There are a couple of posts coming up, here at the ol’ Fool Ranch, that are intended to give 2017’s beer tourists, headed up to this mildewey corner of the nation, some great, “Must See” places to stop on your beery tour of the beautiful, endlessly eccentric PNW. This is the first of ’em and since I live and work and sleep and follow my dogs around in Washington, The Emerald State is our first stop.
Washington has been, in the not-too-distant past, a place where the British brewing tradition reigned not just supreme but almost exclusively. Experimentation was confined to just a couple of breweries and to only one, out of over 200, at the time, that really shoved hard at the envelope.
Today, that is changing, fast. Beer lovers here, who had traditionally refused almost any “different” beers, aside from their beloved Ambers and IPAs and More IPAs, have started showing up in gaudy numbers for a fistful of breweries that have branched out into Belgians and Stouts and even some wild ales and Brett ales and Sours. Despite the fact that Washington has been either the second, third, or fourth largest craft brewing community in the US for over twenty years, our collective isolation – and the fact that we drink almost everything the breweries made, right here, and relieved them of the necessity of packing and distributing beers outside of this immediate region – we remain, to this day, much of an Unknown to most American beer lovers.
And those British ales? Washington makes them as well or better than any other state in this country. Readers have occasionally challenged my ratings of WA state beers on many occasions, writing “Hey, if this ale is that freakin’ great, how come I’ve never heard of it?“, signed, TrevorInVermont. Well, Trev, here it is: we don’t make enough to send you any. Come here, sometime, and see how great YOU think it is.
This, too, is changing. It’s an astounding fact but true: only ten years ago, less than five Washington breweries were bottling anything at all. Cans were unheard of. Oregon, Colorado, and California all gushed packaged beers out into the American marketplace. We dripped it out. There were two Washington breweries whose beers you could get in the East: Pyramid and Red Hook. Pike Brewing was available on the West coast and Maritime Pacific might make it as far as Spokane and Portland. That was IT.
Today, thanks to the presence of several intrepid beer shippers and increasing ambition of some of our better breweries, people all over the US are trying Washington beers and the reaction is overwhelmingly positive.
The breweries below, my “Gang of Four” (+1), are among those which are issuing beers that Trevor and his cousin Darryl, in Austin, and his other cousin Darryl, in Tallahassee, might be able to find. Trust me on this: if you’re a devotee of craft beer to any extent, you DO, very much, want to try what’s issuing from this +1 quartet of Killers…
Engine House No. 9/Tacoma, Washington
When Shane Johns, a cheery, personable former chef, took over the reins of the brewery side of Tacoma’s fabled Engine House No. 9 Restaurant & Brewery , he brought with him something that had heretofore been unheard of in Tacoma’s tiny brewing scene: a wild and unrestrained imagination. Tacoma is, at heart, a devoutly blue-collar town; almost the antidote to the hipster-ish uni-vibe of its northern sister, Seattle. Tacoma is a bit slower, a lot friendlier, has tons better restaurants, but was a rock-ribbed bastion of those revered British ales. Shane, blessed with youth, energy, a finely-honed chef’s palate, and an ownership with a restrained but flexible willingness to let him create, began working a couple of barrel-aged selections into the brewing rotation. Tiny quantities, to be sure, but they generated a small ripple of buzz and they sold, which was all the owners cared about. Then, he drifted into experimenting with lactobacillus and brettanomyces and native yeasts and blended ales. The results were not uniformly successful, as Shane readily admits, but I tasted a couple of the early efforts and was shocked at how deftly this guy had managed to blend around and past what he called “mistakes”. Soon, word began to filter out.
I wrote a glowing post about E9, as we uber-hip locals call it, back in 2015, called “Engine House 9 Tacoma: The Changing Face of Washington Brewing“. Other breweries, even before that, started seeking out Shane for collaborations. The reason was simple: the beers were Exceptional; many even a couple of cuts above that. “Raspberry Wild Ale”, “Nefelibata” Flanders Red, the “Ferme Agrume” Saison series, “Le Perelin” Farmhouse ale, “Nectarberry” Wild Ale, “Tacoma Wild” with apricots or blackberries, and the staggering “Cherry Plum Table Sour”…failures were non-existent. Even merely excellent was rare. It was exactly like watching someone do close-up sleight of hand magic. The brewery was the size a state campground bathroom building. The floor looked like it was laid by drunks. And yet, these magical ales came out in almost unbroken succession. Shane is that rarest of creatures, in my world: someone upon whom I can hang that highest compliment: “He’s a Good Man.” He has pursued his dream of making these…odd, compelling, utterly eccentric sours and wilds and bretts and barreled beers with a jovial but deadly earnest focus and remained funny and at least outwardly relaxed and friendly to a fault. I’ve been fervently pursuing sours and bretts from every brewery I could find, for about the past seven years. Almanac, Jolly Pumpkin, Jester King, Cascade Barrelhouse, DeGarde, Russian River, Lost Abbey, Allagash, The Bruery…I’ve tasted a small lake of sour/bretts, now, and E9’s stand out from the whole pack. They are rustic, at times, even a bit earthy. The flavors are vivid and immediate. Their “Raspberry Wild” is one of the three best fruit-infused ales I’ve ever tasted. The feeling of Occasion upon opening one has never waned. And Shane seems to have not even come close to emptying his bag of tricks.
