Seattle is home to nearly 70 breweries — a staggering number, more than several states can boast. Summer is one of the best times to stroke this ocean of cool beer as the pandemic loses its grip. There is always something new to try and a new place to go as breweries continue to take root in this thirsty city, sometimes in the most unlikely of places. Ersatz biergartens have sprung up in parking lots as the pandemic forces breweries to get creative about gathering people safely.
Exhibit A is located about three miles north of the high-rises in downtown Seattle, where a patch of gray industrial land has become a popular brewing district in just a few years. Eleven breweries with tap houses occupy the roughly six-block square of what is now called the Ballard Brewery District; another opening by a renowned brewer, Bale Breaker Brewing Company, is due by the end of the summer.
But even this list doesn’t fully capture the frothy momentum. Cast your eyes a few more blocks in any direction, and the number of breweries-with-taprooms swells. Cloudburst Brewing has added a satellite taproom to the nearby brewery about a mile west of here. A little further south is Holy Mountain Brewing, one of the best microbreweries in the country. A beer lover could wander there for days. Best of all, almost everything is so close that the thirsty and curious can explore on foot, or on one of Seattle’s ubiquitous shared scooters or city bikes.
The Robbings had no idea if anyone would show up, but customers came before they opened. Within eight months, two more breweries opened. One of these was Stoup Brewing. Like the Robbings, Lara Zahaba, who started Stoup with her husband, Brad Benson, wanted to brew close to the neighborhood’s lively neighborhoods. The more breweries there were, the better all breweries fared, both owners said. “Rising soap suds lift all boats,” Adam Robbings joked.
Craft brewing is a collegiate sector. Today, in the neighborhood, it’s not uncommon to see a forklift driving down the street while a brewer hands over grain to a coworker who’s been short. The 11 breweries in the immediate area have collaborated on everything from a beer festival to unified pandemic safety protocols (including shared signs about the need to wear masks when not at the table and an agreement not to allow groups of sizes exceeding government mandates). stand).
Walking through the neighborhood on a mid-June afternoon, the place at first seemed like nothing had changed since living in the area ten years ago, when practically the only reason to come was to look for a body shop, not a a well-built farmers beer. I passed a demolition company, one that strips asphalt and another that repairs heavy equipment.
Sometimes the air trembled with the sad sound of a large ship’s horn on the nearby Lake Washington Ship Canal. The scene made me happy. So much of Seattle has become luxurious over the past decade, leaving much of the city feeling polished and superficial. But still here was the scruffier city I’d fallen in love with decades earlier, one that was less affluent, less concerned with appearances, less like everywhere—even if it was changing too.
I followed the cracks in the sidewalk to Obec Brewing, the starting point of my slow-rolling bacchanal. There I met Tan Vinh, a food and drink critic for The Seattle Times. Tan is an old friend with a flawless palate. He also knows the city’s beer scene like no other. He was my Virgil with a pint glass.
Obec’s setup is typical of breweries everywhere in the area, i.e. the pandemic had turned things inside out. Everyone was now sitting outside at picnic tables on the asphalt in front of the door, under white tents.
Hoppy brews, garnet-colored lagers and ‘wild’ beer
The Pacific Northwest is known for its big, hoppy beers, befitting a region that grows about 95 percent of the country’s hops. Obec bends the other way, proudly serving less aggressive, hop-forward Old Country brews. The highlight was the granat, a garnet-colored lager that is rarely made outside the Czech Republic and that is somewhere between a pilsner and a dark lager. At Obec and elsewhere, customers can usually order flights of 5-ounce pours (about $2 to $3) so they can drink countless offers without falling off the barstool.
We then walked about four blocks to Fair Isle Brewing, whose handsome interior, with its wooden trusses, is reminiscent of the interiors of the barrels in which some of its ales are conditioned. In the land of IPAs, the Fair Isle website states, “We brew saisons and farmhouse beers…and that’s it.” These so-called “wild” beers that emphasize funky yeasts and bacteria are popular right now. Part of the Fair Isle patio has been set aside as a pop-up space for talented young chefs in the city to test their concepts or promote their brand.
