Engine House 9 Tacoma: The Changing Face of Washington Brewing, Part One

This 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

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.

But, 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.

Last 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.

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

The 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

The 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

Accidents 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