Those coming to Western Washington used to be able to give Tacoma a cursory glance and a pit stop and slide on down the road, at least in beer terms. Not anymore. Engine House No. 9 is a “Must Visit” for any beer lover who finds themselves anywhere close to Seattle…and it doesn’t exactly hurt that their restaurant ladles out some of the best pub Grub you will find anywhere in the Lower Forty-Eight.
Sound Brewery/Poulsbo, Washington
Poulsbo, Washington, is a tiny chunk of Scandinavia that cracked off, floated across two oceans, and got lodged on the ferns that surround Liberty Bay, about fifteen air miles from downtown Seattle. If the town has broken the 10K mark in population, it was only in the past couple of months, as more and more people drift in, sample the food and the beer – from the SIX breweries within ten miles – and the stunning scenery and decide to put down a root or two. In a part of the town where proper Poulbonians used to go only for cars and produce, two wonky techie types, Mark Hood and Brad Ginn, took their homebrewing Jones, which had become too large and too ambitious for their garages, and opened Sound Brewery, back in 2010. The first time I visited, I was very underwhelmed and was on the fence about whether to come back at all. The beers were mostly German-style lagers and I was in search of brawny ales. We waited six months and went back…Holy Cow.
One of the most memorable, distinctive, madly creative Belgian-style ales I have ever bumbled across was on tap that day. It was called “Monk’s Indiscretion” and the name alone made me want to try it. One sip later, I was hooked like a fat trout. Monk’s was unlike anything I had ever tasted. There was all kinds of stuff going on in the glass; some of it stuff that really had NO business running amok in a Belgian ale. Orange peels, tangerines, Lemonheads, an entire rack of baking spices, more citrus that what you’d find on Carmen Miranda’s head, flowers, hops resins keeping the finish dry and clamping down on any excess sweetness. It was a Revelation. I still have a hard time ordering anything else when we drop into their new digs, in a former Italian restaurant, just up the road.
Fortunately, they have two Stouts that drag me bodily off my Monk’s addiction: “Ursus Americanus” and “Ursus Spelæus”, the former a brawny American-style Imperial Stout and the latter a compelling Belgian-style Imperial Stout. In one of our first conversations, Mark told me that he had originally wanted to dig in his heels and refuse to make even one IPA. Today, he has four that see regular rotation and has done a few more as experiments. Rather than seeing this as a defeat, Mark and Brad have embraced the IPA style as a challenge and their “Latona”, “Liberty Bay” and the titanic “Humulo Nimbus” Imperial have become pub staples in this end of the Evergreen State. They make a stunning Irish Red, “O’Reagan’s Revenge”; a near-perfect Belgian-tinged Pale, “Kanacitra”; a fine English-style Barleywine, “Old Scoundrel”; and the best Kristalweizen in this corner of America, “Sommerweizen”, an achingly crisp, crazily refreshing light-weight wheat that delivers vibrant flavors of mixed citrus with resiny florals. As if all that wasn’t enough, Mark teamed up with his old friends from his former job, as vice-president of a large computer-gaming company, to produce the three special-label Mortal Kombat X ales, “Raiden” Imperial Saison, “Sub Zero” Imperial IPA, and “Scorpion” Imperial Stout, all easily among the best of their styles released in the US in 2016.
