They started with very little more than a bright idea and a tiny space. In most cases, these billion-dollar businesses began in somebody’s parents’ garage…or a leased warehouse space or one small commercial storefront. In fact, a fairly significant percentage of successful American businesses began on the skinniest, most frayed shoestring imaginable. The other common thread in all of these was that the founders refused to listen to the thundering chorus of self-appointed “experts” who show up for virtually every small business ever started; well-meaning and/or jealous family, friends, and total strangers who stand around with their thumbs up their backsides and say, “Oh, that’ll never work! You’re gonna lose your shirt!”
In the past month, I’ve visited three of the most exciting new breweries I’ve found in the past ten years. All of them have started in the nano-est micro-brewery manner imaginable, short of Poulsbo’s wonderful, eccentric Slippery Pig Brewing, which had its origins in Dave Lambert’s 10′ x 10′ garden shed and his 12 by 18 basement. These are a tad larger than that but are still what any average entrepreneur would consider suffocating.
Two weeks ago, it was Wild Earth Brewing in Roslyn, Washington; a surprise and delight of such massive proportions that I scrapped the entire schedule for this blog to tell you about them, ASAP. A week before that we went to Seattle’s bewilderingly inaccessible South Park neighborhood and were only slightly less stunned. Last weekend, we found one of the most solid and well-conceived breweries I’ve ever come across in the Northwest in the otherwise rather blank Seattle suburb of Sammamish…in a residential neighborhood…with zero signage to mark its location…in a garage.
Tin Dog Brewing, located in a small industrial park in Seattle’s resurgent South Park neighborhood, does, at least, have the advantage of being, literally, the first thing you come to when you’re entering that cloistered little borough via its main access, Cloverdale Road. Getting lost – as I have a couple of times, in that rabbit’s nest of tiny, narrow streets that honeycomb the old, blue-collar area – is much less of a factor and Tin Dog is actually quite visible from the main road, so we arrived quickly, as opposed to our usual round of MapQuest on the iPad and muffled cursing, to find a very neighborhood-y, casual, comfortable taproom that very much reflects the personalities of its owners, Eric and Lisa Rough (“r-OW”, not “ruff”). As opposed to many brewing newbies who manage start-ups, Tin Dog is a mid-life epiphany that Eric and Lisa stumbled upon due to a re-evaluation of their jobs and the immortal question, “What the F#@K am I doing with my life?” Eric had succumbed to the brewing bug on a foreign exchange trip to Germany in the 80s but had never quite gotten the necessary shove across the threshold of “Goin’ For It”. A layoff from his day job supplied that and a small mechanical dog on their mantelpiece provided the name. And South Park, with its modest rents and slow-paced culture, gave then the place.
Eric and Lisa both do the brewing, sometimes in equal collaboration and sometimes with just a little help as needed. What we tasted there was heavily rooted in the Belgian brewing tradition but – as with their spiritual cousins across Puget Sound, Sound Brewing – done with certain very emphatic personal twists. We started off with their Tin Dog Saison, at least three shades darker in the glass than anybody’s I’ve seen in five years, in bottle or on tap. I admit to a bit of preconception: could a Saison that dark really retain the authentic character? Well…yeah! The color signaled little more than a kind of substantial texture found in very few Saison/Farmhouse ales. The malts were solid and warming, while the yeast-derived spices and judicious gilding of bright, crisp hops gave it the refreshment value of a traditional Saison. Flavors centered on mango, lemon peel, guava, anise, pineapple, lime, and a resiny edge that tied the whole ale together beautifully. I say, if you’re going to play around with an established style, leave your mark boldly, and this lovely, amber-hued stuff does that, in spades. 92 Points
Hoppe The Belgian is a little dark gem that somehow marries the malty goodness of an Abbey-style ale with a fat, piney hops profile that shows a lot of Northwest leanings, without obscuring the ale’s essential “Belgian-ness”. The tropical fruit, cloves, bubble gum, candied cherries, cola, and toffee of the two styles combine in a neatly logical way. The beer is fairly dry, with just a touch of sweetness, and finishes surprisingly light for what appears to be a big, dark beast. My favorite of the tasting. 93 Points
The Tin Dog Dubbel was almost classic in its flavors and texture. Dubbels are usually darker than Tripels and sometimes even Quads and this was definitely dark amber and a tad smoky(!) on my palate. Rich notes of caramel and figs and red plums formed a chewy core that was draped nicely with the fruity yeasts and a subtle but firm hoppiness that leaned toward citrus and herbs. It was wickedly easy to drink, nowhere near cloying, and appealingly sweet on the finish. This may be the most traditional ale Tin Dog currently makes. 92 Points
