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TPFThis is a story of grit…persistence, focus, maybe even a bit of good ol’ fashioned obsession. It’s a story, too, of a good guy determined to follow this benign mania in one of the most unlikely places in the United States for what he had in mind.

For those who have never been there, Tacoma, Washington, is a step into a time machine; a slice of 1958 Seattle that broke off, rolled south, and got snagged on a tree root on the shores of Commencement Bay. For a displaced Southern cracker like me, it’s an almost uncomfortable reminder of a lot of things that I moved all the way across a continent to escape. Urban renewal – that beast which has eaten Seattle and Portland in large gulps – has only nibbled casually at T-town, as we Washingtonians call it. Vestiges of the 70s, 60s, even the 30s and 1920s are everywhere, in public buildings, the relics of ancient shipping warehouses, and faded signage that refuses to surrender to the hi-res video billboards that line Interstate 5. It’s a city struggling to put a lipstick smile on an old and weary face and its people are a wild mix of Northwest Gen-Xers, old hippies, the desperately poor, a thin stratum of Old Money, and the largest concentration of rednecks west of Alabama. It is a city that could be (and probably is) accurately pegged as a hotbed of wallet-on-a-chain monster-truck fans whose beer preference stops at whatever is the current outer parameters of Anheuser Busch’s watery lager continuum. It is not now nor has it ever been a place where even the handful of craft breweries take a lot of chances. Pushing The Envelope, in Tacoma craft terms, is making one kicky little Belgian-style Farmhouse Ale as a faux-edgy adjunct to their roster of British-tradition ales, the IPA/Amber/Pale/Stout/Porter/ESB school that constitutes at least 98% of everything that’s brewed in Washington.

Photo of Shane Johns by Robert Brenlin

Photo of Shane Johns by Robert Brenlin

Into this bedrock foundation of Beer Normalcy comes a former chef named Shane Johns, a genial but laser-focused guy of maybe 35 who became a brewer by simply taking a back-burner passion and applying his chef’s palate to it and saying something which has a certain powerful resonance here in the heart of Seahawks Nation…”Why Not Me?

Shane had some help in learning how to make beer but when he took the helm for Tacoma’s oldest brewery, Engine House 9 – a restored early twentieth century firehouse located in a blue-collar neighborhood just up the hill from Tacoma’s struggling-to-gentrify downtown – it was his first real brewing job. When he got there, the beers were all solidly in that Brit-trad mold. They had a couple of IPAs, the obligatory Amber, the rote Pale, and the occasional foray into Stouts or Porters or – in very adventurous moments – an ESB. E9 was the essence of normal; exactly what sleepy ol’ T-town wanted, and whatever madness was prevailing down the road in weird, eccentric Portland – which was even then, in the early 2000s, becoming the epicenter of the Experimental Beer world – had no place in Shane’s ‘hood.

EngineHouse9But, under previous ownership and before the pub’s neglected taplines were even completely rehabbed (on our 2006 visit, dirty taps tainted four of the eight beers on our tasting tray), Shane was lobbying the owner to try Something Different. For a bottom line food guy like that owner, doing anything different was a very hard sell. The pub did respectable business, if not great, and nobody who came in regularly was in search of a damned thing other than what was on that quotidian tap list. And Shane wanted…well, he wanted to do stuff that the old owner and 99% of his patrons had never even heard of, much less been curious about. Shane experimented with barrel-aged ales and even sold sixth-kegs to a bar nearby, which went through them quickly and consistently. In Shane’s own pub…those beers often sat on tap for long enough that they wound up being discarded. It was, as Shane remembers, not a very happy time.

Then, in 2011, a guy named John Xitco and partner Jeff Paradise – owners of Tacoma’s X Restaurant Group – bought E9 and at least to a degree took the shackles off Shane’s ambitions. “If it sells, it’s okay with us…within reason,” said the new owners, both of whom admitted being far more “into wine” than beer when they purchased the venerable old pub and its tiny brewhouse. Very slowly and with ultimate care – having rightly deduced that it was a “win or go home” situation – Shane began to fashion sours and expanded his barrel-aged program. The first sample I had was a bottle he gave me in 2012, a big, whiskey-drenched Stout infused with Bing cherries. It wasn’t completely flawless but would have rated an easy 95 on my own scale and showed graphically that the new direction was worth following.

