This is a tale about one of my favorite breweries…but it could also be a story about one of the breweries near you; one that maybe you and most beer fans haven’t paid much attention to. If I could give just one piece of advice to everyone who reads this site, it would be this…
DO NOT just dismiss ANY brewery, winery, or distillery – especially if they’ve been around a while and you think you know the whole story. As the saying goes, puppies don’t get to be Good Ol’ Dogs without some hard living.
Words to the wise.
Just after I got up this morning, I found a Facebook post from my friend Dave Lambert, owner and…well, how can I describe him? Spiritual eminence, maybe?…Of Slippery Pig Brewery, in sleepy ol’ Poulsbo, Washington, a genuine PNW brewing HOTbed and more akin to a little Scandinavian village that broke off and rolled up into Liberty Bay than like an American small town.
The post was one of those FB reminders, from seven years ago, and it brought up a flood of my own memories…Ever since the first day I read about Slippery Pig, I was almost obsessed to find it. I drove all the way over from Bellevue, one day, around southern Puget Sound, mainly just to find and taste at “The Pig”. It took some finding. I missed the tiny dirt road FOUR times before I convinced myself that it actually led somewhere.
Finally, I shrugged and drove up a really narrow, overgrown path and around a sharp right turn. I pull up and there’s a house – just, y’know, normal, regular house – and a couple of sheds. “Where’s the fucking brewery?” I thought. Well, those two little sheds, in the photo above, WERE the brewery. The “tasting room” was outdoors, under an improvised awning, with a hand-hewn tasting bar and three or four taps drilled through the wall of one shed. There was a “chalkboard” (really a slab of weathered grey wood) that listed the beers on tap. There were four. The descriptions read like the ingredient list for a really odd botanical Gin; “nettle” this and “rhubarb” that and something called “Damned Eleven“(?). No other info. No styles mentioned except that the Damned stuff was a “bitter”. I visit a LOT of breweries. I had no clue.
I tasted all the beers that day, all poured by this butt-crazy lookin’ guy with a wide-track mohawk, a slew of ink, and a fucking kilt…smiling – always smiling. I hadn’t seen a photo of Dave; just read his name. But I intuited that he must be the brewer because he looked like the farm: a little scruffy and “rustic”, but purposeful. And happy. Bear in mind that this farm is within the city limits of the city of Poulsbo and sandwiched between a four-lane divided highway and a major secondary arterial…and none of that was visible or audible. What kind of fuggen time warp have I wandered into, here?
Dave sometimes describes those first beers as “a little rough”. I described them, unless people stopped me, as “kinda magical”. No, they were NOT polished and they were sometimes a little devoutly weird – “Western Red Cedar”? STILL one of the two or three most memorable ales from Washington that I have ever tasted – like his “Damned Eleven” (at a very Norse God-like 11% ABV), a dandelion ale(!), or his Rhubarb IPA(?)(!) – and those were just the tip of the iceberg.
When I got back to my office, I read some of the reviews on BeerAdvocate of the early beers, like this one:
“Not sure what to make of this. I detected citrus, banana, wheat, funk, infection and booze…This beer was a trainwreck. Not only was it poor in quality, idenitfied by the appearance, smell and taste but it missed the mark by far as a “Bitter”. An 11% Bitter?”
My own snippy rebuttal was left just above it:
“Dave Lambert chooses to classify this as a “bitter”. Well, maybe it’s really not. But enjoyment of beer is about more than nomenclature and those who obsess on such things should avoid Slippery Pig, altogether. That way, those of us who enjoy Dave’s odd, eccentric ales can do so without all the static of rigid convention.”
Well, as one of the true dyed-in-the-wool devotees of Weird Beers, I was hooked. This place slammed every one of my hot buttons: small and independent, ridiculously self-made and self-reliant, a fierce DIY aesthetic, “greater than the sum of its parts” concept, being a good citizen…and weird – merrily, good-naturedly, casually WEIRD. I was a partner in one of the first major online beer sellers, about a year and a half later, and my boss wanted to find a way to get great, undiscovered beers into packages and get them to the 38 states we were allowed to ship into. He asked me to name some breweries. The first words out of my mouth were, “Slippery Pig, in Poulsbo.”
He and I and my assistant drove over there and tasted the beers, Those two freaked the fug OUT. My boss, one of the original Microsoft uber-millionaires, was babbling in the car, on the way back: “Let’s build him a brewery! I could get a real facility built and put in a bottling line! People should know about these beers!”