The Belgian Blonde was a happy, round-bodied ale with the hallmark bananas and peppery wheat right out front, supported by fat apples and pears, all graced by almonds, wheat toast, sugar cookies, lemon peel, lime leaf, and a lurking, quirky, appealing touch of eucalyptus. As with any great Blonde, it’s as easy to drink as spring water and shows a somewhat larger hops profile than Belgian Blondes, as should be expected since we are, after all, uh, not in freakin’ Belgium. This is was my easy-drinkin’ fave of the day and lingers in my memory most of any of the beers. 91 Points
Lisa admitted that they brewed their Tin Dog White IPA mainly so they’d have something called “IPA” when the inevitable, predictable hordes of craft beer Habituals drift in, seeking something they tell their buddies is an IPA. A Witbier-based ale with exaggerated hops is, of course, nothing new. Deschutes “Chainbreaker” and Confluence #2 are early attempts at the style and now thousands of breweries are doing it. Incredibly, casual beer fans who wouldn’t dream of buying either German or Belgian beers will pony up in a heartbeat for White IPA. (I’m going to postpone the rant that’s threatening to spew forth as I write this for a while, out of respect for Tin Dog.) This one is a solid effort, built around a classic Belgan-leaning Witbier that’s been pumped hard with some zingy, floral/herbal Northwesty hops. It’s a very good example of this style but was absolutely the fifth-best thing we tasted at Tin Dog…and, considering the quality standard at work, that’s still a really fine beer. 88 Points
(No, sorry. Here’s the Rant: I wish to God that Washington’s beer fans would knock off this lint-headed business of walking into a brewery that’s obviously – and proudly! – specializing in different styles of beer from 90+% of the other breweries in the state and badgering them into producing an IP-freakin’-A. Good God, sit your silly, knee-jerkin’ butt down at the tasting bar, order a flight and TRY something DIFFERENT! Sweet Jesus, how many different ways can you drink the same flippin’ style of beer? If you don’t want to face that fearful risk of , maybe, like, finding something new to drink and enjoy (HORRORS!), read the board, note that there’s no IPA, and walk out. MUST WE turn every damned brewery in this state into More Of The Same? I know a couple of brewers who swore they’d never make an IPA but who now make four or five, which in NO case are EVER the best beers they make, but anybody would crack if you sat them down in a room with a mynah bird that chanted “Where’s your IPA? Where’s your IPA? Where’s your IPA?” over and over a billion times. In finally getting them to cave and make your your knee-jerk style, you help stifle the brewery’s creativity, derail their business plan, and help them get sick of the work and YOU. Having a preference for IPA is understandable but demanding that a brewery make one because you stubbornly refuse to try anything else isn’t expressing a preference. It’s wallowing in a rut. It’s blind habit of the type that kept Budweiser on top of the beer world for 100 years. As a very smart man said to me, just a couple of weeks ago, “The only thing you get from refusing to think outside the box is the chance to be buried in it.“)
Sorry, Eric and Lisa…Self-restraint is not my strong suit…
We were sitting on the front steps of Wild Earth Brewing, two weekends ago, when a young guy came out and stopped to talk with us. I was wearing a Valholl Brewing shirt and he asked about them. I replied that they were in Poulsbo and he told us he had only lived in the Seattle area for about two months and hadn’t gone there yet. As he got ready to leave, he stopped suddenly and said, “I went to a brewery last week that you’ve just gotta try.” He told us about Big Block Brewing, located in a garage somewhere on the Sammamish Plateau. He couldn’t remember exactly where but said the beers were killer and we had to taste ’em. The following weekend, my lovely Domestic Parther suggested we go find Big Block. I quickly agreed.
Big Block is located just off a side road that leads just off another side road, in a cul de sac, in a tucked-away subdivision of that vast sprawl that is Sammamish, Washington, an amorphous jellyfish of a “city” that was incorporated about a decade ago, cobbled together out of about a hundred little cloistered neighborhoods. Having some personal history with Sammamish, I couldn’t figure how the vice-grip CC&Rs of a suburban enclave on the Plateau could ever be evaded long enough to get an actual brewery open within its tentacles. Turns out, according to owners John and Michele Julum, all brewery activities have to remain inside their garage and they can have no signage at all. This will, of course, make finding the place like one of the labors of Hercules. I assure you, however, that the Quest is absolutely worth it.