The bottling was – and still is – all done by hand, with labels applied manually and the cork and cage mounted with a hand-held tool. This means that quantities of these beers are tiny and that’s not likely to change very soon. But E9 now has a Seattle distributor and the beers – along with a significant buzz – are quickly percolating up out of the T-town Time Warp and into the trendy world of WA brewing. The astounding fact is that, aside from three other breweries (out of this state’s 225+!) E9’s sour beer program is the first real commitment to sour/Brett/barreled beers in Washington history. Those other three generally failed at their attempts. Shane has NOT.

10271411_763319313678649_7930985240028875324_oLast Saturday, during a day trip to Tacoma, I tasted Shane’s current crop of sour and Brett ales and found them to be – with ZERO exaggeration – easily on a par with noted sour/Brett breweries like Almanac, Cascade, Jolly Pumpkin, Jester King, and Russian River and not more than a cut behind the best producers of sours, Crooked Stave, Upland, The Bruery, and New Belgium. I would, in fact, say that what I tasted this weekend was as good as anything I’ve ever sampled from New Belgium, which makes what has been for a decade the sour ale standard for US fans, the titanic La Folie. While Shane’s five that we tasted were not as polished and complete as Crooked Stave’s best, they were, for Washington, nothing short of revelatory.RaspWildCombo

The first thing we tasted was the E9 Raspberry Wild Ale. I’ve been sampling raspberry sours every time I found one for over a decade and this is easily one of the top two or three I’ve ever found. The berry flavor was dead-on authentic but not overstated. There was absolutely no intimation at all of the raspberry candy/raspberry extract end of the flavor continuum. It tasted of ripe, fresh berries, simply macerated shortly after picking and allowed to be as they were. The finish is dry and a touch spicy and the sour is magnificent, as perfect a balance of sweet and tart as I’ve ever tasted in a sour ale. It’s become easy to forget, here in the age of the Extreme IPA and over-the-top everything in American craft brewing, that sour beers were never intended, when they were accidentally invented in Flanders, to be a challenge to drink. After those first instances of wild yeasts “spoiling” ales in those old breweries, they continued to make sours because average Belgian beer drinkers liked them; loved their refreshing character, bracing crispness, and their wonderful food affinity. This Raspberry Wild from E9 fully appreciates and celebrates that original revelation. It’s nicely, assertively sour but wickedly easy to drink and I hope to drink it often…hint, hint.   99 Points

E9BrettSaisonGlassThe E9 Brett Saison was also among the top examples of that style that I’ve encountered yet. My main complaint with most Brett Saisons is that, in an obvious attempt to honor the subtlety of the base style, many brewers wind up with beers that show little or none of the funky, earthy character of the Brettanomyces or swing the other way, offering a glassful of something that tastes like it was steeped in wet hay and scraps of unwashed horse blanket. Shane nails it here. This is a beautifully transparent and expressive Saison at its heart, simply enhanced with an artful underpinning of musk and tart, bready funk that amplifies the tropical fruit, lychi, apricot, bananas, and mild spices of the farmhouse style. It will change over time, of course, since Brett is damnably hard to control (just ask any winemaker who’s ever had the perverse little critters get loose in his tank room) but this ale promises to get nothing but better as the kegs age and I fervently hope to revisit it in three or four months, if there’s any left.  94 Points

