Maybe it’s part of aging. Maybe it’s ingrained artsyness. Maybe it’s just as plain as habitual overthinking. But as I get older, I find myself looking less and less at the surface appearance of things, people, and events, and far more at the Backstory: how did this come to be? What factors converged to make this event happen, this person evolve into what they are today, this thing function in the way it does? And when certain near-ideal things, events, and people intersect, I sense a kind of magic; a subtle undercurrent of the magnificent or the transcendent. That happens a lot, lately.
There is another possibility, one suggested by quite a few people who have emailed me, over the years, or commented on this website or in the Seattle P-I version of this blog:
Maybe I’m just full of shit.
I’m not ruling that out…but I can tell you that, this past Monday evening – in a noisy tavern, in a blue collar neighborhood of a staunchly blue-collar city, in a state in which “Blue State” and “Blue Collar” co-exist only in the most balky possible way – I found that Magic, that near-perfection, that…vibe.
Mckinley Street is one of the main drags of the East side of Tacoma, Washington, an old port city, about 35 miles and 25 years away from Seattle, its more sparkly neighbor to the north. Mckinley’s main commercial district lies between 34th Street and East Division, a row of faded buildings housing businesses with names like Fergie’s Restaurant & Bar, Parky’s Tavern, Jesus’s Muffler Shop, Northwest Protective Services, The Eric G. Sandstrom Post 969 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Eloise’s Cooking Pot Food Bank. It’s a street that doesn’t trade in pretty. As it continues south, eventually leaving Tacoma, Mckinley is straight, uncut Middle America; salt-of-the-earth Americans in salt-box homes, tucked in between businesses that scuffle a bit to make a go of it.
Top of Tacoma Bar & Cafe is the thirty-something expression of this aesthetic, a no-frills tavern that is centered around imaginative pub grub and a hard-core dedication to craft beer and the culture that spawned it. Over its eight-year history, TofT has reflected the changing face of what the phrase “Northwest Blue Collar” has come to mean. Unlike Parky’s Tavern, seven doors down, it has jettisoned the corporate, habitual tavern enslavement to our “traditional” American watery adjunct Pilsners – the BudMillerCoorsPabst school of low-horizon brewing – and gone all-in on the new reality of American-owned, locally-made beer: Craft Brewing and all of its new traditions, attitudes, and atmosphere.
Judye and I visited Top for the first time on a chilly Thursday night, last week, and had dinner, along with four beers that would delight me anywhere I found them: Boneyard “Diablo Rojo”, Hopworks “Abominable”, Iron Horse Brewing “Irish Death”, and the star of our evening, Lagunitas Brewing’s immortal “Brown Shugga”. The food was fine, the service friendly and prompt, the atmosphere was, simply put, so much that of a quiniessential craft beer pub that it made me pensive and probably a little too tender-hearted.
“We should maybe come back here,” I said to Judye, as casually as I could. She agreed. “Look,” she said, pointing out a poster on the back wall, “Next Monday: Lagunitas Brewer’s Night. You interested in that?” She said this while sipping Brown Shugga through a broad and satisfied grin.
“You betcha,” I replied.
Lagunitas Brewing is very nearly Top of Tacoma’s doppleganger, in spirit if not really in economic stature. Started in Lagunitas, California in 1993, by an irascible but affable Californian named Tony Magee, Lagunitas has had a colorful history of brushes with the law over its ongoing association with marijuana. They were the object of a protracted sting operation and one twenty-day suspension pending investigation by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which alleged that Lagunitas employees were dealing pot on premises. The investigation was later abandoned without comment, which prompted Magee to famously quip, “No one was willing to sell it to them, but everyone was willing to give it to them for free.” In typical Magee fashion, they celebrated the lifting of the suspension by brewing “Undercover Investigation Shutdown” ale.
They are also, by any standard you want to apply, one of America’s truly great breweries.
