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Monday, February 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Legislators poised to create state beer commission

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — To guys like Dick Cantwell, spreading the gospel of good beer shouldn't be much harder than sliding a glass of fresh, hop-laden India Pale Ale across the counter and letting the word spread with each satisfied gulp.

But rising from mom-and-pop to regional power is never that simple. So two decades after they helped launch the modern brewpub craze, Washington's small beer makers are trying to drive up the consumer appeal of their top-shelf products.

"The profile is pretty good. Nationally, certainly we're one of the most prolific, at least in terms of the numbers of breweries we have," said Cantwell, brewer and co-owner at Seattle's Elysian Brewing.

"Still, even locally, there are some people who need to be converted to the cause."

The crusade to establish Washington-made as a premium microbrew brand is in line for some help from the state Legislature, which appears willing to create a new industry promotional arm called the Washington Beer Commission.

If lawmakers give their blessing, the commission would be officially empowered to levy a modest tax on its producers, put on fundraising festivals, and — perhaps most importantly — give away free beer.

"I drink milk, personally," said state Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen, D-Eatonville, a dairy farmer who is a sponsor of the Beer Commission bill. "But as long as they use Washington hops and Washington barley, I approve."

The beer makers' model is the Washington Wine Commission, seen as instrumental in promoting the state's most well-known adult beverage during its rise to national prominence in the past 20 years.

The Pacific Northwest is also among the country's hottest regions for microbrewing. The late, great beer pioneer Bert Grant laid claim to the first American brewpub since Prohibition in the early 1980s, and the Yakima Valley is the nation's leading producer of the piney, sharp-tasting hops that give many flavorful beers their kick.

There's also a dependable customer base among Northwesterners, who tend to have an educated, epicurean bent toward rich, flavorful food and drink — think strong coffee, fresh seafood, hearty cheeses. And some think brewpubs have benefited from the meteorological influences that made coffeehouses and bookstores popular.

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Says Cantwell: "The weather's lousy here. It's pleasant to sit inside and drink beer."

Local brews overlooked

But microbrewers across Washington are sick and tired, frankly, of seeing their fellow Evergreen Staters hoisting brews from interlopers in Montana, Oregon and California.

At present, virtually 99 percent of all beer consumed in Washington is brewed outside the state, said George Hancock, founder of Pyramid Breweries and president of the Brewers Guild.

"That's the frustrating thing — we have world-class beers brewed in Washington and, really, no one's telling the story. No one's out there explaining ... that this is the Bordeaux country for beer," Hancock said.

As the effort spreads, commission supporters think it will enhance the regional cachet of Washington-made beers — and maybe even make a dent in some farther-flung markets.

Time of growth

Breaking into the national beer business can be tough for a niche industry built on small, friends-and-family operations with a fierce independent streak.

Even so, Washington beer producers appear to have picked a good time to begin pushing their products on a larger scale.

While the big names in brewing have seen declines in recent years, the market share for craft beers has been steadily expanding.

Last year, barrel sales of microbrews grew by 9 percent, marking the second straight year that craft beers have been the fastest-growing segment of the domestic alcoholic-beverage industry, the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association said.

"You're talking less than 5 percent of all the beer sales are craft beers, but it's the fastest-growing, steadiest-growing segment of the domestic beer category," said Jerald O'Kennard, director of the Chicago-based Beverage Tasting Institute.

Initially, the greatest benefits from a Beer Commission likely would flow to the smallest of the state's 80 or so craft beer makers, who otherwise have minuscule-to-nonexistent marketing budgets.

All of the state's brewers likely will get a boatload of exposure in the spring, when the Brewers Association's Craft Brewers Conference and its biannual World Beer Cup are held in Seattle.

The event promises to bring some 1,300 industry leaders to the city for some hobnobbing, networking, and, yes, plenty of beer drinking.

"I've been involved in a lot of other businesses," says Pyramid's Hancock, "but there's nothing more fun than the beer industry, frankly."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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