Before beginning this series, let me offer the only disclaimer that matters at all in reading ANY list:
This is ONE GUY’S OPINIONS.
After ten years of writing this and its precursor in the Seattle P-I, I finally hit the wall this year and decided to stop doing anything called “Best Of”. Two reasons: A) ANY list – EVERY list – is nothing but the individual opinions of one person or an aggregated bunch of opinions from some group. The groups MAY, in what I would have to call rare cases, include people with tremendous acumen and experience. In MOST cases, though, it’s just a bunch of folks with an interest and viewpoints. And B) There is no “best”. Period. And if something does happen to be the best at the given moment, that status is guaranteed to change before the list is even posted, especially in all our distinct and dynamic American beverage cultures. New breweries, wineries, and distilleries are opening almost daily. Established under-performers are beginning to Get It and taking leaps forward.
But the one constant is history, achievement over an extended period, excellence proven again and again.
Those breweries CAN – and should! – be identified, singled out, and celebrated…and visited, any time you find yourself in this weird, eccentric patch of mildewy real estate we call the Great Pacific Northwest. This is going to be a series, based on the new format of this website and this first one is a real Rock Star…that you quite likely have never even heard of before…
Boundary Bay Brewing, Bellingham
I want to stop here for a moment and make a bold statement:
Boundary Bay Brewing is possibly the greatest obscure brewery in the United States.
And, why is it “obscure”?
It’s not in Seattle or Portland.
Since Ed Bennett started BBBC, in 1995, this operation – deeply rooted in a rickety, ancient warehouse building in downtown Bellingham, Washington – has become a legitimate behemoth of American brewing, especially in the realm of Strong Ales. In a 2016 poll of Northwest brewers that asked them to name their favorite IPA other than their own, EIGHTY percent named Boundary Bay Imperial IPA.
Owner and Guiding Spirit, Ed Bennett, is a certified Character but with a brain: he’s remained intimately involved in the brewing process and works like a dog at constantly expanding his repertoire and hiring legitimately great head brewers, like 20 year veteran Aaron Jacob Smith. At the 2018 World Beer Cup, Old Bounder Barleywine walked off with its second medal in three years. Their hallmark Strong Ale, Cabin Fever, has medaled three times. BBBC has no GABF medals, for a very good reason: Ed doesn’t enter GABF. But his range is as great as names like Avery and Sam Adams and Stone and Deschutes. His Sour Ale with Brettanomyces, “The Nautilus”, took gold at the 2016 North American Brewers Awards. Their Trappist Dubbel took gold in 2015. The Tripel took silver in 2013. And one current offering is the stunner pictured above and to your right.
There seems, in fact, to be nothing that Boundary Bay won’t try and mostly do very well. On one visit, back in 2011, we had lunch and the Pub and I scanned the taplist for something that would pair up with my pulled pork. One tap said “Boundary Bay Dopplebock“. I’m a freak for Dopples, so I ordered one. Then another. Then a growler to take home. It remains one of the top two or three American Dopplebocks I’ve ever tasted.
This is not to say that Boundary Bay is invisible to people who bother to look. Food & Wine Magazine, in a 2017 article called “10 Great Breweries From America’s Beer-Saturated Cities” – in amongst names titanic names like Tröeg’s and Cigar City and Deschutes and Four Hands and Ballast Point and Great Divide – shows this entry…
There are a LOT of people who live in Washington, have for literal decades, and don’t know anything about Boundary Bay. I have recently fallen madly in LOVE with the Old Boundary Barrel Aged Barleywine – for the third time since 2000. Cabin Fever is in my fridge EVERY year and will be until I shuffle off the mortal coil. (Or forget where the fridge is)
But the real thing about Boundary Bay is that, like the other breweries on this list of established icons but even moreso, they are not reclining on any bed of laurels. “The Nautilus” Brett ale is as current and cutting edge as any beer being made in the entire PNW and even that is not the whole story of Boundary’s experimental side. There’s the new(ish) “Aaron’s Orchard”, brewed with apple cider from Cloud Mountain Farms, peach puree from Oregon Fruit Products and local honey…”Abrikozen”, a kettle-sour brewed with 100% local malt from Skagit Valley, a hazy ale with copious additions of apricot, passionfruit, and pineapple purees…”Bretta Whiskey Fever”, the 2015 Cabin Fever Strong Ale, aged in Dry Fly Whiskey Barrels for eight months and inoculated with brettanomyces. Kinky. Different. Wonderful…
Their pub food has long been one of Washington’s top two or three best-kept food phenomena; genuine fine-dining cuisine, presented in a earthy, sailor-bar setting. And, this 2009 jaw-dropper: The New Brewer, a publication of the Brewers Association, announced in their 2008 annual industry review that the Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro was the nation’s largest brewpub based on number of barrels sold! And yet, they are STILL virtually unknown to most American craft beer fans. Why? Easy: as with 98% of all Washington breweries, none of BBBC’s beers were available in bottles or cans, up until this year! We drank all of those thousands of barrels HERE. You had NO shot at finding out about them, if you don’t live here, and even that doesn’t guarantee than you’d hear anything about them.
If you’re the sort of envelope pusher who loves nothing better than finding a brewery or beers that your brewgeek pals know squat about, Boundary Bay is as close to a slam-dunk choice as you’re ever gonna run across. And the beers…will…knock you…sideways.
Notable Beers: Old Bounder Barleywine, Cabin Fever Strong Ale, Boundary Bay Imperial IPA, Bretta Whiskey Fever, Cedar Dust IPA, The Graf cider ale, Bootlegger Barrel-Aged Oatmeal Stout, The Don DIPA, Boundary Bay Scotch Ale, arguably the Gold Standard of NW Scotch ales. Or…just close your eyes and point to anything on the taplist. You literally cannot go wrong.