Sound Brewery is a lovely day trip away from Seattle, taking the state ferry to Bainbridge Island and a leisurely drive across the Agate Pass Bridge, with some of the most breathtaking scenery you will see anywhere in the country. If you don’t have time to make it over to quaint ol’ Poulsbo, you’ll find Sound beers at all better beer shops and alehouses in the metro Seattle area. Find some! You can thank me later…
Holy Mountain Brewing/Seattle, Washington
Holy Mountain Brewing is the newest on this list but their inclusion cannot be denied. Equaled only by their stunning neighbor a mile to the north, Reuben’s Brews, HMB produced what is easily the best start-up for a new brewery – hell, for any type of business! – in this state’s history. Right from their opening weekend, Holy Mountain literally stunned jaded Seattle beer fans with a roster of taps-only ales that went waaaay beyond what is usually found at new beer factories in our corner of the world. Saisons, Berlinerweisse, Belgian-style ales of all descriptions, sours, bretts, wild ales…and they were all flawless, polished, replete, as though this were a brewery that had been in production for five years and just had a tarp yanked off it back in January of 2015.
And, indeed, that is almost what partners Colin Lenfesty and Mike Murphy did. They worked at their recipes, scaling for production, stylistic identity, and how to run the business for more than two solid years before the door swung open on that sunny, cold winter day. Lenfesty worked for a couple of other Seattle breweries, while Murphy honed his business, marketing, and management chops to a fine edge. They got everything just right: their logo is the quintessence of minimalist Seattle uber-Cool. Their taproom is stark white and spartan and rife with that hallmark Northwest understatement…and yet shockingly intimate and comfortable. Instead of diverting funds into their own kitchen, Lenfesty and Murphy essentially auditioned Seattle’s emergent food truck culture by the best expedient of all: they ate there. From Day One, the foods offered just off their back loading door have been different and interesting and expertly produced.
And the beer!….My God, what a devastating breath of fresh air that is still, two full years later, blowing cobwebs out of the stagnant Seattle beer scene! Instead of easing into it, Lenfesty and his crew plunged headlong into barrel-aging, mixed fermentation, Belgians, sours, and a handful of other experimental styles that pretty much didn’t exist in this state and hardly at all in Seattle. Beers brewed and barreled a year before opening were in the taps during their first two weeks. The level of realization of each ale was off the charts. The Belgians tasted as polished and carefully conceived as actual Belgian ales that I’ve enjoyed for thirty-five years…but different, tweaked a bit; some only to the extent that Northwest hops are a fundamental change from German and Austrian but some completely rethought and fundamentally reinvented. Washington doesn’t produce even one great Stout on the scale of The Abyss, Hunahpu’s, Parabola, or Dark Lord. In very short order, HMB shot out “Midnight Still”, a brawny Imperial Stout that, in a state in which Stouts rarely ever weigh in at anything past 10% ABV, poured at a grown-up 12.5%. It was brewed in early 2014 and aged in wet Bourbon barrels and brought me to my freakin’ knees; the first time a new Stout had done that since I tasted “Avarice” at Denver’s brilliant River North Brewing. My own obsessive pour at HMB, happily, is in regular rotation. “River Of Ash” is a lush, dark, vaguely-sinister Farmhouse ale (and when have I ever had reason to attach those adjectives to a Farmhouse?) that was so freakishly delicious, right from the first sip, that it made me a little weak in the knees. (Glad I was seated at the time.) It’s done the same to me every time I’ve tasted it and that’s just one of about twenty-five swoon-inducing things they’ve offered since. Standouts include “Wraith” American Wild, “Jove” (THE best basic gose I have tasted from anybody, anywhere), “Astral Projection” DIPA, “Five of Swords” IPA (a collaboration with E9 Brewing), “The Goat” Farmhouse ale, “The Third Nail” (Brewed for Seattle’s great beer pub The Pine Box, for their third anniversary), and…I’m gonna stop here because this could go on for hours.
Holy Mountain sits on busy Elliott Avenue, the main artery between downtown Seattle and the white hot brewing nexus that is the old Scandinavian neighborhood of Ballard (more on that in a moment), and its capacious space is belied by a tiny frontage that’s wedged in between local fave Batch 206 Distillery and ChefShop.com, which sells exactly what you think it does. It’s bloody hard to find, so take a local, who will leap at the chance to escort you there, especially if you’re buying. Your Seattle beer tour will require almost a full day just to hit all the breweries within what is considered downtown, so HMBC is either a perfect last stop on your Day One or a handy start to your Day Two pilgrimage to the glories of Ballard…but beware: stopping at Holy Mountain first could just ruin you for a lot of other breweries. Take a lunch break after, maybe? You really don’t want to miss what’s brewing in Ballard…
Reuben’s Brews/Seattle, Washington
Reuben’s Brews is one of America’s best breweries.
Anyone who is well-traveled in their beer tasting, isn’t mired in their own regionalism, and has tasted from Reuben’s bewildering range of beers already knows this.