We managed to talk him off the ledge but he would have done it. He was just impulsive enough to do something like that. Two days later, I asked him if he was serious about putting up a building for Dave. “Let me think about it,” he mumbled. That never came up again.
I visited The Pig five more times, including their last day at their little home brewery and the infamous brew sheds. I grieved a little. They were moving the tanks out and I worried that going uptown would lead to slicker beers, driven by the need to pay rent and salaries. I drank a Damned Eleven that day, if memory serves. I remember looking at the glass and thinking, “So long, old friend. I hope we meet again.”
Since then, Dave and his lovely Viking wife Shawna moved the brewing into a space – happily, right next door to one of the planet’s finest ice cream parlours! – in downtown Poulsbo, a metropolis of just over 10,000 humans. Yeah, the beers have improved, at least to the extent that those “rough” beers almost never show up, but they have not scaled back much at all in their eccentricity and earthy, chewy appeal. Dave is still rockin’ the mohawk and the kilts and the infectuous, slightly-manic grin and still brewing with stuff he grew on his farm (and the occasional stuff he just found out in the woods) and his beers still obey damned few stylistic restrictions. I walked into his kitchen, one day, delivering the panini grill he was buying from me, and Shawna said, “You gotta taste the new Porter!”
“A PORTER?” I thought, “Just a fucking PORTER? Not a woodruff and nettle infused, cedar-planked, peat-smoked Baltic-style Porter?”
Nope: real American Porter, ungussied-up and brilliant. A soul-satisfying meaty, hairy-chested Porter. It was like watching your old hippie friend get a salon haircut and put on a suit that hides his tattoos. But I walked out to the taproom, clutching my gorgeous taster of that first “real” Porter, and looked at the list. Whew, I thought, still got the gonzo stuff. Here is the taplist for today, August 8th, 2018, for example:
Baby Rhubarb IPA
FrankenSwine’s Monster 2018 @ 16.7%!!!
Dave and Shawna and Slippery Pig are among the people and places and beers that are closest to my heart in all of the Pacific Northwest. Their beers are SO stunningly true to the brewing traditions of all those tiny farmsteads throughout Europe that they could easily be Norwegian immigrants, instead of Poulsbo lifers; “breweries” that are in people’s cellars and kitchens and garages and and rec rooms and, yeah, garden sheds, where they set up a boil and toss in their apple peels or lemon rinds or stinging nettles or chokecherries or some leftover coffee grounds and Just See What Happens. These beers are as uncontrived as any made in this end of the country. Dave may occasionally buy some berries or herbs from a neighbor but the rest are scavenged, from his land and the fields and forests of the Olympic Peninsula. The inspiration often comes from just finding something growing, something green, something ripe, something that grabs at his imagination. And that jolt of inspiration, of What If, of Why Not, winds up in a glass and people taste it and most, the vast majority, say “Whoa! What the fuck is THAT?”
Those ales are Moments, snapshots, in a very full life of fun and whimsy and music; of being Vikings and sponsoring the Poulsbo Strong Man Competition, popping into Seattle to UtiliKilts for a new man-skirt…of holding his Beer Church on Sunday mornings or The Dating Game on weeknights. Dave and Shawna and their truly off-center legion of devotees (translation: “citizens of Poulsbo”) are Living – with a capital “L”. Living in a way that makes you question what the hell you’re doing with your own life. The beers are truly unlike any others you will taste anywhere. I PROMISE YOU, if you go into Slippery Pig, yeah, you may not like all the beers…but you WILL taste that ONE (at least, possibly two) that will linger in your head for YEARS, the experience as fresh as when you first sipped it. I feel that exact way about Western Red Cedar and Damned Eleven and Dandelion Bitter and three or four others. Only laziness and a forty-five mile drive prevent me from drinking too much Slippery Pig beer. But the desire to drink those weird, earthy, beautiful, magical things – the yearning for something that sails on past the mere consumption of a cold beverage on a hot day – never really recedes. At times, I’ve gone to taste something at another brewery, the description of which recalled something from The Pig, and had it pale by a really unfair comparison. I have to take deep breaths and Try Again…
And this Poulsbonian Lochlanach, berserker magic is not just confined to The Pig. My own Belgian ale muse, the BRILLIANT Sound Brewery, is just a mile away, around Liberty Bay. Rainy Daze Brewing and their own more genteel weirdness is in the old Sound space. Valhöll Brewing, another excellent Viking brewery, is two blocks up the hill from The Pig. And there’s a new one, Western Red Brewing (Hmmmm….) that I’ve yet to try. Yeah, yeah, Portland and Seattle have more breweries, Bend has more experimental breweries, Bellingham has great German beers and British ales. But Poulsbo has Soul: pure, undiluted Scandinavian Soul that recalls those Norse Hard Guys and their lusty sensibilities. And my newly-discovered 12% Scandinavian DNA just allows the connection to be even more powerful and deep.
