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Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Iconic Hair of the Dog Will Close Next Summer

The first time we poured beer at the Oregon Brewers Festival in the mid-1990s, my wife and I hoped to pour Hair of the Dog. We didn't get the gig and I don't recall why we wanted to pour Hair of the Dog beer. We surely had it somewhere, but I don't remember the details.

Fred Eckhardt shares a moment with Sprints. (Matt Wiater photo)
Hair of the Dog beers were always different. Even in the early days when Alan Sprints wasn't yet making the barrel-aged monsters he would become internationally famous for, the beers were unique. I suspect that was largely because they were made by hand on a small system. 

Sprints founded Hair of the Dog Brewing in late 1993. He had come to Portland years earlier to study at the Western Culinary Institute. He got hooked on brewing and honed his craft via the Oregon Brew Crew, an organization he led for a time. He also worked at Widmer for several years prior to launching Hair of the Dog. 

For 17 years, Sprints operated Hair of the Dog out of a warehouse in Southeast Portland. It was far off the beaten path and perhaps somewhat difficult to find for some. Sprints finally decided to upgrade. The result is the brewery and pub that opened on Southeast Yamhill in 2010.

Despite his time at Widmer, Sprints is essentially a home brewer who started a brewery. He steadfastly held onto the notion of brewing beer in small batches. He has used a tiny 4-bbl brewing system to produce his beers since the beginning.  

When I interviewed him for Portland Beer in 2013, Sprints told me his goal had always been simple: "l try to make beers I like, hoping others will enjoy them." His primary influences, he said, were the imports from Europe, especially Belgium, he drank as a young man. His second inspiration was provided by the early west coast craft brewers...Mendocino, Anchor and Sierra Nevada.  

Of course, Sprints would come to be heavily influenced and inspired by iconic beer historian and writer, Fred Eckhardt. An early Hair of the Dog beer, Adam (originally called Adambier), is a style that had ceased to exist until it was resurrected by Sprints. The idea for Adam occurred to Sprints when he heard Eckhardt speaking about beer styles that had fallen into extinction. 

Sprints and Eckhardt developed a cordial friendship and Sprints subsequently honored Eckhardt's contributions by adding Fred to his beer list. Then there was Fred Fest, a popular celebration of craft beer held yearly at Hair of the Dog on Eckhardt's birthday. That was generally a tough ticket. The future of Fred Fest would appear to be uncertain with HOD closing, though the 2022 event is set for May. 

Beyond the old world beers he resurrected, Sprints was a pioneer of barrel-aged beers and also of using local fruit in barrels. The idea of aging beer in spirit and wine barrels has become standard practice in modern craft brewing, but that wasn't always the case. Sprints was at the forefront of that movement.

“It’s nice to know my head was in the right place with barrel aging and that I was ahead of the curve,” Sprints said in 2013. “Aging Beers in wood is a challenge and can be good for your image.”

Hair of the Dog beers, because they have always been handmade, have had a tendency to vary in quality. A well-known flaw is under-carbonation, although there are others. Once upon a time, I bought a case of "bald" Fred, billed as a flat beer that would carbonate in time. But the beer failed to acquire any significant level of carbonation after years of cellaring. So it was used in stews and chilis with terrific results. 

Despite occasionally uneven beers. Hair of the Dog has been a beacon that attracted craft beer fans from around the world. When the brewery moved to inner Southeast, the appeal grew and it was regularly mentioned as a required destination for beer tourists visiting Portland. And it isn't uncommon to meet people from around the country and world while enjoying beers there. 

The impending closure of the brewery and pub is a blow to the local craft beer scene. Not because Hair of the Dog is an essential part of the current scene, but because of it's standing for so many years and because of the fact that Sprints influenced so many who came after him. Portland's beer scene was inoculated with Sprints' idealism long ago...and those ideals have spread.

When he closes up shop next summer, Sprints will retain the Hair of the Dog brand. That makes sense mostly because he IS the brand. Sprints will be officially retired, but he'll have control over what he decides to do with the brand. It will be interesting to see what that is. The pub and brewery will be sold, once he finds a buyer.

Godspeed, Alan Sprints. Your contributions to craft beer won't be forgotten.