Founder and brewmaster, Adam Robbings, fell in love with the PNW beer scene after he moved here from his native UK in 2004. He started the way a lot of great brewers did, as a homebrewer whose wonky, detail-oriented side took him from a standing start, in 2007, to a Silver Medal at the National Homebrew Competition, in 2012. Along the way, his brother-in-law, Mike Pfeiffer, tasted Adam’s beers and became the first of many thousands of Washingtonians to fall in love with Adam’s inventive recreations of established styles and experimental beers that just never failed. Mike was impressed enough with the potential of Adam’s brews and vision that he moved his family from Indiana to Seattle to become part of this nutty idea of…opening a brewery? The two and their wives strategized this madness for a year or more and finally, in 2012, Went For It. Named for Sdam and Grace’s beautiful son, Reuben’s Brews opened on a hot weekend in August of 2012, with a line-up of beers that accommodated the local mania for traditional British ales (As a Brit, Robbings just followed his palate), sprinkled with Euro-inspired gems like his Roggenbier, the first Rye of its type brewed in Washington. My first taster of Reuben’s Brews’ taplist was on the second Saturday after their opening, a sweaty summer day on which their tiny taproom had crowds crammed into the brewery, with visitors’ back literally resting against the brew tanks. I tasted nine beers and each one was better and more jewel-perfect than the last. Robbings’ homebrewing mania took him to UC-Davis for their brewing certificate and he scaled the curriculum like a cat up a tree. He understands the chemistry and technical aspects better than about 95% of his peers and an average Saturday will find at least two or three area brewers sitting in his new taproom, beers in hand, tasting and smiling,shaking their heads, and picking Adam’s brain.
There seems to be no style of beer that Robbings and Pfeiffer cannot master, usually on the first try. The Gose Craze has Seattle firmly in its grip and two are clear standouts: Reuben’s and Holy Mountain…and Reuben’s Hibiscus Gose stands all alone at the top of the infused Gose heap. They now offer the basic Gose in cans and it has become a staple of most beer shelves in the Western end of the state – a quantum leap from where Washington was just two years ago, vis a vis “weird beers”. My list of what to taste when you visit is short and sweet: “Whatever is on tap.” But if you happen to find any of the following on the list, get a pint. You’ll want to live with them for a while: Roasted Rye, Robust Porter, Roggenbier, Tart Cherry Weisse, “Balsch” Kolsch, Barrel-Aged “Auld Heritage”, “Hop Tropic” Pale, “Crikey” IPA, “Blimey, That’s Bitter!” DIPA, “Daily Pale” APA, Cream Ale (a REAL cream ale, made in authentic British style!), Pfeiffer’s Pumpkin Rye, Russian Imperial Stout (and it’s barrel-aged anniversary version!), “Triumvirate!” American IPA, and, again, ANYTHING that’s being poured. In well over 45 years as a student and passionate fan of beer, I can honestly say that I have never found even one other brewery at which every single thing on their taplist at any given moment is as near-perfect as it is at Reuben’s Brews. Adam’s singular dedication to his craft never wavers and his palate is unwaveringly Everyman, in his insistence that “delicious” is Job One. As his delightful better half, Grace, says on the Reuben’s Brews website, “I thought, ‘Oh great, there’s more storage space gone once Adam gives up on this little hobby in a month’s time.‘ Even though I rarely admit to being wrong now that we’re married, I couldn’t have been farther from the mark thinking that this would be an easily discarded hobby.”
Again, as with Holy Mountain, it’s going to help to have a local get you to Reuben’s new taproom and brewery, tucked away on a residential/light industrial side street, there in the rabbit’s warren that is Old Ballard but, once there, the room is big and open and welcoming and the staff is second to none in beer savvy and down-home friendliness. Great food is just blocks away and other stand-out Ballard breweries like Populuxe, Maritime Pacific, Stoup, Peddlar, Hilliard’s, NW Peaks, and several others are close enough to make it a very plausible walking tour.
Sometimes we latch onto our destiny early and hang on for the ride…but sometimes our destiny finds us and following it is as inevitable as the next sunrise. Reuben’s Brews is one of the best breweries in America. Period. And that is proof positive that destiny is out there, searching for us all.