1426368842163The bottled E9 Brett Saison, Farmhouse Deux Saison, is aged in oak barrels after its Brett inoculation. It’s considerably different and not just by virtue of the lovely oak presence: more pungent, farther along in its evolution, and showing more fresh earth, hay, cheese, nut, and those lovely grace notes of wood and vanilla. It’s darker in color than the Brett Saison and has more body and grip. The Brett character is really just getting started and it’s already more finished and integrated than 98% of all the Brett ales of any style that have been put in front of me. The big lemony, spicy flavors derived from the yeasts are gilded by a tartness that’s as civilized and user-friendly as any American Brett I’ve tasted yet. This is a massively drinkable ale; one that my Brett-clueless Domestic Partner responded to with an immediate and emphatic “Mmmmm!” – before telling me in no uncertain terms that we were taking some home with us. (“Happy Wife, Happy Life”: I’m a Believer.) As time in the bottle passes, this minimally-filtered stuff will show more of the Brett funk and edgy tartness and that is all to the good. This is a splendid ale that’s just going to get better and better.  95 Points

Shane’s passion, as a former chef, is blending and he shows a masterful facility with it as a brewer. His E9 Dubel with Raspberry Wild is mash-up of several different batches; a dusky, silky, edgy elixir that sports deep dark caramels and chocolate and some background of fruitcake and fruit leathers, along with fat raspberries, roasted nuts, and an emphatic tartness that’s faintly like a cross between Balsamic vinegar and unsweetened cherry juice. This shows none of the hesitant traits of some brown sours I’ve tasted, in which it seemed as if the brewer waffled between a sweet Dubel and an outright sour. This has a gorgeous balance and rib-sticking body that makes it a real treat to drink, while probably NOT something you’d session. This is one that beginner sour drinkers may find challenging but my companion sour novice disputes that. She told me later than it was something she found quite approachable and would drink again, gladly. For me, this is probably one I’d drink enough of to make me need a nap later on. Gorgeous Dubel and a killer sour.  96 Points

E9BarrelStoutAccidents have been the root inspiration for many of mankind’s greatest inventions and the E9 Barrel-Aged Coffee Stout, acidified and aged with raspberries, is a beer that Shane admitted was a reclamation project, aimed at salvaging a regular coffee Stout that hadn’t properly fermented. To “fix” it, he acidified the unfiltered ale, macerated it on fresh raspberries, and stuck it in a barrel for quite a while. Result?

It nearly made me weep.

This is a sludgy, viscous, glass-coating (you can see the residue in the photo to your left) thrill ride for any sour ale fan. It is so completely unfiltered that it actually has a  grainy feel in your mouth. This would turn a lot of folks off but it worked on me like catnip. I loooove weird beers and this is Frankenstein; an intense, full-frontal post-Stout beast that delivers all that stuffing you normally find in a Big Stout – chocolate, coffee, molasses, cigar leaf, etc. – topped liberally with assertive tartness, BIG raspberry character (complete with tiny grains of berry)  and a hoppy bitterness on the lingering – like for a full two minutes! – finish. Is this a great beer? Depends on who you ask. I’m wiling to concede that this is all a matter of taste and I’m making far less of an effort to be objective and Everyman-ish than I normally do but this is, for me, just a flat-out ball-buster; one of those ales that’s going to stick in my memory for years. I suspect, if Shane ever gets to the point at which he’s comfortable with bottling it, it will be only in tiny quantities and then after some serious filtration. But for now, it rang every one of my bells with a big, serious hammer.  95 Points

Bottom Line: Engine House 9, if its owners are willing and they’re ready to gear up quickly, could be a success on the order of Almanac and Cascade Barrelhouse. They could very well, with a ramp-up in brewing capacity, become one of the Next Big Things, and I cannot tell you what a sheer pleasure it is to be able to know that this sort of ale is being made right here in my literal back yard! Shane Johns’ vision absolutely can and should pay off, and all that’s standing in the way is a corporate Will and all of us notoriously timid Washington beer fans who can’t seem to pull our tongues out of an IPA glass long enough to try something Outside The Box. I believe that is changing, though, and Engine House 9 with Shane Johns is the “More Cowbell” that can drive such an unlikely but waaaay overdue evolution.

