One of the surprisingly few things that bother me about the state of Northwest brewing is that the recognition, buzz, $$$, and laurels tend to cluster. And I bet you can guess where…That’s Right! Portland and Seattle. That’s not to say that the occasional Big Deal won’t pop up in some far-flung outpost; Old Schoolhouse, Fort George, Boundary Bay, Chuckanut, Sound, Logsdon, pFriem, Rogue, Ninkasi, and the entire city of Bend are testament to the fact that greatness can be recognized when – and where – it’s inarguable. But, for the most part, the attention and accolades tend to stay in the big towns…especially here in Washington.
We all know the names, so I won’t (and wouldn’t, anyway) repeat them here but there are a tiny handful of producers who are routinely fawned over far in excess of what their quality would merit. East of the Cascades, Old Schoolhouse’s Blaze Ruud is consistently turning out beers which would dope-slap their stylistic brethren from any other company in the state but, hey, they’re in Winthrop and I’ve actually had two Seattle-centric avid beer geeks utter the following phrase directly to my face; a phrase that is so pompous and astoundingly stupid that it just about beggars my considerable imagination:
“Hey, if Old Schoolhouse is so (effin’) great, they’d be in Seattle, where somebody could appreciate them.“
Yeah…I was just as dumbfounded as you are.
But, now, in 2014, things are changing. First, Bale Breaker Brewing of Yakima, located smack in the middle of one of the world’s prime hop fields, started producing a tiny roster of just three beers, any of which was so earth-shakingly fine and intense and madly flavorful that they simply defied any citified attempts to ignore them. Travelers to Yakima kept wandering back with tales – and cans – of a dynamo brewery east of YakTown and each sip produced an affect not unlike the basic premise of “Invasion of The Body Snatchers”: wholesale reprogramming of the taste buds, followed by an irresistible craving.
Now, there’s another brewery on the Other Side that, across the board. can stand toe-to-toe with ANY brewers in the Northwest, never mind just Washington.
The town of Roslyn, Washington – all one thousand(ish) souls of it – has been mainly known, since the early 1990s, as the location of the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, as depicted in one of the smartest and best conceived one-hour dramedies ever to sneak onto network television, the immortal, often-clumsy, occasionally-profound “Northern Exposure”, which aired on CBS from July 1990 to July 1995 and which won virtually every major TV award given in the US – and the Peabody Award in 1992 for Excellence in Television Programming for the series, and the 1993 episode entitled “Cicely”. The streets and businesses of Roslyn were used extensively for exteriors and most of the interiors of the town’s beer joint, The Brick, were actually shot there…including several at which I was present.
Sadly, I’ve had damned few reasons to return to Roslyn in the years since my last work day in 1994…but I had this Feeling…I get those, from time to time. One told me not leave Portland without visiting the unknown (at the time) Harvester Brewing. One told me to keep an eye on a tiny nano-brewery called Beetje…which is now The Commons Brewing. One told me that checking out a wee little operation in Seattle’s South Park was a must-do. That brewery is Tin Dog…which you will read a LOT more about later.
Last Thursday, I felt that we had to stop in Roslyn and find out about a new outfit called Wild Earth Brewing…and it turned out to be possibly my best premonition ever. Dave KIlgour – a veteran of his native New England’s craft culture, at White Birch Brewing and Bar Harbor, Maine’s, Atlantic Brewing – somehow landed in tiny Roslyn and worked with Kent Larimer, Paul Angelos, and Mike Payne at Roslyn Brewing before starting Wild Earth. Dave is an affable, bright-eyed thirty-something with what are obviously mad skills and a starting roster of ales that most companies in business for a decade would envy. He actually opened on Super Bowl Sunday – with NONE of his own beers on tap! – and is now just five months removed from that first pint sold.
Not since Reuben’s Brews, of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, have I visited a brewery that presented an across-the-board line-up of ales that are as flatly excellent as what I encountered on a sleepy Thursday afternoon on my way to Ellensburg. Like Adam Robbings of Reuben’s, for a decade one of the nation’s top homebrewers, Dave Kilgour was obviously Ready For This. I usually visit a brewery that’s five months and curtail my expectations with the caveat that they’re still in their bumbly phase and that, if I don’t like the beers, I’m obligated to go back and taste them after they’ve made all their rookie mistakes. And I do that…often several times. There’s no deadline on the learning curve. Some take weeks, some months, some years and some never get it right. Wild Earth needs no such disclaimers.
We tasted a new, experimental Saison, Dave’s two flagship ales, “Tamarack” Pale Ale and “Ponderosa” Red, a deep amber Belgian-Style Bitter, his Smoked Brown Ale, and a bright, crisp, uber-complex IPA. All were – without any exaggeration – among the top beers of their styles that I have ever tasted from the Pacific Northwest. The Tamarack was, categorically, THE best NWPA that I’ve tasted yet, and that includes the only ale I’ve tasted that seriously challenges it, Deschutes “Red Chair”. Tamarack is a bewitching beer. It boasts a hefty, NW-appropriate dose of the flamboyant Sorachi Ace hops, in beautiful frisson with a deep, rich, chewy malt bill that gives it a stunning caramel-coconut character, along with bountiful tree fruit, biscuits ‘n’ honey, toasted bread, and bran flavors. It’s easily the most substantial Pale I’ve found yet and, against all odds, It’s available in the bottles you see here, for roughly $6.75 retail. The companion Red, Ponderosa, was poured from a bottle (Dave sold out of the kegs) and was just plain dazzling; one of the two or three best Reds I’ve tasted in the past two years. It shows a silky, beefy texture and a riot of flavors that center on black cherries, creme brulee, nuts, baking spices, and pear butter.
