Just a little less than two years ago, I posted a thing called “Murderer’s Row”, a list of breweries that was intended to let visitors to the Pacific Northwest find some truly great breweries to work into their itineraries. Happily, this did exactly what I hoped: it got a TON of people from the rest of America interested in NW breweries and those people asked questions…Boy, did they ask questions.
For a solid two months after Murderer’s posted, I averaged ten to twenty emails, daily, asking questions about the seven I named and about what else is out there. I’m going to just paste the opening of that post here because it completely states what this idea is all about. Then, I’m going to do an updated list, which contains only three of the original breweries. DO NOT take that to mean that any of the original seven have declined. But two years, in the Indie Beer culture, is measured in dog years, as dynamic and mercurial as this biz is…
“This is really not written for folks in the Pacific Northwest.
Unless beer geeks here have been walking around with buckets on their heads, they’ll know all this already. But, as The Pour Fool is – to my utter, flummoxed astonishment and gratitude – read by thousands of people literally all over this planet, call this a heads-up on beers and breweries that, with any luck, you may one day find in shops in your hometown. If you don’t find them now and you have any realistic hope of visiting Oregon or Washington any time soon, dropping in to any (or all!) of these places will guarantee you great atmosphere, friendly people, and superb beer…and “superb” may be too mild a description.
This post is NOT about the hot new brewery. I don’t have a lot of respect for or patience with that sort of trendiness. This is about breweries that have hit their stride; whose work just keeps moving ahead, from strength to funky strength, almost every time they release something. This is about Accomplishment at a high, A-to-Z, roster-wide level.“
That’s what “Murderer’s Row” is about. And these are the PNW breweries, here in early spring of 2017,that are Killin’ It…
pFriem Family Brewers: Hood River, Oregon
(707 Portway Ave #101, Hood River, OR 97031 Phone: (541) 321-0490)
pFriem was named my Northwest Brewery of The Year for 2016, just a couple of weeks ago. They’ve shown up in that annual list, “Best of The Northwest”, every year and I thought they were pretty damned good in their first year. They were, of course, but they apparently have no ceiling on what they can create or how well they can execute an established style. pFriem has gotten exponentially greater. For someone with my freakish sense-memory for flavors, the difference has been shocking. These circa-2017 beers have in common with their like-minded neighbor to the north, the amazing Reuben’s Brews, an immediate and emphatic impression of completeness and seamlessness and near-perfect realization. I’m sure Josh pFriem has, on occasion, poured an experimental brew down his floor drain. Every brewer does. But that’s what separates pFriem and Reuben’s and, in fact, every brewery on this list from the middle of the pack breweries: judgment. If it’s on tap at pFriem – and especially if they invest a bottle into a beer – it’s going to be Perfect – not merely excellent but without flaw.
pFriem leans heavily toward Belgian-inspired ales but shows equal panache with British and Scottish ales, Flanders-style sours, German lagers, Czech-inspired Pilsners, and a beautiful Gose, while knocking out adamant American Stouts and IPAs and Pales like Kam Chancellor blind-siding a hapless running back. They do deadly authentic Lambics and milder fruit beers with equal facility and they make Farmhouse ales like they invented the style. It also doesn’t exactly hurt their cause that they’re located in one of the two or three most beautiful places in the Western world, smack in the fat middle of the Columbia River Gorge, where the drive down I-84 can literally make you see unicorns. pFriem Family Brewers is what the name says: a Family, including Josh and his wonderful wife, Annie, (this guy seriously over-married), their kids, and a group of people who are best described as “Oregon Artsy/Tree-Hugger Gone Exactly Right“. If your Oregon itinerary doesn’t include a trip Up The Gorge, with a few happy hours in Hood River, CHANGE it. You’ll thank me later.