The beer district has also become coveted real estate for food trucks, given the lack of kitchens in the taprooms. This is not drunk food. Seattle’s most celebrated chef, Tom Douglas, sells sandwiches and wood-fired pizzas, and runs the occasional pop-up from his warehouse space in the brewery district that his company has partially repurposed as Serious TakeOut during the pandemic. (Try the smoked turkey sandwich with chili pepper, $12.)
Elsewhere, you’ll find food trucks or pop-ups selling crushed burgers, birria tacos, and even an excellent bowl of shoyu chashu ($15) at the Midnite Ramen food truck. On Fair Isle, I settled in with a crispy house saison ($6 and $9) and a fine Margherita pie from Guerrilla Pizza Kitchen.
One afternoon we went to Stoup Brewing. The patio is large, walled with brightly colored shipping containers, and the picnic tables are covered with rough edges of wood. Stoup is known for brewing hop-forward West Coast IPAs, such as the signature IPA, featuring Citra hops, a current star hop of the beer world with its distinct citrus flavor.
With 20 taps, the selection of beers is always solid, Tan said, reaching for us to a 5-ounce serving tray (from $2.50 to $4). He took a sip of Stoup’s Robust Porter and declared it to be more than solid. “One of the best porters in Seattle,” he said. (The doorman has won several awards.)
At Stoup and elsewhere, the clock dictates the clientele. On weekday afternoons, parents often meet while their children play Jenga and board games. After 5pm, techs and office workers come in for a cold one. On balmy weekends, dogs and their owners often take to the patios, and teams from the ball court around the corner gather to laugh and pick up the game that had just ended. All this adds to the feeling that something more than beer is cherished here.
A quiet Oktoberfest
On a sunny Thursday on the expansive patio of Reuben’s Brews, by 4:22 p.m. every table was already full and the waiting list had begun. (On a busy night, there can be up to 100 people.) The scene felt like a low key Oktoberfest. This place is perhaps the district’s biggest draw for a reason: Everything Reuben’s Brews makes is carefully done, and sometimes it’s exceptional, Tan told me. And there’s variety, too: There are about two dozen drinks on offer, from rye beers and a homemade alcoholic seltzer to a cask conditioned beer in partnership with another local brewer, Machine House Brewery. Reuben’s now has three locations nearby.
I had made a reservation at the brewery’s new Barrel House, a nondescript metal building that is Ballard’s version of a distillery’s rickhouse: cool, quiet, a little dim, the walls were lined with 100 barrels of French oak that used to hold gin, red wine, or bourbon, but now would help flavor the beer. The focus is on beers that need time. We ordered an apricot sour and a Czech style cask fermented doppelbock. Both were excellent. But the third beer kept us cold: Called Wormwood Scrubs, it was in the style of an English aged ale and was two years in the making, including secondary fermentation in oak barrels. “Tastes like a stinky blue cheese,” Tan said. “Love it. Beautifully made.” It was the best beer we’d tasted all week.We sat in the cool warehouse, trying the big ale and the figs, vanilla, and bourbon in it, in no rush to go anywhere else.
You don’t have to feel constrained by the confines of the Ballard Brewery District. You can get rid of that latter beer by heading about a mile west to Cloudburst on Shilshole, the shoebox outpost of Cloudburst Brewing (with an anchored dumpling truck), whose brewery is near the Pike Place Market. Nominated for a 2020 James Beard Foundation Award, Steve Luke is a wizard, often building higher alcohol IPAs that don’t have the heat or sharp elbows that such beers would exhibit in lesser hands.
But the brewery district offers lots of interesting beer and people watching if you don’t want to wander. One day after lunch, I was sitting at a picnic table at Urban Family Brewing Co. It was only Wednesday, but the place was half full. “Is that a bichon?” a young woman at a nearby table gushed at another woman holding a strap on a small white bath mat. “Does he like everything? My dog used to lick everything. Is it a bichon thing?”
The two strangers began to talk. At the next table, a little boy with a handful of cards yelled “Uno!” victorious over his sister. Their father watched as he sipped a sour beer the color of ruby grapefruit. A van drove across the street to Stoup Brewing and loaded boxes of vegetables. Soon the people in the area were passing by, probably hoisting a pint while picking up their organic carrots. Before I left, every table around me was full.
This was a community that grew, a flower that sprouted from a crack in the sidewalk. This flower got water from beer and did great.
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