L-R: Dubel (rear) Raspberry Wild, Stout (rear), Saison Brett

L-R: Dubel (rear) Raspberry Wild, Stout (rear), Saison Brett

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15 thoughts on “Engine House 9 Tacoma: The Changing Face of Washington Brewing, Part One

  1. Pingback: The NW Cutting Edge: Washington’s Gang of Four (+1) | ThePourFool

  2. After reading the first couple paragraphs, I would have thought the writer was describing Longview, WA or Puyallup/Graham area. Perhaps he is describing his Tacoma visits from the 1990’s or early 2000’s….. long before the artist boom and the revival of Pacific ave. and 6th I’m sure. I am quite familiar with friends from Seattle judging Tacoma based on their last trip which was typically a concert at the Dome in ’90’s. He is right about the uninspiring, safe, commercial brewing practices in Washington but you could say that about 48 states I suppose which is really a reaction to the fact that craft brewing is still under 10% market share and the great masses (who don’t have your palate) are the ones who pay the rent. Actually, the most off-putting part of this article was that despite the writer’s advanced palate, ranking one brewery’s sour over the next is like ranking one oil painting over another. How does one stack-rank Upland above Jester King or Cascade and expect to be viewed as credible? P.S. I love your sours Shane and I love that you always have great beers tapped up from all over the globe.

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    • There is a certain selective blindness that comes with living in a city for a long time and that’s what I’ve seen repeatedly in the response to this post. Let me get this straight: are you and everybody else who’s complaining saying that Tacoma does NOT have rampant crime, sex offenders in large numbers, folks who guzzle Bud and attend tractor pulls, heinous traffic, places where it is absolutely unsafe to walk after dark, desperate poverty, TONS of urban blight, industrial pollution, and breweries which, almost universally, make nothing but the core British Traditional ales? Because I can find all that right this minute and so could you…except that you, like MOST people who say “That’s not how people in ________ feel about it” or “People here think_____” are really saying, “I and six or eight of my friends see it differently“. Everything I said about Tacoma is true, NOW. If you can’t see that, it’s because you choose not to or you’re so involved with your clique or social group that you’re effectively living in a bubble that you created, where everything’s arts and crafts and friendships and get-togethers with pals and your own sealed culture. Meanwhile, out there in the real world, people are poor and thoughtlessly swill BudMillerCoorsPabst and pack the T-dome for tractor pulls and monster truck shows and headbanger concerts. Every city has those problems to some degree but few around this corner of the country have them to the degree that Tacoma does. Contrary to what everybody thinks, that blue-collar atmosphere is something I actually LIKE about Tacoma. No, I don’t like the legions of rednecks…oh, but why would you know any of those? They don’t drink your beer or run in your circles, so you think they don’t exist.

      He is right about the uninspiring, safe, commercial brewing practices in Washington but you could say that about 48 states..

      NO, you CANNOT say that about 48 states. Oregon is the country’s hotbed of experimental brewing. (Hair of the Dog, Cascade, Upright, Heater Allen, Logsdon, deGarde, Ale Apothecary, pFriem, etc, etc.) Coloradans drink hundreds of exotic things routinely, not to be different but because they LIKE THE BEERS. (Funkwerks, Avery, Crooked Stave, River North, Elevation, Grimm…ringing any bells here?) California is rampant with different breweries. Vermont has very little but experimental breweries, and Michigan is wall-to wall adventure. Yeah, ALL of those places have Brit-trad breweries. They’re the majority, in fact, largely because of the wild popularity of the IPA thang and Stouts and the easy-drinking Pales, but they have significant percentages of breweries that are devoted to creating whatever’s coming next in craft beer. We have FAR fewer than any of these states. WA Breweries that are PRIMARILY not in the British tradition: Holy Mountain, Sound, Tin Dog, Propolis, Slippery Pig, White Cliffs, Chuckanut, Naked City, Orlison…and that’s about it. We have 225+ active breweries in Washington. You do the math. It has ZERO to do with my “advanced palate” and everything to do with not having to drink the same old stuff over and over and over and over.

      How does one stack-rank Upland above Jester King or Cascade and expect to be viewed as credible?