Reuben’s Brews: Seattle, Washington
(5010 14th Ave NW, Seattle, WA 98107 Phone: (206) 784-2859)
I’ve run Reuben’s Brews right into the ground. I suspect that even Reuben’s dad, owner/brewmaster, Adam Robbings, sits and sees something else I’ve written and goes, “Okay, Jesus, Steve…you like us, I get it. Go find a hobby.” The problem there is that they’ve earned all this extravagant ass-kissing and I write about greatness. So, sue me. (Just kidding!) The fact is that Reuben’s, which was almost mind-bogglingly good when they had been open a week(!), has, over the next three years, become as close to a “Can’t Miss” proposition as there is in the American Indie Beer community. They have that sense of immense skill and seamless quality in common with pFriem but their beers lean heavily toward British styles (Robbings is a Brit who married an American woman and Went Native) but also make dead-on German ales and lagers, a stunning couple of Goses (straight and infused with Hibiscus!), and American ales that are massive and relentless but also lithe and utterly delicious. They just never, damnit, miss. If it has the word “Reuben’s” anywhere about it, that’s as close as you will ever come to an iron-clad guarantee that you will drink it and LIKE it.
They’ve been amply recognized for their work, already, with several fat fistfuls of awards and medals and ribbons and other fashion accessories, and with a literal army of fervent followers who pack their pretty, post-industrial digs just off the Seattle-sub-city of Ballard’s main connection to Seattle downtown, four to six mights a week. Their sales have literally exploded and their new facility is already running at just about its capacity, driving Robbings to have to think about adding yet another building. Reuben’s Brews is named for Adam and Grace’s oldest child, a bright, beautiful, happy kid who makes the name “Reuben” look goooood. Along with his American BIL, Mike Pfeiffer, Adam is not-so-quietly turning his decades-long fascination with fermentation and its sublime end-results into a brewery that has to be in the conversation for the roster of “Best Breweries in America”.
Holy Mountain Brewing: Seattle, Washington
(1421 Elliott Ave W, Seattle, WA 98119 https://holymountainbrewing.com)
Chew on this for just a moment: Holy Mountain Brewing is less than two years old.
For those of us who live close enough to visit HMB, from time to time, it seems like they must have been here a decade. They’re already so ingrained into the Washington/Northwest beer consciousness that it’s getting hard to remember a time when they were not sitting atop of every list of the best in this region. What has made them so spectacularly successful is the simplest possible attribute: they’re just damned good at making beer. Spec-damn-tacular. New breweries just do NOT make beers like River of Ash, Hand of Glory, Five of Swords, Autumnal Rustic, Bonne Nuit, Kiln ‘N’ Cone APA, and Midnight Still. Brewmaster Colin Lenfesty didn’t come out of Russian River or Jolly Pumpkin or some other outfit that was producing cutting-edge sour/brett/wild ales. He originally studied to be an auto mechanic and has worked at three good but not spectacular Seattle breweries, none of which (except for the sadly lamented Big Al Brewing) was doing much at all with experimental beers. The arrival of Reuben’s Brews, two miles away in Ballard, and HMB within 18 months of each other was an absolutely unprecedented phenomenon for anywhere in this end of America: Two flat-out stupendous breweries that hit the ground in fifth gear as soon as their doors opened. And HMB may eventually become even more of a phenomenon than the titanic Reuben’s.
The range of Lenfesty’s vision is seemingly without horizons. Their beer roster already includes a staunch core of tweaked traditional Belgian ales, German and Czech lagers, a truly grand Barleywine, wild ales, brett ales, sours in Flanders and other styles, one of the two best Gose that I have ever tasted, a stunning Weizenbock collabo with Chuckanut Brewing, IPAs, IIPAs, APAs, even a Baltic Porter….and Lenfesty seems to have a LOT more ideas. Make no mistake about it: Holy Mountain, along with their neighbors at Reuben’s, are breweries that will eventually be spoken of in the same terms as Stone and Dogfish and AleSmith and Crooked Stave and Jester King. And they’re as active a brewery as we have in tis entire region, frequently featuring as many as ten to fifteen different beers on a weekend. Holy Mountain is a genuine Phenomenon and it’s one that is a Must-See for anyone visiting the Seattle area.