Tony Magee has as great a measure of my respect as any brewer, winemaker, or distiller in this country. He’s one of those rare individuals who is FAR less motivated by money than by living well, sees everything that happens to and around him with humor and an attitude so cheerfully jaundiced that he makes me look like Santa Claus, and is absolutely unbending on matters of conscience. He had a large and very serious inquiry from a major mega-brewer to sell Lagunitas and later wrote this legendary string of Tweets about it…
Lagunitas makes beers that fall largely – but not exclusively – into the British and German brewing traditions. They are, in every case, the product of thoughtful and uber-creative ideas and execution and an absolute fearlessness of approach. Tony Magee bottles and releases a beer because he likes it and thinks you will too. He also occasionally offends people, which leads me to wonder if we were separated at birth and further endears him and the brewery to me. My ongoing respect and even minor fanboy status with Deschutes is well established, here, and need not be restated but to say that the same set of values that makes me lead the cheering for Deschutes applies to Lagunitas. “Bravely Done“, it used to and may still say inside each Deschutes bottle cap. It could say the same on Tony Magee’s packaging.
The following Monday night, we came back to Top of Tacoma for the Lagunitas dinner. The kitchen had prepared dishes themed around the six beers featured – a fresh-hopped ale called Wet Hop Fusion, Brown Shugga, Dopple Sticky, GravensTime (a beer brewed substituting apple juice for water), their basic IPA and Lagunitas Pilsner – and we had two, steak tips on a bed of roasted sweet potatoes and beer battered cod, that were rock-solid and great complements to the beers….which were revelatory. The Lagunitas GravensTime was, by a mile, the most successful marriage of cider and beer that I’ve come across yet. Unlike the growing number of hopped ciders I taste from Washington and other apple-producing states, Lagunitas GravensTime comes at the challenge of this oddball fusion by the beer route and knocks it out of the park. This is a tart, bone-dry, intense, full-frontal Apple Assault that’s beautifully complemented by a strappin’ infusion of resiny, herbal/citrus hops that assert themselves emphatically without smothering the apples. I seldom sit and just sip a cider, although I like many, many of our local styles quite a bit but this, had we been drinking pints, would have been my glass of choice, just for the pure, refreshing novelty of it.
The Wet Hop Fusion was wonderful and fresh and drenched with pine/spruce resins and notes of lemon peel, rosemary, jasmine, and ginger. It was a tad less intense than what I had expected but, as the glass warmed, I found that I liked its relative subtlety and warm malt balance a LOT. The Lagunitas IPA was, as always, simply one of the template basic IPAs of the West Coast, a heaping fistful of complex herb/citrus/floral/resin bitterness and a lean, edgy flavor profile that makes it one of the country’s best IPAs for summer drinking. This is a relentlessly refreshing ale that straddles that fine line between what we think of as a Northwest Pale Ale (NWPA), with its Pale ale lightness married to enhanced hops, and the more restrained English-style IPAs that are found in the East and Midwest.
But the biggest surprise of the evening was the Lagunitas Dopple Sticky, a take on the German Dopplesticke altbier style that absolutely sang with its gorgeous balance of malts and swaggering, sticky hops. Resins seep from between the planks of caramel malts, here, like wine oozing from a leaky barrel. I’m a sucker for a good Alt, anyway – especially as winter sets in, as with Ninkasi’s stunning “Sleigh’r” – and this is a Dopplesticke that could be served in any German bierhall with nary a raised eyebrow. Judye interpreted “sticky” to mean “sweet”, which it sometimes can indicate, and approached this beer as she would a cobra, only to wind up drinking nearly the whole glass and pronouncing it her favorite of the five. This was my first experience of it and I was floored by its lovely depth, richness, resin-drenched edginess, and creamy texture.