      How do people AND BREWERIES participate in these dozens of bracket-style playoffs that you see almost weekly? Deschutes posted a call for their fans to vote in one just this morning. Breweries not being in competition is a lovely notion but that’s not the way America works. We like to compete and that includes breweries and, FYI, I stack-rank based on tasting the beers at those breweries and deciding which ones I think are balanced, distinctive, creative, and great to drink. In short, I make the same decisions EVERYBODY makes in deciding which breweries they want to visit again and which of their beers they like best and want to drink.

      And FYI, according to the Brewers Association email I received just this morning, craft beer now accounts for just over 14% of all domestic beer sales. How about next time decide to set me straight about something, you think for a while and make some more coherent arguments? This, ultimately, was nothing more than what I got from every other pissed-off Tacoman: hurt feelings backed up by absolutely NO statement of why YOU think Tacoma is wonderful. NOBODY, out of the 25 – 30 responses I got (out of the 240,000 who read it) could get past their ravening urge to take swings at me and focus on WHY all of you think I missed the real Tacoma. Congratulations: I’ve now received over 300 emails – which is the way readers of The Pour Fool usually connect with me – inquiring about visiting Tacoma. I believe my readers are smart enough to understand that there’s more to EVERY American city than its negatives. I’m trying to get the rest of the country, where my readership is far larger than it is in the Seattle area, to come visit E9 and taste the wonderful thing that’s happening there. And all of you turned this into a cat fight about NOTHING but Tacoma and your bruised feelings. I told the truth about Tacoma, just as surely as all of you have told your version of it in communicating with me. You can deny it all you want and take backhanded swipes at Longview and Puyallup but that’s how Tacoma is seen by millions of other people. You had a chance, here, to counter what I wrote with telling the positives about your hometown but you decided you’d rather continue to stomp your feet and condescend. I hope you’re happy now because nothing changed about my blog post and outsiders reading this STILL have no idea what’s so great about Tacoma.

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  3. AWESOME!  Glad someone in WA got started on sour beers … and doing them well.  Dang … I need to get down to T-town now ASAP. Kind of puts a smallish damper on my idea to start a hobby brewery doing mostly sour beers.  Oh well.

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    • For those who don’t know him, this comment comes from Kevin Axt, a gifted home brewer whom I first met when I ran my wine/beer shop, VinElla, out in Woodinville. I would love it, Kevin, if you did go ahead and make sours. Given your talent and knack for experimentation, I’m certain something exceptional would emerge!

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  4. I don’t find your comments as baseless as some other Tacoma residents, but I disagree that Tacoma is an unlikely place for good, experimental beer. Tacoma is the only place in western WA outside of Seattle that has anything approaching an urban vibe. It also has affordable housing. These two facts, combined with the increasing lack of affordability in Seattle, ought to be making Tacoma more of a hotbed for artists and craft-based start up businesses than it is. The transformation is happening, but it’s slower than it would otherwise be thanks in part to reputation issues that change very slowly. But places like Providence, Brooklyn, and Oakland have changed a lot, and so will Tacoma for similar reasons.

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    • I don’t see what “urban vibe” has to do with anything. Arguably, the most sophisticated beers in this state are being made at Sound Brewery in Poulsbo, which has ZERO urban vibe. Tacoma, no matter what anyone says, is and has been a blue-collar city for generations. Is there an undercurrent of hipness and progressive thinking? OF COURSE. just like there’s is in Newark and Oakland and the Bronx. No American city does not have some elements that are artsy and/or “urban”. Tacoma has a LOT of good things about it. I’ve said that over and over and LONG before this little tempest. But it IS predominantly that blue-collar, industrial town and no amount of complaining is going to change that perception.

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      • “Urban vibe” is important because a lot of people want to live in a place that feels like a city and try to build a scene in such a place, whether it’s art or sour beer. Places where it’s affordable to do that are often predominantly blue collar. Georgetown is a closer-in example.

