped like, or crafted from, just about anything you can imagine — pirates, animals, musical instruments, you name it. Though most are made from wood or plastic, there's also driftwood (Pacific Rim Brewing Co.'s Driftwood Ale), a Barbie doll (Skagit Valley's Dutch Girl Lager), even a garden hose faucet (Sunrye Ale, of Woodinville's Red Hook Brewing Co.).

"You can really take this off and wash your car with it," Harrison says of Sunrye's faucet, as if he knows of what he speaks. "It's the real deal."

Behold, a new form of art is born

The familiar beer pulls you see when you walk into a bar weren't always part of the package. But as a result of a little post-Prohibition chicanery, laws required taverns to fully identify what they were pouring. Originally, according to All About Beer magazine, the markers were "ball knobs" two or three inches tall.

But as beer has evolved to connoisseur status, so have the pulls. One handle for Rogue's Dead Guy Ale (Newport, Ore.) is a skeleton hoisting a frosty mug. Mukilteo-based Diamond Knot Brewery's handles are wooden levers encircled by thin strands of rope. And the competition-winning design of Lost Coast Brewery's Great White Beer, from Eureka, Calif., features a rascally shark munching on a surfboard.

Harrison can't help but love the pirate-shaped Piraat (a Belgian India Pale Ale-style beer), but he's also partial to the sleek goose-head handles of Chicago-based Goose Island Brewery and the golden Kremlin atop the handle of Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (North Coast Brewing Co., Fort Bragg, Calif.). Another favorite, the silver figurine of now-defunct Yakima-based brewer Bert Grant, has been relegated to batlike hibernation above the Duck Island bar.

Many come from Renton-based Taphandles Inc., one of the country's largest producers, which expects to ship half a million tap handles this year, mostly to American and Canadian brewers. It employs four designers at its Renton office who spend their days dreaming up designs to be made at its production facility in Guangdong province, China.

The company, which Paul Fichter launched in 1999, was behind Sunrye's garden-hose design. "I bought real hoses, fittings, and spray nozzles at McClendon's Hardware," Fichter says. "It was a very fun project."

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Compelling handles sell more beer, he says. When his company crafted an orca-shaped tap handle for Alaskan Brewing's Summer Pale Ale, he says the beer exceeded sales projections. "The name of the beer was so small it was unreadable," Fichter says. "People just asked for 'the whale beer.' "

Elliott Ryan, bar manager at Latona Pub near Green Lake, says he's seen height increasingly wielded as a weapon in the tap handle wars. Whereas the typical tap handle averages six or seven inches, he says, some are now twice as high.

Trumer Brauerei's Trumer Pils, for instance, has a silver-rod handle crowned with a medallion, while Port Townsend's Water Street Brewing Co. is another alpha dog whose especially lengthy handle is made of handblown glass.

"It gets their beer in someone's mind before another beer," Ryan says.

At Chopstix, a piano bar on lower Queen Anne, the house special brew, Chopstix Amber Ale, has a handle topped by a baby grand piano. "As taps go, it's an eye-catcher," says bartender Chris Williams, flipping open the top and propping it up with a toothpick. "It does allow me to give out samples of it."

Among his favorites, Hutchinson of 74th Street Ale House counts the milk-bottle shaped tap handle of Seattle-based Hale's Cream Ale, as well as Pike Street Brewery's Tandem Double Ale, which evokes the style of a cue stick.

But the best, he thinks, are the European-style ceramic tap handles used by beers like Strongbow (England) or Harp (Ireland). He pulls one out and pats it like a billy club against his palm. No wimpy tap handles, those.

Many bar managers keep used tap handles in case the beer is brought back into rotation. They end up stored in milk crates shoved into cabinets or high on backroom shelves, and the Latona Pub's Ryan dreams of the day he'll create some sort of sculpture from the tap handles he's saved.

But some handles already qualify as art, with the name of the artist carved into the back. Harrison is currently featuring two beers — the Belgian Piraat and the British Babycham — with taps designed by the same artist.

Not everyone likes the artwork. "Some are so fancy you can't tell what they are," says Queen Anne's Jacqueline Stratton, a customer at Fremont's Dubliner who is partial to Mac & Jack's African Amber, produced in Redmond. "It's like — what the hell is that?"

OK, but does it need to light up?

Some bartenders also think brewers might be going overboard. One tap handle for Maudite, a Belgian strong dark ale brewed in Quebec with a logo featuring a smug-looking devil, actually lit up when pulled. Another brewer offered an illuminated, working clock. "That was a little excessive," says Ian Roberts of Brouwer's Cafe in Fremont. "But think about it — it was the one lit handle on the entire bar."

"Audacious works," says Wedgwood Ale House's Derek Arntz. "But also, simple works very well."

Some have figured out ways to be cost-effective, devising handles with interchangeable beer labels that fasten magnetically or with Velcro. And Taphandles offers those who want to spend a little more the option to buy handles made of bamboo, a sustainable material that can be harvested multiple times. "It's been a bit interesting because we get to see who really means their environmental hype," Fichter says.

Not everyone can devote resources to such accoutrements. Take Baron Brewing, based near Seattle's South Park neighborhood, whose pilsner tap handles are tiny chain-wearing paddles of respectability. "Little guys like Baron, they're just trying to make it as a brewery," Duck Island's Harrison says. "I know the owner probably cut all the stickers out by hand and put those little chains on by hand while watching TV at home."

"Any attention-grabbing you can do is good," says Latona's Ryan. "But if your beer's no good, nobody's gonna give you a second look."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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