The Saison – which has proven, much to Dave’s delight, to be a crowd favorite as the weather warms – was a real gem: light, crisp, refreshing, and considerably drier than many of the too-sweet Saisons I’ve tasted from a lot of (too many)American brewers. It is slightly sweet, as it should be, but Dave clearly gets what makes the Belgian Saison a world-wide favorite: it’s less about sugar and more about the Belgian yeast spiciness and the grain’s natural fruitiness.The flavors are classic Farmhouse: mango, coconut, pineapple, bubble gun, bananas, cloves, nutmeg, and citrus fruit…with one delightful addition: a solid and unmistakable note of spruce/pine resins that is just enough, not one molecule overstated. At just 5% ABV, this is one of the two or three best summer beers I’ve tasted from Washington, ever, and Dave was so surprised at the response that he told me he’s going to make it again, soon.
The Wild Earth IPA was fresh, vivid, and dripping resins like a trunk tap, but balanced beautifully in every aspect. The full range of hops flavors is on display: resins, citrus, florals, and herbs. None dominates and all are distinctly stated. The malts give it a solid backbone with tones of waffle cone, toasted whole-grain bread, fireweed honey, and bran muffin. For HopHeads, there is plenty to indulge the Hops Obsession and for newbies, the efect is so friendly and balanced that it drinks as easily as a glass of milk. Just fabulous stuff.
The Belgian Bitter was a classic ESB-style ale married to a yeast-derived spice profile and gilded with pure Northwest hops energy. It’s dark amber, hefty, intense, and crammed with malty goodness of dark caramels, granola, cashews, and treacle. It is absolutely NOT, as the color would suggest, even the spiritual second-cousin of a Scottish Wee Heavy and the dryness on the palate is a nice twist that compels each new sip.
And the Wild Earth Smoked Brown…well, one of my biggest pet peeves about smoke ales is that the smoke character is frequently so mild or obscured by malt darkness that you have to hunt for it like a truffle. Not here. This baby is Smoky and the fact that Dave built it into a Brown ale – as opposed to the knee-jerk Porter or Stout – speaks volumes about his judgment. A substantial Brown restrains the molasses/mocha/graham cracker character just enough to let a moderate smoking really shine. Just as a Brown ale – that most abused and misunderstood Brit style – this is slammin’ good. The molasses cookies, cafe au lait, milk chocolate, and figs are clean and emphatic and the smoke strikes a near-perfect balance that makes it as irresistible a Brown as I’ve had in years. It’s light enough to avoid becoming ponderous and muscular enough to satisfy.
Dave Kilgour is doing so many things right that his business acumen alone would give him a leg up over most current debut breweries.There is one notorious newer brewery on King County’s Eastside whose owner adopted such a horrendous company logo that people were, unsolicited, chiming in on Facebook to tell them what an effed-up mess it is. The owner, one of those tedious types who made his money in other businesses and thinks he knows everything, was outright abusive to those who tried to offer their feedback. Now, the brewery’s fairly good beers are saddled with a dishwater-dull image that makes it look as boring as the owner. Where a lot of brewers decided early not to package anything, Dave did it almost immediately. A cool, attractive, earthy package and a little ambition puts Wild Earth on a path to building a real business, instead of constantly having to struggle to make ends meet. His graphics are gorgeous and actually reflect the atmosphere of his tasting room and the character of the product. And, maybe even more importantly, Kilgour is a nice guy who actually listens to what his customers are saying, unlike the Eastside gent who tries to dictate what the perception of his business will be or the other knucklehead owner farther north who is mule-headedly trying to use mainly marketing to shove his half-baked beers to respectability. Smart, in brewing, is a Good Thing and Wild Earth is absolutely bustin’ with good ideas, to go with the great ales.
I’ve deliberately avoided scoring these for the same reason I usually go back and retaste new breweries: nobody should be judged on their early attempts…and, frankly, if I gave these the numbers I feel they deserve, there would be nowhere to go later, when Dave actually does hit his groove. Instead, I’m going to urge you in the Strongest Possible Terms to make Roslyn a stop on your next Eastern Washington excursion or simply make a day trip out of it. Eating at The Brick is always an adventure and a walk around downtown Roslyn and next-door Cle Elum is as quaint and atmospheric a way to spend a day as you will find west of Waitsburg or Walla Walla. I PROMISE YOU, even if you’re one of those annoying BeerAdvocate forum-crawlers who thinks they know everything there is to know about beer or just a casual fan who likes a good pint in a great atmosphere, Wild Earth will be one of your best beer experiences in a long, long time. We brought the Tamarack and Ponderosa home and are both eagerly anticipating a warm evening of enjoying them on the patio. My Stunning Domestic Partner, in fact, went me one better: As we were sitting on Wild Earth’s front porch, on our return trip Sunday afternoon, I saw that the car’s bumper was just infringing on a yellow curb. I pointed it out and asked if she was worried about it. “Hell, no,” she smiled, sipping her Tamarack, “If I get a ticket, at least we’ll have a legitimate excuse to come back here.”
THAT, folks, is just how freakishly GOOD Wild Earth Brewing really is.