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  5. Have you ever been to Tacoma? Or even looked on the internets to see how many breweries there are in grit city?
    odd otter, harmon, wingman, pacific, narrows, and thats just off the top of my head… get out of bellevue sometime and see whats out there instead of slamming a cool town you obviously know nothing about except for what you heard about Tacoma back in the eighties

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    • I’ve been to every brewery in Tacoma and every one in the surrounding area -several times each. Everybody’s who pissed off about this just assumes that I’ve never spent any time in Tacoma or I would just love, love, love it! I’ve spent a LOT of time in Tacoma. I own a house there, have explored pretty much every neighborhood by now, and like Tacoma a LOT. But I don’t wear rose-colored glasses about it. Tacoma has a LOT of problems, like crime, sex offenders – 46 of ’em, within 3/4 of a mile of our house – poverty, large areas of urban blight, violence, racism, and, YES, a lot of the sort of rednecks I left North Carolina to get away from. The only two breweries in Tacoma that I would even think of writing about are Pacific Malting & Brewing and E9. ALL the rest have BIG problems with consistency. All this butt-hurt umbrage skips over the FACT that Tacoma has the challenges I mentioned – FAR more than any other city in this end of the state. I can see defending your hometown. What I can’t see is trying to say that a city like Tacoma is great and wonderful and that any criticism is based on “knowing nothing”. Everybody has to agree with you or they’re wrong – is that what you’re saying? If it is, that’s pretty much the height of both ego and irrationality.

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  6. Sir,
    I saw you shut down the comments on Seattle PI’s page, which led me here. Your observations about Tacoma were painted with an absurdly broad brush. You may have spent a “LOT” of time here, and certainly there are some rednecks (many are here courtesy of JBLM, myself included), but your critics are right when they ask “Have you ever been to Tacoma?” You seem to have missed all the good parts! Parkway, Redhot, Pint Defiance, and The Copper Door are always chock full of excellent people drinking excellent beer. Pacific Brewing’s greatest struggle has been to make beer quickly enough. The community is so vibrant that I struggle to go anywhere at all without running into someone I know. Yes, industry has played a large part in Tacoma’s history, and there are run-down portions of the city. The same is true of Seattle. I strongly advise you to check your tongue and make nice if you want to achieve anything but notoriety.
    p.s. “Form those who have never been there…” – second paragraph

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    • If you had done anything other than read the beginning of the post and get your nose out of joint, you might have visited my Facebook page and seen me naming some of my favorite things about Tacoma, including Parkway, Red Hot, Pint Defiance, Southern Kitchen, and World Beer. I don’t like The Copper Door much, so I left that out. I do enjoy Harmon, on occasion, but their beers bore me to death – too mild, too much the same thing over and over again, and rather wimpy. I like Pacific a LOT and mentioned it recently, after a visit, on my FB page. I’ve been to Tacoma and am, in fact, moving there in either May or June but I am fully capable of seeing it as a place to live and a place that has big problems. Tacoma is not and never will be as great a city as Seattle and if that offends Tacomans, tough. It’s just a fact. I didn’t write this to get a reaction out of anyone. I wrote it because it frames what a miraculous thing it is to find a great sour beer program in a city that’s least likely to have it…and that’s Tacoma. I certainly didn’t set out to offend a lot of people but if people are offended, I’d rather have that than start having to worry about making people like me. I need to like me, first, and what I like is that there has never been a dishonest word written in The Pour Fool. Tactless? Okay, maybe. But the other term for that is “direct” and that’s something I consider a virtue, not a failing.

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  7. I started visiting E9 in 2004 when I first moved to Tacoma, the first time. The beer was mediocre at best. The atmosphere was rather off putting per se. It was not a beer destination by any stretch of the imagination. Fast forward ten years.. ..I met Shane and we instantly connected due to our personalities and love for craft beer. He has a true passion for the industry. He has honed the art and science of brewing. Most importantly, he listens to his family of beer lovers. He delivers, in a big way. He has made Tacoma a pinnacle of the Northwest beer scene. Congrats Shane.

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Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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