Godfather of Northwest Craft Brewing Steals Classroom Spotlight

By Sue McMurray

WSU students in Jim Harbour’s beverage management class literally tasted knowledge during a special visit from Mac Rankin, cofounder of Mac & Jack’s Brewing Company. Known as the godfather of craft brewing throughout the Pacific Northwest, Rankin poured small samples of his company’s most successful beer varieties while sharing his best business practices with future beverage professionals.

Dressed in jeans and a comfortable shirt, Rankin established immediate rapport with students as he jokingly said, “If anyone looked at my college GPA, no one would ever think I would be addressing a class!”

Though his style and delivery were casual, Rankin’s professional status and achievements are anything but. Rankin and his partner Jack Schropp produce the bestselling beers in Washington state, and their operation has ranked in the top 40 largest craft breweries in the country. The company also supports hundreds of regional community organizations.

A brewing interest

A reception for Mac Rankin was held at Southfork Public House, owned by Jim Harbour.

During his presentation, Rankin described how his interest in brewing began. Beer was part of his family’s rituals, he said. As a small child, he received a sip at Christmas time, and he recognized early on that beer is a socially bonding experience. Later, his family bought property and raised wine grapes, and he studied fermentation science in high school.

In his first year at WSU, Rankin began to appreciate and seek out unusual beer varieties, and even considered starting his own brewery. Given the difficulty of such an endeavor while a student, he tabled the idea for several years.

After college, Rankin began a career in construction and met Schropp, his future business partner, when he built Schropp’s house. Rankin also took on a project for Starbucks, during which he noticed the power of consumable beverages that connect to a social experience. He rekindled his idea of starting a home brewery and began brewing beer in his own laundry room, later expanding to his garage in 1993. He and Schropp brewed around the clock, conducting sales and deliveries during the day. “There was no handbook—we didn’t know what we were doing,” Rankin said.

Their product didn’t tap the market—at first. Then Rankin and Schropp began experimenting with unfiltered dry hops, developing an innovative technique that resulted in their two most successful products: the African Amber and the Serengeti Wheat. “It was new, unusual, and unexpected,” he said. “We couldn’t keep up with demand, which was a great problem to have.”

Overcoming roadblocks to success

School of Hospitality Business Management members and friends socialize at the reception.

Expanding sales was difficult in the early days of the craft beer industry, Rankin said. In the early days, the average bar had six to eight tap handles, and the challenge was to convince a bar manager to remove one of the existing products and put one of yours on tap, Rankin said. Today, many bars can have 20–30 or more tap handles, and the challenge remains the same—tap handles are a precious commodity.

While the company’s brand is solid, Rankin and Schropp are facing another hurdle of going from draft-only to packaged products. “Eighty-five percent of beer is sold in grocery stores,” he said. Currently, there are no plans to sell the flagship African Amber in can format in grocery stores. However, it is available in 32 oz. crowlers and 64 oz. growlers, as well as in kegs directly from the brewery. “Making a great can-ready product and doing a great job marketing to retailers are two key components to success,” he said.