Selkirk Abbey: Post Falls, Idaho
(6180 E Seltice Way, Post Falls, ID 83854 Phone: (208) 292-4901)
I am deeply emotionally engaged with the making of all the beverages I review in The Pour Fool but I deliberately stay at arm’s length from the philosophical musings of the people making them. I’m as susceptible as the next guy to liking some person enough to have that affect my objectivity. But I had already become a fan of Selkirk Abbey – a real out-of-the-blue new brewery in Post Falls, Idaho – before I even knew who Jeff Whitman was. We became Facebook friends and I enjoyed reading his posts but his beers were not available in Seattle. So, he offered to send me some. And in that first box was a letter…which became an irreplaceable window into the soul of a small, independent brewer. I hope Jeff doesn’t mind but I’m going to quote a small snippet here:
“Each time I wanted to send you a beer for the past 12 months, I would say to myself that I should wait, because something was going to be ready soon and you should have some of that…and then whatever I was waiting for was ready but the next seasonal would be in the works and it never stopped…I knew I was fighting a losing battle but then something amazing happened: I won. And I won it all this year, with the four beers in this box…”
Boy…did he ever. In that box were “Selkirk Grace”, a Scotch ale; one of only two British-style ale SAB makes; “Guilt”, a big, generous Imperial Porter; “Saint Joseph”, a massive Imperial Saison, and “Cuvée de la Nuit Profonde”, a Belgian-inspired blended beer that made my head spin.The 2016 box included four more and those were exponentially better than the near-miraculous 2015s. The 2016 “Cuvée de la Nuit Profonde” is decadent; rich, dark, complex, deadly-authentic iteration of the fabled blended beers you’ll find in Belgian cellars. Post Falls – for those not hip to the Idaho geography, as I am not – is essentially a suburb of Coeur d’Alene, which isn’t even the size of a typical suburb, itself. The fact that it has become home to one of the West’s most adventurous new Belgian-inspired breweries is a little shocking and is DEFINITELY a great reason to make your Western vacation trip swing through the Spokane-Coeur d’ Alene metroplex.
White Bluffs Brewing: Richland, Washington
(2034 Logston Blvd, Richland, WA 99354 Phone: (509) 578-4558)
In a state that is, always has been, and doubtless always will be, geocentrically in orbit around Seattle, anybody starting a business anywhere else dons a de facto version of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. They’ll have to work twice as hard and be three times as good to get half the recognition and buzz that a Seattle business gets just from opening its doors. It’s not fair but it is a fact.
Even someone as not dazzled by Seattle as I have relentlessly tried to be would never even have heard about White Bluffs Brewing, of Richlands, Washington, if a friend had not shipped me out some hand-bottled semi-growlers and included a note which said. “You GOTTA taste these!”
He was right: I hadda taste White Bluffs beers because I am passionately concerned with promoting great beer wherever it rears its pretty little head and this stuff, folks, is great beer. I have NO idea where husband-wife team Mike and Chardelle Sutherland got the idea for opening a brewery but I’m itchin’ to get my skinny hillbilly ass over there, make a warm spot on a bar stool, and see what else was not in that original box. One that was is one of the best examples of the French ale, Biere de Garde, that I have ever tasted from anybody and the stuff, while essentially a malty, somewhat simple and rustic beer, is not at all easy to make, as the dozen or so examples of it that I’ve tasted in the past year proves out. The style originated in the French regions of Nord and Pas-de-Calais and is the exact analog to the Belgian Farmhouse ale. It’s traditionally a tad rustic (translation: earthy and even sometimes a little musty) and isn’t very hoppy. White Bluffs’ “Miss Chievous’ BDG” is dead-on that description. They also make variations: “Biere de Mars“, “Biere de Ambre“, a holiday seasonsal, “Biere de Noel” and even a dark version, called “Ale Ferme Noir“. Against all logic and reason – in Richlands, WA, which is not exactly the North American nexus of beer sophostiocation or experimentation – “Miss Chievous BDG” is White Bluffs best seller.
