Since I started The Pour Fool, back in late 2008, Best of The Northwest has been arguably the most popular feature of every calendar year. People love lists and I’m not even going to try to be modest: when I do a list, I work, like a freakin’ Trojan, to make sure it’s complete and fair and intelligent. Not everybody will agree with what’s in it, of course, but I have never once looked back and thought, “Damn, son, ya really half-assed it that time.”
BUT…over the past five years or so, I’ve argued the point that lists are inherently irrelevant; that crowd-sourced lists are suspect because the acumen of each rater is unknowable. That panels of experts are subject to peer pressure and personal prejudices and the insidious group-think that’s rife in almost every enclosed culture. That, worst of all, MOST lists labeled “Best Of” are, in fact, compiled by just whomever was around that day, whether they have any more qualifications than, “Uh, yeah, I visit breweries, occasionally.”
I decided that I can no longer do lists that turn brewing into a tractor pull; in which I add to our obsessive national mania for Pecking Order and cut-throat competition. I had to rethink this entire enterprise, make it less judgmental and more of simply a way of acknowledging Achievement. It was DAMNED hard to do…I mean, look at your calendar. This thing is about THREE MONTHS late! That’s how difficult this was, first to rethink the format and then to decide what goes in and what stays out. It’s never exactly easy but this year…it was a bear, with titanium claws and canines.
YES, stipulated, there IS still a pecking order. Some breweries, brewers, and beers have been labeled “Best’ and there’s no getting around that. “Better” is strongly implied and I don’t apologize: some breweries, brewers, and beers ARE better than the rest of their peers. That’s not a permanent judgment. Year to year, achievements come and go, and last year’s left-out brewery may be this year’s Honor Roll producer.
These are the Pacific Northwest’s beers, brewers, and breweries that I found the most accomplished, successful, and noteworthy in 2016. This is about Achievement, the realization of ambitions and dreams and crazy ideas. As always, this list heavily rewards experimentation and innovation and there will be no apology for that, either. Boundaries are there to be pushed, hard and consistently, and those who don’t do that are unlikely to be listed below.
Here, then, is the newly revamped version of Best of The Northwest, 2016. This is a BUYER’S GUIDE, NOT a scorecard. Those who miss these breweries and beers miss out on wonderful experiences and the entire purpose of this website and its clone blog at seattlepi.com is to make sure you’re aware of the Excellent and have a leg up out of the morass of Good Enough.
One More Thing…and it’s a Major Item: I’ve argued for years that the term “Craft Brewing” is sufficient to use in perpetuity. I was wrong. I’ve had face-to-face arguments with management from Anheuser Busch who argued vehemently that the term “craft” more aptly describes what they do than what’s made by what they claim is properly called “Amateur Breweries”…which, according to those condescending yahoos, is every brewery in the world that’s not corprately owned. Even though I know that’s total bullshit, they CAN make that claim and a lot of people find it plausible. So…
From this day forward, I’ll be referring – in this blog and in conversation – to what we now call “Craft Beer” as
AB may be able to make an argument that they deserve the label “Craft” but they sure as hell cannot, ever, plausibly claim that they are “Indie” in ANY way…unless they have a bottling plant in Indiana or India or in the friggin’ Indian Ocean and are using it in that sense. I don’t really enjoy backing down to douchebags but if something presents an impediment to AB/InBev and its global Web of Mediocre Thuggery, I’m IN. INDIE Beer, INDIE Brewing…done and done. Now…I have a steaming Crow panini waiting and I have to find a beer pairing…
Northwest Brewery of The Year:
pFriem Family Brewers, Hood River, OR
Purity, balance, flavor(!), dazzling skill, stunning variety…that’s what pFriem Family Brewers has come to be. I knew, even back before I had ever visited pFriem’s clean, comfortable, sleek digs – down there on the river, just below downtown Hood River – that I would, one day, be listing them as Brewery of The Year. I just didn’t know it would happen this soon. But it was as absolutely as undeniable as was Reuben’s Brews, last year, and Deschutes before that. Josh pFriem’s pedigree is strictly blueblood: as a former disciple of the legendary Will Kemper, at Bellingham’s Chuckanut Brewery, Josh may have diverged from Kemper’s devotion to Euro lagers but the same clarity, perfection, and stunning flavor marks every pFriem release. Each of his Belgian-leaning ales is a wonderfully respectful paean to the style’s true roots, tweaked judiciously in ways that have them singing out the glass of their Northwest roots. At times, when faced with the effusive praise these gorgeous beers evoke, Josh seems almost sheepish, as though he’s wondering what all the fuss is about. Josh, let me lay this out: The fuss is about a brewery which oozes cool, drinkable, near-perfect quality and respect in every drop. This was as easy a job as I’ve ever had in naming a brewery of the year.