If you come to Seattle on a Beercation, people will steer you out to Redmond and over to Fremont and Ballard and they’ll certainly mention Reuben’s Brews and Holy Mountain Brewing, two of the very top emerging breweries in the US and two you should NOT miss. But you will have skipped maybe MOST of what makes Washington a great beer state if you just stay in Seattle. You’ll miss Bale Breaker Brewing Company, there in the middle of a hops field on Loftus Ranches, in Yakima. And you’ll miss one of the nation’s top producers of sour/brett/wild ales, Engine House No. 9, in an old fire station in the uber-hip 6th Avenue neighborhood of Tacoma. And you’ll miss Propolis, another truly eccentric, old hippie/fairys ‘n’ elves brewery in Port Townshend. And you’ll miss the muscle and heart of Old Schoolhouse Brewery, in the mountain-bound cowboy town of Winthrop. And you’ll miss the southern wing of Viking beer madness in our Washington Vancouver, at Heathen Brewing, and the old school brilliance of Walking Man Brewing, in tiny, postcard-beautiful Stevenson. And SO many more…
And you’ll miss The Pig…and Dave and his smiles and kilts and swords and Shawna and her Earth-mother warmth and their welcoming cadre of fellow eccentrics, who might seem odd, at first glance, until you remember that WA is where Twin Peaks was set and filmed and that many people here watched the first series of it and thought it was a documentary. But it’s not just weird and berserker-dominated; it’s also sweet and sleepy and colorful and quaint and picturesque and everything that makes an American small town live up to the words of all those songs that celebrate them. “No I cannot forget where it is that I come from…I cannot forget the people who love me…Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town…” You’d miss that, something that Seattle and Portland and Spokane and Denver and Dallas and Chicago just are not stocked up with and not selling. And THAT, my friend, is missing a LOT.
So…here is my Point: this is my story; a story of one tiny, fledgling, madly obscure brewery that resonated like a struck gong for me. Somewhere out there, in this landslide of breweries that has blossomed like dandelions across the vast meadow that is America, there is a brewery something like Slippery Pig that is just waiting for you to drop by and discover it. In Kingman, Arizona, way up northwest, is Black Bridge Brewing, where a ridiculous Imperial Stout rocked me back on my heels. In North Carolina, there is Duck Rabbit, now an older brewery, located in the minute hamlet of Farmville, population 5,000, where they make a milk Stout and a Porter that would make grown men weep. There are so many new breweries in NC, now, that veterans like Duck Rabbit sometimes get lost in the scramble for The Shiny New Bauble. Here in the PNW, many new beer fans drive right on by the I-5 off-ramp that’ll get you out to Newport and Rogue Brewing. They think they know the whole book on Rogue; that it’s Old Hat. DEAD wrong. When it comes to weird, Rogue takes a back seat to nobody…except maybe Slippery Pig.
I have a lot to say about Slippery Pig but I’m stopping here. I WANT you, though, to share in the fun and madness and discovery and the sensation of knowing a great secret that most people don’t. Travel to Seattle, absolutely. See the fish tossing, go up in the Space Needle, ride the huge new ferris wheel down on the waterfront, and especially DO hit Reuben’s Brews and Holy Mountain and Standard Brewing and Seapine and Two Beers and Urban Family and the great Populuxe and the emerging rock star, Tin Dog Brewing…but, also, for the love of God, GO to Poulsbo and find Dave. Tell him I sent you but don’t be in such a hurry. That’s not how they do things in P’bo, WA. See the shops and restaurants. Soak up some of that Norwegian vibe. Eat some Mora Iced Creamery Peanut Butter Chocolate Moreo, next door, and then mosey over to The Pig to taste a Rhubarb IPA. The beaten path is great. It’s where all the ponies and bumper cars are and there’s an ocean of beer.
But it is not the whole story, not here and not where you live. Your Slippery Pig is Out There, somewhere, shockingly close by.
DON’T miss it.