The Gang of Four’s Esteemed +1:
Chuckanut Brewing/Bellingham, Washington
Just a few miles from the Canadian border lies the old city of Bellingham, the northernmost seaport in the contiguous 48 states. It’s a quaint, medium-sized city of just under 100,000, which has, from necessity, been somewhat self-sufficient because of its relative isolation from other larger cities in Washington. It has a modest but thriving arts scene, a still-active fishing industry, shipping traffic, and maintains the oldest part of its Old Bellingham, the part called Fairhaven, as a virtual living museum of what 19th century Washington looked and felt like. As is the case with most older cities in the Northwest, the mostly industrial character of the place has changed, over the decades, and has left behind vestiges of a time when lumber and metalwork and other heavy industries were the life’s blood. And it’s in one of those vestiges, what appears to have been a heavy-truck repair show or freight terminal, that we find one of America’s most celebrated independent breweries and the man who is arguably the country’s reigning guru of German and Middle European-style beers: Will Kemper and his venerable Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen.
Will Kemper is a man whom every other reputable brewer in the US already knows – and admires. He began his career with his friend and fellow chemical engineer, Andy Thomas, starting as avid amateur brewers and soon discovering that the hefty German-style ales and lagers they produced had a shockingly broad appeal. In 1985, in the very infancy of Washington craft brewing, they opened the Thomas Kemper Brewery in the town of Poulsbo and, by the mid-90s, had become one of the top three brands in the state. They met and befriended another brewery owner, Beth Hartwell, whose Hart Brewing was, at the time the fourth-largest craft brand in the US. Kemper and Thomas eventually merged with Hart, which resulted in Pyramid Brewing, named for Hart’s iconic Pyramid Pale Ale.
After selling their shares back to Pyramid and selling their secondary business, Thomas Kemper Sodas, to them as well, Will Kemper became, for a time, a brewing consultant and spent considerable time in Europe, both learning about the Euro lagers he loved and working as a consultant there, too, for breweries as far afield as Turkey. Returning to Washington in the mid-00s, Will and his delightful wife, Mari fell for the small-town charms of Bellingham and opened Chuckanut just on the south end of downtown, in 2008.
If there is a better brewer of German, Czech, Austrian and practically any other Euro-style lagers in the US, no one has yet found them. There are some who approach Kemper’s acumen and sheer sumptuousness in his beers but most of them worked for him and picked it up straight from the master’s hand. Josh pFriem, owner and brewmaster of Oregon’s transcendent pFriem Family Brewers of Hood River, is a veteran of Chuckanut and his beers share Kemper’s spotless clarity, soulful balance, and extraordinary flavors. Chuckanut has twice, since 2009, won Small Brewery and Brewer of the Year at GSBF ad has raked in countless medals for excellence at every major competition on the planet.
Kemper’s beers are like perfect three-dimensional models of whatever style he chooses to explore and he’s equally as comfortable with the British ale tradition as with Germans. On my last visit, I had one of the two or three best WA state Porters I’d found to that time and it still sits in my top five. His “secret” is the same secret that Robbings and Lenfesty and Johns and Ginn/Hood share: knowing what the hell you’re doing and when to stop doing it. There is nothing in Will Kemper’s process that’s random or given scant attention and the product of that relentless care pours out taps into every glass. His stand-outs, too, can be summed on “Anything they’re pouring” but my favorites include a stunning and sweetly smoky Rauchbier, that Porter(!), his letter-perfect Pilsner, a bronzed and muscular Marzen, a game-changing Dunkel, a titanic Dopplebock, one of the best Alts I’ve ever tasted, and Kolsch so exquisitely, achingly perfect that any German brewer would kill to have it in their bottle.
In 2016, Chuckanut, in an effort to better satisfy a booming demand from the Seattle market, opened a second brewery and taproom about 25 miles down I-5, in Burlington, WA. The second location handles all the brewing for their Southern accounts and, if it is a tad less charming than the B’ham location, it does, at least, allow more people to enjoy these vivid, living proofs that Euro-style lagers do not have to be wimpy and undistinguished like the debased adjunct Pilsners that comprise out national experience of lagers, in the form of cheap, insipid beers like Bud, Miller, and Coors.
Bellingham is quite a bit out of the way for any traveler coming to Seattle but there will be a LOT of taps all over the area pouring Chuckanut and bottles of several beers are available. I certainly hope that including this virtual temple of American brewing as a “+1” is not taken as any sign of Chuckanut being a lesser brewery than any of the rest mentioned. On the contrary: any list of best breweries in the Northwest – or in the US! – MUST include Will Kemper and his casual genius that illuminates every glass of Chuckanut poured anywhere. And for brew-fan travelers headed to Vancouver, western B.C., Victoria, or Vancouver Island, Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen is something no real beer lover should pass up.