Victor Hugo said it best: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” He was talking about revolution. I’m talking about beer and craftsmanship and having one’s head screwed on correctly and, in that sense, here in 2016-17, pFriem Family Brewers’ time has arrived in a major way…
Washington Brewery of The Year:
Reuben’s Brews, Seattle
Adam Robbings and his brother-on-law, Mike Pfeiffer, have created a juggernaut, there on a busy little side-street in Seattle’s blue-collar Ballard. As emphatically as any brewery in the US, Reuben’s Brews gushes polished, assertive, balanced, delicious(!), adventurous ales that just simply never miss. The styles run the gamut from Robbings’ native UK to Germany to the Czech Republic to Belgium to both coasts of the USA. The beers are absolutely stunning and Reuben’s has, almost single-handedly, raised the newbie quality bar for Washington and maybe the entire Northwest. Reuben’s beers are now in bottles and cans and in awards ceremonies around the planet, and on people’s minds and lips all across America. It’s tempting, at times, in thinking of Robbings and his amiable vibe and laser focus, to worry, ‘Oh, dear…The British are coming…again.” It’s a fleeting thought, though. At least in beer terms, the British arrived three summers ago and have well and truly taken over. God Save the Queen, y’all…
Washington Runner-Up: Holy Mountain Brewing, Seattle
About 80% of the articles I’ve read about Holy Mountain have started with “Holy Shit!…” I’m going to avoid using it in that same way but I completely get why it’s done. It’s hard to overstate what owners Owners Adam Paysse, Colin Lenfesty, and Mike Murphy have accomplished in just over 18 months. Before HM opened, Washington state had ONE brewery specializing in Belgian-style ales and ONE brewery at all successful at and dedicated to sour and brett ales. From the opening weekend, Holy Mountain has raised the serious question of whether or not they were already one of the top five or six breweries in Washington and what’s come after that has settled the question. Holy Mountain WILL, slam-dunk, be mentioned SOON as one of America’s top breweries. The only thing preventing it now is distribution. These ales are shocking, replete, freakin’ delicious, and as innovative as any we’ve ever seen, up here in the Soggy Corner of America. Holy Mountain and Reuben’s Brews sit just less than two miles apart…but the distance separating them both from the usual run of American independent breweries is measured in light years.
Oregon Brewery of The Year:
Crux Fermentation Project, Bend
The original creators of Crux Fermentation Project were three guys with a ton of experience at brewing and marketing of beer, two of whom were simply following their Muse. Paul Evers has since gone back to the design work he came from and Dave Wilson went back home to San Francisco, to help his former company, 21st Amendment Brewing, continue the explosive growth they’re been locked into practically since their inception. The Muse, to paraphrase a famous American film, Abides…Larry Sidor, former brewmaster at Deschutes Brewery, created Crux in 2012 and the immediately started putting beer into barrels, always the, ah, crux of their plans. The results have been revelatory. What Crux revealed was that Larry’s stunning track record of innovation at Deschutes was, indeed, reproducible. Everything Crux turns out wears the high polish of effortless expertise. Regular British-tradition ales, German and Czech lagers, Belgian-inspired reimaginings of abbey and sour ales – Crux makes it all look casually elegant as breathing. Evers and Wilson have been ably succeeded by former Deschutes marketing guru, Jason Randles, and ex-Deschutes brewmaster, Can O’Connor, and not a beat was skipped. Crux seems to have been here far longer than just going-on five years. In terms of relentlessly delicious, user-friendly beers in all conceivable styles, Crux seems literally timeless.
