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Welcome to Amazing Tap Handles - The Tap Handle Museum. Here you will find photos of the Museum's collection of beer taps, along with brewery info. Have a look around the Museum, and use the contact form in sidebar to leave me feedback about the site, talk about taps, or if you have a rare tap handle you'd like to sell to the Museum. I'd love to hear from you! Please, no inquires about buying taps - they're not for sale.

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Photos or tap descriptions used in this blog may not be misrepresented as your own. Photos may not be used for financial gain whatsoever, as the uniqueness of the photo would unfairly associate a seller's product and reputation with this site. Tap descriptions may be used word for word as long as this blog is cited as the source, and a link is provided to this site.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Tap Handle #300: Aviator - Amber Ale

In my "Blog Turns One Year Old" post last October, I questioned whether I would go past 300 taps or not. The answer is of course yes; in fact, I'm almost halfway to 400. For tap #300, I'd like to profile a special tap. As I may have mentioned in previous posts, my grandfather was pilot, and owns a Meyers Open Cockpit Biplane (OCB). When he moved out of his house into an assisted living center, I came across this tap in his garage and my dad agreed that we should add this to the collection.

What's unclear is if this tap handle is real or homemade. My grandfather didn't remember anything about it, but his memory isn't what it used to be. My dad tried to contact someone from the brewery in Woodinville and get in touch with the former owner, but he didn't hear back from them, and the brewery has been closed for a long time. I did find some photos of other taps from Aviator Ales (pictured to the right). They are basically a wooden tap with a label and a small propeller attached to the finial. If you'll notice, one of the taps has an Amber Ale label. It is similar but different from my tap's label. When you factor in the long white Aviator Ale label on the base of my tap, it suggests to me that this tap is real, and it's possibly one of only a few made, maybe even a prototype.

Aviator Ales was a brand of the Seattle Brewing Company, founded in 1994 in Woodinville, Washington by James Bernau. In 1988, shortly before stepping down from an eight-year tenure as director of the Oregon Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, Bernau launched Willamette Valley Vineyards, building it up quickly into the second largest winery in Oregon. In late 1992, Bernau turned his attention to microbrewing. The Willamette Valley Brewing Co., which would change its name to the Nor'Wester Brewing Co., launched an immediately oversubscribed $1.8 million DPO. With the successful launch of Nor'Wester, Bernau sold investors on expansion, and formed 3 affiliate breweries of which he was president and chairman: Aviator Ales, Mile High Brewing in Denver, Colorado, and Bayhawk Ales in Irvine, California (which I profiled here).

Initially, business was good for Nor"wester. Bernau gave $500,000 of Nor'Wester stock to the OSU Foundation to establish a professorship dedicated to fermentation science in the College of Agriculture Sciences Department of Food Science and Technology. Established in 1995, it was the first professorship of its kind in the country. He also began looking around for a place to build a fourth brewery, with ambitious plans to expand along the East Coast. He settled on Saratoga Springs, New York, and decided to build a 50 barrel brewery called North Country. However, he soon changed the plans to a more costly 100 barrel brewhouse. At the same time, competition was heating up among Portland breweries, with Widmer, Portland Brewing, Bridgeport, and Full Sail slowly squeezing out Nor'Wester as the overall market began to decline, and by 2006 Nor'Western sales had dropped 27%. With money becoming tight, to complete construction of North Country, Bernau turned to securing additional financing through bridge loans and investment funds from United Breweries of America (UBA), led by Ijay Mallya, India's largest beer baron. Mallya wanted to build a network of microbreweries in the United States through UBA, and had already purchased the Mendocino Brewery in California. The North Country brewery, along with Bernau's personal assets, were offered as collateral for the loan.

It was estimated that North Country Brewery would need $4 million to get up and running. A $2.2 million stock offering to cover part of the cost of establishing the facility was called off. The brewery was unable to secure $2.5 million in planned bank financing, and there was a $200,000 cost overrun in construction. Nor'Wester had to bear the entire $8.7 million cost itself. In late 1996 Bernau struck a deal with Mallya to sell all Nor'Western assets to UBA, in which all the breweries were to be rolled into one company called United Craft Breweries. Under the deal, Aviator Ales investors would only get 25% of their original investment back. But the deal fell through when UBA claimed that Nor'Wester had failed to meet financial targets. Mallya extended the deadline by 10 days, but Nor'Wester still couldn't meet a minimum operating performance goal and renegotiate terms with other lenders, despite closing the Mile High Brewery. UBA demanded that Nor'Wester immediately repay the bridge loan, but, unable to pay the loan, Nor'Wester defaulted, and UBA seized the North Country brewery, allowing Nor'Wester and its other assets to fail.

It's likely that Mallya didn't really want the struggling brewery and had designs on North Country from the start. During a visit to North Country earlier in 2006, Mallya fell in love with the brewery. Later, after Nor'Wester's collapse, Mallya had the opportunity to expand his brewery empire by buying the strugglin Pete's Brewing in California, but he claimed he was looking for opportunity, not trouble.

The fallout from the failed operation was widespread. Nor'Wester and Aviator Ales were closed, with Saxer Brewing purchasing the Nor'Wester brand (Saxer later merged with Portland Brewing, and the Nor'Wester brand was eventually retired). With over 1000 investors, Bayhawk was able to spin off and survive on its own. The North Country Brewery was renamed to Relata Brewing and produced Ten Springs (which was eventually retired), along with the Mendocino and Kingfisher brands (Kingfisher is Mallya's Indian brand that is also popular in American Indian restaurants). Mallya later tried to acquire Full Sail; although he appeared to be the frontrunner, he eventually lost to a Full Sail employee buyout. As for Bernau, he lost his personal assets, but went back to running the struggling Willamette Valley Vineyards, immediately turning it back into a powerhouse.

I could find very little information on Aviator Ales Amber Ale, other than the fact that it was an American amber ale. Aviator brewed four varieties, but one person describes their IPA as a bland pale ale without any hop presence, suggesting that the brewery could not afford to offend any potential customers with bitter beers due to high financial expectations resulting from their IPO. They did have some gorgeous labels featuring different airplanes. No rating exists on

There is an Aviator Ales website, but it seems to have no affiliation with the original brand. It is brewed and bottled under contract by Hale's Ales in Seattle.

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