Surrounding all this farmhouse opulence is a dizzying range of styles that would be right at home in Portland: German-styled Alt, Weizenbock, Dunkelweisse, Kolsch, and even a gorgeous Gose that is so authentic it would fool a German beer geek. They also do the obligatory Washington BritTrad ales, too, with a roster of ten – count ’em, TEN! – very distinct and delicious IPAs. I’ve now sampled six White Bluffs beers and every one was expert and thoughtful and ridiculously good. For a long time, the trip through Washington’s Tri-Cities area was something of a beer wasteland, even as wineries were cropping up like dandelions. But, with Atomic Brewing, Ice Harbor Brewing, and New School Brewing – with their titanic neighbor, White Bluffs, – the middle of Washington is a desert only in terms of tumble weeds and scorpions. In beer terms, these days…Belly Up!
Engine House No. 9: Tacoma, Washington
(611 N Pine St, Tacoma, WA 98406 Phone: (253) 272-3435)
Two years ago, when I did the first Murder’s Row, I didn’t include E9 – as we uber-hip locals call it – because (I hate admitting this) I made a list and got interrupted by a phone call and forgot. I did a separate post immediately after that to address my oversight. This year…no such omission.
It doesn’t matter that Tacoma, Washington, is not exactly the brewing nexus of the Western worlds or that it still is and always will be playing second chair to Seattle in terms of population, sports, the arts, and most ways except food. Tacoma has one thing that Seattle and the rest of Washington state do not: a brewery specializing in and pushing the envelope of sour/brett/wild ales. There had been a few weak attempts but the sad fact is that, although Washington is arguably the nation’s best producing region for the hallmark British-tradition ales, we had lagged MILES behind much of the rest of America in doing any styles of beer past that. Washington still has less than five brewers making primarily Belgian ales, only one other significant maker of sour/brett/wild ales (Holy Mountain, see above), and only two that are dealing primarily in experimental beers: Slippery Pig Brewing, of Poulsbo, and Propolis Brewing, in tiny Port Townshend.
All of this makes the miracle of E9 even more baffling. How did a relatively old brewery in the stolid blue-collar environment of Tacoma, come to make sour beers that actually, demonstrably DO withstand comparison with giants like Cascade Barrelhouse, Jolly Pumpkin, Crooked Stave, De Garde, and The Bruery? (and if that reads like wild hyperbole, just come and taste these things) The answer is with a determined young man named Shane Johns, a former chef with a peripatetic palate and a ravening need to make his first job as brewmaster into something more than just regurgitating E9’s Greatest Hits. Shane knew and loved Belgium sours and wild ales and wanted to preach this eccentric Gospel…in Tacoma. To many people not all that far removed from their weaning off BudMillerCoors. His bosses liked him – a lot; it’s kinda hard not to like Shane – and the British ales he made, but this sour thing….Jesus, Shane, what’s wrong with four good, solid IPAs?
But he persisted, striking a deal: he continues to boost sales of the core stuff and he can keep making his oddball beers. But a strange thing happened: the state’s sour-starved beer lovers started to seek out good ol’ E9. The sours and bretts and fruit-infused stuff started to get E9 noticed – in a BIG way. His boss even found one of the sours he REALLY liked and started asking for Shane to put some back for his home use. And E9’s regional rep took root, hard.
Today, Shane and his E9 crew are routinely doing collaborations with Holy Mountain and De Garde and, just last month, with a Belgian brewery that invited them in. The reason is simple: of all the sour/brett/wild producers in the US, E9’s are the most authentic; the most evocative of all those smaller Belgian/Flanders breweries that make these beers without the edges sanded off. E9’s are rustic, in the best possible sense of that term. They may show the occasional odd flavor that is not authentic and in that trait, they become MORE true to their Belgian roots because those real Belgians beers are frequently not slick and polished. They are also, lest I forget, soulful, layered, complex…and absolutely delicious. Only lightly filtered, bold flavors, relentless experimentation, and a true chef’s palate in the making of that most Belgian of all styles, the blended ale…all this makes Engine House No. 9, their achingly quaint old Tacoma firehouse building, and a pub that genuinely vies for the title of Best Restaurant in Tacoma, make this place a Must-See for any traveling beer lover.