Oregon Runner-Up: The Ale Apothecary, Bend
Yet another former Deschuteser has ventured out of the nest of the Northwest’s landmark brewery and blazed his own trail…but this one is a trail that was almost literally unexplored. Paul Arney left Deschutes and all of his beer preconceptions behind in 2012, when he built a small facility just behind his house, in the hills above Bend. Strange and wonderful things began to issue from this converted garage, almost immediately. His beers use ingredients sourced from foraging, from local farmers, and from Arney’s fertile imagination. His grounding in traditional brewing techniques, ingrained so thoroughly by his six years at Deschutes, freed him up to experiment with confidence and he has never looked back. His tiny roster of ales includes Sahalie and Sahati and Be Still and the magnificent La Tache; all exquisite snapshots of one of the most fertile brewing imaginations in America. All are totally engrossing, compelling, and delicious, for those who are willing to sit and sip Outside The Box.
Idaho Brewery of The Year:
Selkirk Abbey Brewing, Post Falls
Jeff Whitman created Selkirk Abbey out of love and great respect for the brewing traditions of Belgium and Flanders and, occasionally, of the UK. The name conjures up his beloved abbey breweries and is supposed to: the inspiration behind the styles he embraces is total and his beers, while reflective of their NW roots, feel and taste far more authentic than almost any other brewery’s in the West. Selkirk started out from the git-go as distinctive and memorable and has hit a new gear every year. Between the samples I tasted in late 2015 and those that arrived recently was an absolute quantum leap forward in technique and balance – and I thought those first ales were among the best I tasted in 2015. Selkirk Abbey is producing beers that can legitimately be called “great” by any standard and the only thing keeping Jeff and crew from major acclaim is the fact of being waaay over there, in Idaho. I get the feeling, though, that if this rate of progress continues as it has so far, 2017-18 will be the year when Selkirk begins to make tsunami-scale waves far outside the confines of the Northwest.
Idaho Runner-Up: Grand Teton Brewing, Victor
Grand Teton Brewing is the dictionary definition of “Big Fish in a Small Pond”…the thing is, however, GT would be the same scale fish if it were located in Denver or Portland or the San Francisco Bay area. Great beer is great beer, wherever it comes from and, since its birth in 1988, as Otto Brothers Brewing, GT has forced the good citizens of tiny Victor, Idaho, to settle for genuinely great beer, while the rest of America wallowed in its BudMillerCoors rut. Today’s Grand Teton beer list reads like a beer fan’s guide to styles: beautiful British IPA, Stout, Pale, and ESB ales, a Brewer’s Reserve series of sour and brett ales, Belgian-style farmhouse beers, and all of it vibrant and polished and showing shocking skill and relentless drinkability. It is impossible to convey just how startlingly fine these beers are. At my first tasting of six of them, I must have dribbled quite a bit because my jaw stayed on the floor the entire time. Grand Teton is one of the Northwest’s best kept secrets and those who pass them by do so at the peril of their own taste buds.
The Notable Breweries of the
Pacific Northwest, 2016
(In no particular order)
Fort George Brewing, Astoria, OR
deGarde Brewing, Tillamook, OR
Boneyard Brewing, Bend, OR
Engine House No. 9, Tacoma, WA
Breakside Brewing, Portland, OR
Upright Brewing, Portland, OR
Wolves and People, Newburg, OR
Hopworks Urban Brewery, Portland, OR
Sound Brewery, Poulsbo, WA
Full Sail Brewing, Hood River, OR
NoLi Brewing, Spokane, WA
Ecliptic Brewing, Portland, OR
Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, Hood River, OR
Block 15 Brewing, Corvallis, OR
Standard Brewing, Seattle, WA
Silver Moon Brewing, Bend, OR
Fremont Brewing, Seattle, WA
Crooked Fence Brewing, Garden City, ID
Bale Breaker Brewing, Yakima, WA
Pelican Brewing, Pacific City, OR
Loowit Brewing, Vancouver, WA
Walking Man Brewing, Stephenson, WA
White Bluffs Brewing, Richlands, WA
Boundary Bay Brewing, Bellingham, WA
Terminal Gravity Brewing, Enterprise, OR
Silver City Brewing, Bremerton, WA
Black Raven Brewing, Redmond, WA
