Almost 40 years ago, Mac Rankin had what he thought was a killer idea.
“I was attending the University of Washington in the mid-’70s when I woke up one morning with an idea to start a brewery,” Rankin said. “I researched it for a couple of weeks and realized that a student with no money and no experience trying to start a business in an industry that didn’t exist yet was probably not going to work.”
Luckily for countless craft beer drinkers, Rankin didn’t give up on his idea. Instead, he simply tabled it for almost 20 years, until the time in the early 1990s when he began home brewing and put together a business plan. Those were the humble beginnings of Mac & Jack’s Brewery, home of the Northwest’s beloved African Amber Ale.
So, who is the other half of the brand, “Jack,” and how did he get involved?
“Jack (Schropp) restored antique classic runabouts — wooden boats — while I made custom homes. Jack restored my boat, and I helped build Jack’s house in Sammamish, which conveniently happened to have an oversized garage that was perfect for a tiny brewery.”
Rankin ran his idea by Schropp about starting a brewery, and Schropp happily joined in. And allowed the use of his garage.
When they incorporated the business in 1993 — selling their first keg to Billy McHale’s in Redmond in 1994 — microbrewing wasn’t cool yet. In Washington, there was only a handful of craft breweries, including Red Hook, Hales, and Big Time Brewing. But the popularity of Mac & Jack’s exploded.
At the time, the drinking public felt that only clear beer was good beer, and Rankin wanted to change that, so he created his own recipe — an unfiltered, dry-hopped beer — the African Amber. He had created something way outside the box — and it worked.
“When we came out with the African Amber in the fall of ’94, it became popular overnight,” said Rankin. “We couldn’t keep up with production and had to move out of Jack’s garage.”
Twenty-five years later, Mac & Jack’s has 20 employees, Mac and Jack included, and the brewing company is located in a business park on Northwest 65th Street in Redmond, near the east entrance of Marymoor Park.
One of the more unique things about Mac & Jack’s success is its business model: Almost all the beer sold is available only on draft. So, if this model is so successful for Mac & Jack’s, why don’t most breweries do the same thing — sell almost all their beer only on draft?
“It’s a really hard model,” said Rankin. “It works for us because we have a very popular product in the African Amber.”
Yet, as competition continues to grow, draft sales have become more difficult. Mac & Jack’s realized that to grow and provide opportunities for employees, selling some of its beer in cans was a necessary next step. As such, the company recently began releasing a small batch of seasonal beers in cans — two IPAs and a pale ale. And it’s been paying off. The canned beers, which have been available only since March, already make up 12 percent of company sales.
Another forward-thinking tactic Mac & Jack’s has employed to prepare for the future is what’s called “alternating proprietorship.” Mac & Jack’s is doing it with Full Sail Brewery in Hood River, Oregon. The process is similar to using someone else’s kitchen to cook your own food.
“A lot of times in the beer business,” said Rankin, “there’s contract brewing, where I would go to you as the brewer and say, ‘Make this beer for me,’ and then you’d make the beer and sell it to me and the distributor. In the case of the alternating proprietorship, we’re actually onsite, and all of the materials are owned by us. So, we’re at the Full Sail Brewery, but when we’re making the beer, it’s officially our brewery. The production of the beer is always under our care.”
Mac & Jack’s African Amber remains remarkably popular and has more points of distribution and sales than any other craft beer in Washington — and it’s been that way for almost 20 years. In the Puget Sound area, African Amber on tap competes evenly with Budweiser, “The King of Beers.” Mac & Jack’s is indeed Northwest beer royalty.