Upright Brewing: Portland, Oregon
(240 N Broadway #2, Portland, OR 97227 Phone: (503) 735-5337)
Of all the breweries on this list, Upright Brewing may be the one that’s closest to my heart – by no more than a millimeter but still…
What Alex Ganum and his merry band of misfits have done in the basement of The Left Bank Building, just a half a stone’s throw from where the Portland Trailblazers flail at the rest of the NBA, has almost defied description. My very first annual round-up, Best of The Northwest, featured Upright’s titanic English Old Ale, Billy The Mountain, as one of three Beers of The Year for 2010. (along with other Oregon icons, Deschutes “The Abyss” and Laurelwood Brewing’s “Workhorse” IPA) Billy was still, dark, sour, weird, and a few other choice things that were just NOT done in NW brewing at the time and it knocked me flat-sideways.
I’ve been back several times since and, each trip, Alex has had something in the taps that has caused my jaw to drop and my diaphragm to audibly release. This description, from their website, says everything you need to know about the Upright Aesthetic…
“This is the fourth release of our twist on the Dutch style, a recipe that shares many ingredients with their national spirit, genever, and also pairs well with it. Those ingredients include barley, wheat, corn, and rye in the grist, and a blend of ginger, angelica, aniseed, juniper, clove, allspice, bitter orange, and hops in the kettle. The beer was openly fermented to generate some pleasant orange and pear notes from the yeasts, ultimately drinking like a lightly spiced French biére de garde.“
I love wildly experimental beer and make no apologies for it. I adore a great, crisp, beautifully bitter IIPA or a chewy Scotch ale or a black, inky Imperial Stout or even a great, simple glass of English ESB and I positively drool at the sight of the word “Barleywine” in print. But the simple fact is that every major advance in just about any area of human creativity has come about by someone saying “Hold my beer and watch this…”, right before trying something everybody would stop them from doing because it’s just too stupid and cannot work! I don’t claim to know what percentage of Alex Ganum’s “Hold my beer” impulses work out but it’s fairly safe to say that it’s a damned site better batting average than most humans are toting around, these days. The range of styles issuing from that shadowy little basement is jaw-dropping…and the tiny miracle is that they are SO…FREAKIN‘…GOOD. It would be one thing – and I’d even be on board with that – if some of these beers were a little hard to drink. They are NOT. These run more toward descriptions like “total hedonistic opulence” or “fuggen lights out“. Even the occasional basic beer is noticeably different but crazy-drinkable. The Upright “Engleberg Pilsener” adheres to the classic German recipe while insinuating come very NW-level hoppiness into the profile to add up to a Pilsener that will easily stack up with any being made today in the US. Alex even tosses in the odd IPA, too, with tweaked masterworks like “Supercool” and “Schade” offering up inventive rethinkings of the PNW IPA profile that make you wonder why nobody else ever thinks of this.
Upright, in recent years, has been somewhat eclipsed by the twitchy avalanche of hot new PDX breweries, but not to the people who wind up there, in search of flavors their tongue has never beheld. I don’t know if there will ever be such a thing as any of our PNW state governments designating some of our breweries as Landmarks but if it happens in Oregon, I’ll be down there in Eugene, waving pom-poms for Upright. The simple truth is that there are a LOT of NW breweries, now, that take that risk, explore that persistent little impulse, do that Stupid Thing, because they looked at what was happening at Upright Brewing and thought, “Why the hell not?” It may be entirely intentional that Upright’s taproom reminds Euro-culture geeks like of nothing so much as a monk’s cell. The type of monastic intensity and focus, the almost scholarly exploration of the past with an eye toward the future, is what sets Upright apart from 99% of all other NW – or even American – breweries. It must be tasted to be believed.