Gigantic Brewing, Portland, OR
Laughing Dog Brewing, Ponderay, ID
Iron Horse Brewing, Ellensburg, WA
Payette Brewing, Boise, ID
Populuxe Brewing, Seattle, WA
Laurelwood Brewing, Portland, OR
Big Block Brewing, Sammamish, WA
Snoqualmie Falls Brewing, Snoqualmie, WA
Barley Brown’s Brewing, Baker City, OR
Bend Brewing, Bend, OR
Breweries of Special Distinction:
The Northwest Icons
Breweries that have achieved at high level,
for a long period of time…
Deschutes Brewing, Bend, OR Cascade Barrelhouse, Portland, OR
Pike Brewing, Seattle, WA Ninkasi Brewing, Eugene, OR
Rogue Brewing, Newport, OR Fish Brewing, Olympia, WA
Full Sail Brewing, Hood River, OR Mac & Jack’s Brewing, Redmond, WA
Pyramid Brewing, Seattle, WA Chuckanut Brewing, Bellingham, WA
Georgetown Brewing, Seattle, WA Boundary Bay Brewing, Bellingham, WA
Beers of The Year
Holy Mountain Brewing “The Goat” Barrel-Aged Brett Saison
A landmark in Washington brewing, which, for two decades, had been almost exclusively British-tradition ales. Even the couple of Belgian-style breweries in WA state hadn’t tapped that rich vein of the Farmhouse/Saison style and Holy Mountain not only tapped it, they hit it into the bleachers in straight-away center field. Just a GORGEOUS ale.
Crux Fermentation Project “[BANISHED] Tough Love” Imperial Stout
Somebody finally made another PNW Stout that combines barrel aging with sinful texture and balance, a serious deliciousness and wicked viscosity. The Abyss had a very lonely decade+ as not only Top Dog in NW Stout but virtually the Only Dog in terms of national-class Imperials. This is near-perfect stuff, from the guy who perfected The Abyss and is now going even farther into the Black Depths!
Fort George/Barley Brown’s/Melvin “Three Way” IPA
Pure refreshment. A supple, resiny, complex tapestry of everything hops have to say. Not only was this a great collabo, it was the best of this series yet – which is Saying Something! And what set it apart was a gylcerine-ish, hedonistic texture, smooth as polished glass on the palate. Fort George embraces harmony in these Three-Way deals and, in those terms, this beer is Pentatonix…
Full Sail Brewing “Shortest Day CDA”
Rivaled only by Fish Brewing’s epic “Swordfish”, “Shortest Day” CDA is the best bottle ever from PNW icon, Full Sail, and firmly states their case for a major resurgence. Edgy, daring new graphics from the brilliant Miq Willmot are more than matched by What’s In The Glass and this landmark Cascadian Dark simply does all that this slippery emerging style was intended to do. A flat-out master work from a fine brewery that’s too often taken for granted.
Engine House No. 9 “Friendship” Saison
One of the two or three best things yet from Shane Johns and Donnylama Jagunty and this emerging national-class producer of sour/brett/barrel-aged ales. ‘”Friendship” is a bright, rustic, (the hallmark virtue of E9 is the eerily authentic character that perfectly recalls actual Belgian farmhouse ales), totally engrossing Belgian that offers up complex fruit and spice flavors with a refreshing effervescence. Yet another brilliant ale from this little slice of Flanders in Tacoma.
Reuben’s Brews “Daily Pale” IPA
“The Daily Pale” was commissioned as the official beer of Seattle Beer Week 2016 and was so madly popular that Adam Robbings was pretty much forced to make it again. (I confess to badgering him mercilessly) The thought of this breath-taking little one-off being a one-off was just intolerable. Daily is as good a New Age IPA as anyone has made, anywhere. It’s light but intensely flavorful and almost casually complex and interesting. I can drink this every day of the week and have…and will again, soon.
Fort George Brewing “Kaiju” Stout
The biggest shock to be had from the 2017 edition of that annual cornucopia of Immortal Darkness that is Fort George’s Festival of Dark Arts was this oddball little gem. “Plums and black tea“? Seriously? YES. This defiantly counter-intuitive American-style Stout is as purely bewitching and memorable a beer as I have tasted from the PNW in at least ten years, maybe ever. Most people wouldn’t even eat plums while drinking black tea because of the tannins. Somebody at FG thought of this(!)…and it takes a very special brand of crazy – and creative – to conceive this and then make it Work so brilliantly.