And then, there is Lagunitas Brown Shugga…one of the West Coast’s truly iconic beers. For many years, now, this ale has been one of the most sought-after and imitated winter seasonal ales made in the US. As Lagunitas has grown, it’s become easier to find (the past two years was the first time it showed up taps or shelves for more than its release day in Seattle) and has not, to my palate, declined one molecule by being batched larger. It leans on my pleasure buttons hard, like a persistent salesman bangin’ a balky doorbell. It’s strong, at 9.9% ABV, malty and rich, exploding with hoppy aggression, and so perfectly balanced and so wildly drinkable that I had to caution Judye, the first time she tasted it, that more than maybe a pint and a half would put her on her lips. Its closest spiritual cousin is, again, from Deschutes: the similarly immortal Jubelale. A few years back, Lagunitas ran out of the recipe ingredients needed to make Brown Shugga and came up with Lagunitas Sucks!, a label suggested by a frustrated patron, when informed that there would be no Brown Shugga that year. Sucks! immediately became its own success story and is now a rotational beer.
Sitting there, in what is now my neighborhood pub, (I live less than a mile away) watching one of the Seattle area’s most genuinely eclectic collection of people laugh and eat and talk, in animated terms, about their lives and especially about what was in their glasses was when that magic dawned on me. This, I realized, is what American craft beer is about. Not the chaos and childish excess of GABF or the asses ‘n’ elbows craziness of beerfests, but the confluence of friendships, a welcome atmosphere, food, conversation, music, relaxation, fun, and that unifying centerpiece of truly great beers. Top of Tacoma creates this nexus of interests and passions in the best and most difficult possible way, just as Magee and his Lagunitas crew have managed to become a huge craft brewery and still remain as down-home as a church social: by creating the venue and the elements and then Letting It Be. On the night of the Lagunitas tasting, TofT was celebrating its eighth anniversary and the evening was light and enjoyable and wonderfully relaxed. That is the common aesthetic and spiritual thread between this bar and the brewery featured on that night: both give the impression that what’s been built has more or less just happened, coincidentally, while everyone was otherwise occupied.
We embrace this sort of atmosphere because American craft brewing is Our Beer. It’s US, made by friends and associates and family and neighbors and the people next door. It’s not mass-produced by a foreign-owned mega-corporation that uses focus-group research to tell them what least-common-denominator thing will please – or more accurately “not offend” – the largest numbers of people. There are many craft beers that can, unless you’re in my line of work, be safely skipped. Some are not made well or are the product of bad judgment or simply have nothing distinctive about them and fade from view from their sameness. But we overlook that sort of aberration because it’s like when our uncle makes us a wood-burned wall plaque that looks like road kill: it was made with love, by someone we care about. And that’s where the beer erudition of a bar like Top of Tacoma figures in so powerfully. TofT pours exceptional beers, almost exclusively, and listens to their customers when they ask for something new. That’s also true for Lagunitas, which has been relentlessly customer-driven since its inception. And the connection that results from that sort of openness and inclusion is impossible to exaggerate. It is literally the difference, here in this new world of “Drink Local” and our new regionalism, between success and failure.
Top of Tacoma and Lagunitas Brewing are two living, breathing, vital examples of a new American Quintessence: individual accomplishment, small-business roots, fierce independence, and a gleeful willingness to overthrow old paradigms. Neither is Business As Usual. And both a visit to TofT and a pour of Lagunitas anything express almost perfectly what American creativity and ingenuity are in the new millennium. We are creating our own new post-BudMillerCoorsPabst reality…and it’s really, really good.
If you’re in Tacoma, visit the local breweries, for sure. What you find will, in many cases, stun you. But do not skip Top of Tacoma and, just as importantly, do not think it’s the only place where this Quintessence is found. In every part of this country, in places you’d least expect it, in your own back yard, you’ll find your own equivalent. Mckinley Hill is NOT, by any stretch, a trendy, buzz-worthy part of Tacoma or the greater Seattle area. And yet, here sits this bar, this place, this welcoming locus of beer and commonality. FIND YOURS. Visit often and realize that you are literally reinventing our shared future as beer lovers and Americans.