John is definitely making IPAs and they’ll register with any HopHead as authentic and muscular. But John, a homebrewer with almost 30 years experience, is doing waaaay more than just that. On the list of TEN – count ’em, 10! – beers offered by a brewery about the size of Imelda Marcos’ shoe closet was a Blonde Lager, a Raspberry Blonde ale, a Black Ale – Not CDA or Black IPA – that conjured up the first Blacks I ever tasted in London, a (real, authentic) Irish Red of the type we never see here in the US, and a real English Pale. And, at the end of the tasting John Julum did something which I have never found at any brewery, anywhere, at any time in my beer life: He mixed his silky Chocolate Porter with that Raspberry Wheat and handed us a taster of something which was so unexpected and haunting that I can literally still taste it.(!) I do experiments with blending beers at home and the results are sometimes surprising and delightful. I’ve often wondered why no breweries do it. This was an absolutely, dead-solid perfect marriage of those two contrasting styles and, if it were bottled, would do a regular stand-up in my fridge, for certain.
We tasted all ten beers and, in all honesty, with the sole exceptions of Wild Earth, Reuben’s Brews and Sound Brewery, Big Block was one of the most accomplished line-ups of thoughtful, deliberate, well-crafted beers I’ve found in one place in the past ten years. John has been brewing a LONG time and his deft, off-hand skill is written all over every beer in his taps. Stand-outs were the Big Block Irish Red (which came home with us in a growler) that reminded me of why, way back when I first started tasting beer in London in 1967, I fell in love with Irish Red Ale. MOST of the currently-available examples of this style that we come across here are wimpy, unassertive, small-scale beers with no more than intimations of the flavors found in a true Irish Red. This baby is brawny, emphatic, complex, near-perfect in its essentially Irish character but also graced with certain Northwest hops and malt traits than give it more meat on its bones and a malty, fruity, spicy completeness that reduced me to saying only, “Mmmmm…” 92 Points
The Raspberry Blonde recently won a Gold Medal in the Washington State Beer Awards, at the Brewer’s Festival at Marymoor Park. One taste explains it: there is simply nothing left to desire about this splendid ale. The base of Belgian-style Blonde lends a spice character that perfectly uplifts an amazing, fresh, perfectly authentic raspberry note that tastes very much like drinking Blonde ale through a mouthful of fresh raspberries. The cloying nature that spoils a lot of raspberry beers is nowhere to be found in this stuff and the refreshment quotient is completely off the charts. The hops that emerge on the finish are perfectly integrated with the dominant flavors and never once suggest a brewer who just hopped his ale to claim some Northwest cred. 93 Points
In a nearly unprecedented move for me, Mr. Ale Guy, when it came time to actually drink a pint at Big Block, I shocked hell out of Judye and me by requesting the Big Block Blonde Lager. As I told John Julum, when he came over to talk about the beers, it reminded me strongly of one of my old guilty pleasures, the Castelain Blonde Bier de Garde. While the styles are by no means all that similar, this shares with the Castelain the absurd smoothness, elegance, subtlety, and earthy sophistication that brings me back to that unheralded bottle of French country ale, time and time again. It just came across as a seamless, beautifully-executed, light, refreshing sipper, while offering the hard-core beer geek a whole roster of flavors and textures to become engrossed with. Light toast grains, with a sweet peppery character, present right up front, followed by pale caramels, mixed citrus peels, golden sweet apples, and vanilla – all whispered, rather than shouted. I plan to get back to Big Block regularly, this summer, and bring growlers of this home as the summer heats up. 92 Points
The Big Block Honey Pale Ale, unlike many beers that claim to contain honey, actually shows honey as one of the primary flavors – to gorgeous effect. That mellow, soulful, light caramel note suffuses the whole ale, and the deft overlay of toasted whole-grain bread, waffles, lemon curd, and grassy hops makes this a pure pleasure to drink. Maybe the best compliment I can pay to John Julum is that he seems determined to and quite capable of making his Pale Ales Say Something, instead of serving as space-fillers on his tap list. The English Pale and this Honey version are brawny, substantial, and assertive, while remaining the light-textured refreshers that we all expect from Pales. “Pale”, however, at Big Block, is not a synonym for “wimpy”. These are man-sized Pales that clearly explain why the root of all IPAs…are Pale Ales. Honey: 92 Points English: 91 Points
None of the rest I tasted that day would score below 89 points in my numbers, which means that the general quality level is almost absurdly high for a brewery that does not have a big name, has very little buzz, wasn’t beefed up pre-opening with a year-long social media campaign, isn’t aimed at the Beer Geek Intelligentsia, and whose brewer doesn’t even charge for his tasting flights! John and Michele are just folks who know good beer, love good beer, and seem incapable of (and profoundly uninterested in) doing squat to please the BA and RB HopHeads or me or anybody, really, but their own vision and own taste buds. The exact same characteristics absolutely apply to Eric and Lisa and Tin Dog. That one aspect – confidence, coupled with bravery and a lack of affectation – is what I mainly look for in a new brewery. And that level-headed desire for Something Different shows in these two breweries and has from the very beginning.
And that, to me, is how great breweries always get started.