Selkirk Abbey Brewing “Cuvee II de la Nuit Profonde”
Jeff Whitman sent me four beers to sample, about four months ago, and each one was a flat-damned Adventure. This landmark Idaho brewery was great, right out of the chute, and has just gotten exponentially better each year. “Nuit Profonde”‘s fancy French name is appropriate, in a way that many American beers and wines are not: this is a Composition; a rich and expressive symphony of artfully-blended ales from Selkirk’s barrel room, pieced together, in the tradition of Belgian/Flanders ales, into far more than the sum of their parts. Selkirk Abbey is relatively new but is progressing in a way that almost no brewery in the PNW ever has.
Counterbalance Brewing “Kushetka” Russian Imperial Stout
Total shock, and in the very best way possible. I was sitting in Seattle’s funky Georgetown neighborhood, one afternoon, in Jules May’s Saloon, and hadn’t even realized this beer was released yet. I ordered it, operating on the safe assumption that it would be yet another under-realized Washington Stout…and was blown away. This is a huge, inky, viscous Russian Imperial Stout that offers that dense texture and booming flavors that are usually found in your Abysses and Dark Lords and Hunahpu’ses. This is a genuine Landmark in Washington’s still-emergent tradition of Stouts and one of the best I’ve tasted in years.
pFriem Family Brewers Oud Bruin
pFriem has already stated their case as one of the Northwest’s, and maybe even the nation’s, best producers of hybrid Belgian-American ales. Their Flanders Red is among the top five made anywhere and now this Oud Bruin advances that rep by miles. This is a frankly-tart, chewy, engrossing ale that speaks fluent Flanderese with a pronounced Oregon accent. It busts out the caramels and wood notes by the fistful and carries that boozy patina of all great Oud Bruins. Just delicious and, as with all pFriems, perfectly made.
2016 Honor Roll of Northwest Indie Beers
These are just some of the best beers I tasted in all of 2016; the top layer, let’s say. In an average year, I taste ( not “drink”, TASTE) over 1,500 beers, so for this list to wind up top of mind says something substantial about every one of them.
(In no particular order)
Fort George: ”Three Way” IPA, “Magnanimous” IPA, “Matryoshka” RIS
Selkirk Abbey Brewing: “Infidel”, “Deacon”, “Guilt”, “Grace”, “Atonement”
Crux Fermentation Project: Lemondrop IPA, Crux Pilsner, “Better Off Red”, “[BANISHED] Doublecross”
Engine House No. 9: “Raspberry Wild”, “Nefelibata”, Tacoma Wild Sour “Berry Manilow”, “Funky Farmer Ralph”, “Don of Time”
Deschutes Brewery: “Sagefight”, “Pinot Suave”, “Red Chair”, “Fresh Squeezed”, “Hopzeit”, “Elkington’s” Golden Strong, “Down and Dirty” IPA
pFriem Family Brewers: Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout, Kumquat Farmhouse Ale, Czech Pilsner, Flanders Blonde, RyePA, Wit, Flanders Red
Holy Mountain: “Hand of Glory” Barleywine, “Ron Hawaii” IPA, “River of Ash”, “Midnight Still” Coffee and Vanilla, Gose, Bourbon Barrel-Aged “King’s Head”
Reuben’s Brews: “Crikey” IPA, “Lilywhite” Wit, “Triumvirate”, Loral “Crush”, “Life On Mars” IIPA, “Gobsmacked!” IIPA
De Garde Brewing: “Nectarine Premiere”, “Petit Blanc”, Peach Bu, Saison Premiere
