In 2010, Sprints moved his brewery from the obscurity of the industrial Southeast to the foot of the Morrison Bridge, where he presides over an airy, colorful taproom decorated with his artwork, serving his new and vintage beers and a robust menu influenced by his love of Belgian pubs and his training as a professional chef.
By John Foyston
Hair of the Dog Brewing's annual production of 1,200 kegs makes it one of Oregon's smallest brewers, yet the brewery --- which turns 20 this month --- is an outsize presence in the world of Good Beer.
Two Hair of the Dog beers were included on a recent Stanford University list of the 20 best beers of the world, as chosen by beer experts at Ratebeer and similar sites. A Ratebeer.com 2010 list of the 100 best beers in the world included four Hair of the Dog beers.
Owner/brewer Alan Sprints recently put a dozen 12.7-ounce bottles of Dave, a 19-year-old Barleywine of nearly 30 percent alcohol, up for sale. The price? $1,500 a bottle if you drank it at the tasting room, $2,000 to go. Needless to say, he expected to have them available for a little while, but they all sold in five hours. Everyone from the Huffington Post to Time magazine picked up the story of the $24,000 half-rack.
When Hair of the Dog holds its anniversary dock sales, the door open at 10 a.m. and customers are limited to how much they can buy --- and still the beer runs out. Eager fans start lining up at 7 a.m. or earlier, and Sprints --- a trained chef --- has been known to cook breakfast for the faithful. This year, for his 20th, Sprints has created ticketed afternoon and evening sessions on November 9. You can read the details below, but tickets are likely gone already.
One of the brewery's earliest champions was (and is) legendary Portland beer writer Fred Eckhardt, who urged Sprints to recreate an old, obscure Dortmund recipe that became Hair of the Dog Adambier, now just Adam, the brewery's flagship beer these 20 years. In 1996 Sprints repaid the favor by creating Fred --- a golden strong ale of five malts and ten hop varieties --- in his honor.
Those beers soon caught the attention of the late Michael Jackson, the world's most influential beer writer. Jackson began including HOTD beers in his books, thus exposing them to a worldwide audience, and visited the brewery whenever he had the chance.
Sprints got two bourbon barrels in 1994 and filled them with Adam to make Adam from the Wood.in 1996, he got two new wine barrels from a friend and created fred from the Wood: It was a turning point for Sprints, who discovered that barrel aging made his beers even more flavorful and complex. Other brewers took note, to the point that nearly every Oregon brewery now has a rack of beers aging in barrels. “I didn't invent barrel aging beer,” Sprints says, “but I think it's safe to say that our beers influenced a lot of brewers.” HOTD now has 10 barrel aged beers on the roster, some of which age for three years on wood. In 2006, he bottled a batch of Fred from the Wood for Ratebeer, which gave the beer a score of 100 out of 100.
Sprints has recently been invited to brew some high profile collaboration beers, such as the recent Collage with Deschutes Brewery and Flanders Fred, which he brewed in Belgium with Dirk Naudts of De Proef Brouwerij. On that trip, he also brewed with Belgian brewmaster Urbain Coutteau of De Struise, who in turn brewed with Sprints at Hair of the Dog in summer of 2012.
“That was the realization of a dream for me,” Sprints says. “I always idolized the beers and brewers of Belgium, and to have Urbain come to my place and brew with me, well, I don't know what else there is to achieve. I guess I'll be happy to maintain what I've got, to keep making flavorful, unique beers for people who really seem to appreciate them.
“In a way I feel almost weird that I don't really have any desire to get huge, like so many other breweries seem to want to. Staying small allows me to be creative and make the beers I imagine, and it allows me to have a relationship with my staff and my customers. I'm happy making 600 barrels of beer a year.”
Sprints, who has always wanted to make things by hand, has achieved his fondest wish at Hair of the Dog, where the brew day is just that --- a 24-hour marathon. It takes three batches made in the brewery's original four-barrel open kettle to fill a fermenter, so Sprints brews from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., when assistant brewer Denver Bon takes over for swing and graveyard, then Sprints comes back in at 5 a.m. the next morning to finish the brew.
Alan Sprints trained as a chef after moving to Portland in 1988, the year of the first Oregon Brewers Festival. “The OBF was pivotal for me;” Sprints says, “sparking my imagination about brewing and connecting me with the Oregon Brew Crew, one of the oldest homebrew clubs in the country. As president of the club for three years I met many of Oregon's brewing pioneers, which led me to becoming a professional brewer in 1991.”
He worked at Widmer Brothers until 1993, when he and then-partner Doug Henderson started Hair of the Dog in an old foundry in Southeast Portland on the edge of the Brooklyn railyard. From the start, Sprints wanted to brew big, bold beers such as Adam, which is 10 percent alcohol. “I had this idea to brew versions of the big holiday beers that I loved and brew them year 'round. It seemed like a niche we could fill.”
In retrospect, he says, he's not sure he'd do it again: “We were early, and its been an uphill struggle much of the time. I bought out Doug in 2000 --- relationships are tough and things were not much fun, not that they got a whole lot more fun after we split. I still brewed all the beer, but I had to learn the business side, too; keeping the books, making sales call. Plus I had to assume all the debt, which was considerable --- I stood to lose my house if things didn't turn around.”
But he kept on, buoyed by the belief that there was a place in the beer world for his kinds of beers. In 2010, he made the major move from the old factory in Southeast to Hair of the Dog's present brewery and tasting room on the east end of the Morrison Bridge. It's paid off, raising HOTD's local profile and attracting beer tourists from around the country and the world to the taproom, with its current and vintage HOTD beer selection, its robust, Belgian-influenced menu and décor of stained glass and ceramic pieces made by Sprints.
“The new place has dramatically changed things,” he says. “Now I have a staff of 18; in the old days, if I wasn't working, Hair of the Dog wan't making money; if someone came by to visit, I had to drop what I was doing. And the tasting room has added a new dimension, because I've always believed that eating and drinking elevates both beer and food to a new level.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.