Cascade Barrelhouse: “The Vine”, “Framblanc” 2015
Logsdon Farmhouse Ales: “Peche and Brett”, Oak Aged Bretta
Sound Brewery: “Monk’s Indiscretion”, Sound Pilsner, “Kanacitra”, “Cave Bear”
Counterbalance Brewing: “Amelia”
Silver Moon Brewing: “Crazy Horse” IIPA, “Casual Ale”, “IPA 97”, ”Ghost Fields”
Upright Brewing: “Four Play”, “Oregon Native”, Applewood Smoked Helles Bock, “Fatali Four”
Slippery Pig Brewing: Coffee Porter, Dandelion Barleywine
Breakside Brewing: “Precious Snowflake” DIPA, Vienna Coffee Beer, “Bellwether” 2015
Cloudburst Brewing: “Cosmic Lust” IPA, “Happy Little Clouds” German Pilsener, “Hoodwink”
Block 15 Brewing: “Super Nebula” Imperial Stout, “Turbulent Consequence: Peche”
Triplehorn Brewing: “Mystic”, “Angry Monk-e”
Full Sail Brewing: Barrel Aged Wheatwine, Session Black Cherry Lager, Pilsner, “Hop Pursuit”
Pelican Brewing: “Bad Santa”, “Hurdy Gurdy” Roggenbier, “Mother of All Storms”
The Ale Apothecary: “Be Still”, Sahalie”, Sahti”, “El Cuatro”
Gig Harbor Brewing: Imperial Stout, “Sturdy Gertie”
Loowit Brewing: “Shadow Ninja” IPA, “Grimlock”
7 Seas Brewing: Barrel-Aged Barleywine, “Hop Prophet” IPA
Bale Breaker Brewing: “Bottom Cutter”, “Dormancy”, “Bubba Brew”
Tin Dog Brewing: Meyer Lemon Sage Wit, Black Tripel
Big Block Brewing: “Flathead” Red, Barrel-Aged RIS
Bend Brewing: “Lovely” Cherry Baltic Porter, “Ching-Ching”, “Outback X”
Grand Teton Brewing: “Pursuit of Hoppyness”, “Double Vision”
Chuckanut Brewing: Alt, Pilsner, Helles Rauchbier, Maibock
Old Schoolhouse Brewing: “Epiphany”, Barleywine
Boundary Bay Brewing: “Wonderland”, “Cedar Dust” IPA, Imperial IPA
Pyramid Brewing: “Triangulate”, “Railroad Avenue”
Wolves + People Farmhouse Brewery: OE2 (Blend One)
Skookum Brewing: “Rising Bines” Mosaic Fresh Hop
Seapine Brewing: Gose
Wolf Tree Brewing: Spruce Tip Gruit
Hellbent Brewing: “Goldfinch”
Iron Goat Brewing: Blackberry Apricot Sour
Burnside Brewing: “Keg Nog”
Yachats Brewing: “Salal” Sour
Pacific Brewing & Malting: Black Cherry Berlinerweisse
Propolis Brewing: “Pi”
Black Raven: “La Mort Bourbon”
Commons Brewing: “Urban Farmhouse” Ale
Pike Brewing: “Hive Five”
Northwest Brewing: “Crazy Bitch” DIPA
Fremont Brewing: “Dark Star”
Dystopian State Brewing: “The Red Queen”
Fish Tales Brewing: “Swordfish” Double CDA
Populuxe Brewing: “Citra Red”
White Bluffs Brewing: “Biere de Mars” Biere de Garde
Walking Man Brewing: “Pale Strider” APA
Standard Brewing: Altbier
The Honors List
Surpassing Ales that are retired from Best of The Northwest after multiple wins.
These are the Best of the Best and stand beyond comparison.
Deschutes Brewery “The Abyss” Imperial Stout
Deschutes Brewery “Jubelale”
Deschutes Brewery “Hop Trip”
Mac & Jack’s African Amber
Black Raven Brewing “Possum Claws”
Hair of the Dog Brewing “Adam”, “Adam from the Wood”, “Cherry Adam from the Wood”
Bend Brewing “Scarlet Fire” Imperial Red
Northwest Experimental Brewers of The Year
Colin Lenfesty, Holy Mountain Brewing, Seattle
Shane Johns, Engine House No. 9, Tacoma
Paul Arney, The Ale Apothecary, Bend, OR
Northwest Brewers of The Year
Josh pFriem, pFriem Family Brewers, Hood River, OR
Adam Robbings, Reuben’s Brews, Seattle
Veronica Vega, Deschutes Brewing, Bend, OR
Ben Edmunds, Breakside Brewing, Portland, OR
Jeff Whitman, Selkirk Abbey, Post Falls, ID