Seattle is home to nearly 70 breweries – an astonishing number more than any state can boast. Summer is one of the best times to swim back through that ocean of cool beer while the pandemic loosens its grip. There’s always something new to try and new places to visit as breweries continue to gain a foothold in this thirsty city, sometimes in the most unlikely places. Replacement beer gardens have sprung up in parking lots as the pandemic is forcing breweries to get creative about gathering people safely.
Exhibition A is about three miles north of the skyscrapers in downtown Seattle, where a patch of gray industrial land has become a popular brewery district in just a few years. Eleven breweries with tap houses occupy the roughly six-block square of today’s Ballard Brewery District; another opening by a well-respected brewer, the Bale Breaker Brewing Company, was due by the end of summer.
But even this list doesn’t fully capture the foamy dynamic. Take a few more blocks in any direction and the number of breweries with taprooms will increase. Cloudburst Brewing has added a satellite tavern to its nearby brewery about a mile west of here. A little further south is Holy Mountain Brewing, one of the best microbrewers in the country. A beer lover could wander for days. Best of all, almost everything is so close that the thirsty and the curious can explore on foot or on one of Seattle’s ubiquitous scooter or city bikes.
The Robbings had no idea if anyone was going to show up, but customers came before they even opened. Two more breweries opened within eight months. One of them was Stoup Brewing. Like the Robbings, Lara Zahaba, who Stoup founded with her husband Brad Benson and business partner Robyn Schumacher, wanted to brew near the vibrant neighborhoods. The more breweries showed up, the better off all breweries fared, said both owners. “Rising foam lifts all boats,” joked Adam Robbings.
Craft brewering is a collegial industry. It’s not uncommon in the neighborhood these days to see a forklift truck driving down the street while a brewer is bringing grain to a colleague who’s neglected. The 11 breweries in the immediate district have worked together on everything from a beer festival to uniform security protocols for pandemics (including shared signs about the need to wear masks when not seated at a table and an agreement not to allow groups of sizes, which exceed the state mandates).
As I was walking around the neighborhood at noon in mid-June, it initially seemed like nothing had changed since I lived nearby a decade ago when the only reason I was looking for a body shop, not a well-built one Farmer’s beer. I passed a junkyard, a company that clears asphalt and another that repairs heavy equipment.
Sometimes the air shook with the painful sound of a great ship’s horn in the nearby Lake Washington Ship Canal. The scene made me happy. So much in Seattle has lifted up in the last decade, which has resulted in much of the city feeling polished and superficial. But here was still the shabbier town I had fallen in love with decades before, one that was less affluent, less caring for the outside, less like anywhere else – though 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 an unerring palate. He also knows the city’s beer scene like no other. He was my Virgil with a pint glass.
Obec’s decor is typical of breweries anywhere in the neighborhood, meaning the pandemic had turned the place upside down. Everyone was now sitting outside at picnic tables on the asphalt outside, under white tents.
Hoppy beers, garnet red lagers and “wild” beer
The Pacific Northwest is famous for its large, hoppy beers, which suit a region that grows about 95 percent of the country’s hops. Obec goes the other way and proudly serves up less aggressively hoppy Old Country brews. The highlight was its Garnet, a garnet red lager that is rarely made outside the Czech Republic and is halfway between a pilsner and a dark lager. At Obec and elsewhere, customers can usually order flights at 5 ounce pours (about $ 2 to $ 3) so they can sip numerous offerings without falling off the bar stool.
Next, we went about four blocks away to Fair Isle Brewing, whose lovely interior, with its wooden rafters, is reminiscent of the inside of the barrels that make some of its ales. In the land of the IPAs, the Fair Isle website says, “We’re brewing Seasons and Farmhouse Ales … and that’s it.” These so-called “wild” beers, which highlight funky yeasts and bacteria, are popular right now. Part of the Fair Isle terrace is reserved as a pop-up area for talented young chefs across town to test their concepts or promote their brand.
The Bierviertel has also become a sought-after property for food trucks, as there is a lack of kitchens in the taprooms. This is not drinking alcohol. Seattle’s most famous chef, Tom Douglas, sells sandwiches and wood-fired pizzas, and occasionally runs pop-ups from his brewery district storage room, which his company partially repurposed as a Serious TakeOut during the pandemic. (Try the smoked turkey sandwich with allspice cheese, $ 12.)
Elsewhere, you can find food trucks or pop-ups selling smashed burgers, birria tacos, and even an excellent bowl of Shoyu Chashu ($ 15) at the Midnite Ramen Food Truck. I settled in on Fair Isle with a crispy house season ($ 6 and $ 9) and a fine Margherita cake from Guerilla Pizza Kitchen.
One afternoon we drove to Stoup Brewing. The courtyard is large, walled in with colorful shipping containers, and the picnic tables are covered with angular wooden panels. Stoup is known for brewing hop-forward West Coast IPAs, such as his characteristic IPA with citra hops, a current star hop in the beer world with its distinctive citrus taste.
With 20 taps, the list of beers is always solid, Tan said, reaching for a 5-ounce tray (from $ 2.50 to $ 4) in front of us. He took a swig of Stoups Robust Porter and declared it to be more than solid. “One of the best porters in Seattle,” he said. (The porter has won several awards.)
At Stoup and elsewhere, the watch dictates the customers. On weekdays, parents often meet while their children play jenga and board games. After 5 p.m., tech geeks and office workers stop by for a cold. On mild weekends, dogs and their owners meet on the terraces, and teams from the ball field around the corner meet to laugh and warm up the game that has just ended. All of this contributes to the fact that more than just beer is cultivated here.
A reserved Oktoberfest
On a sunny Thursday on the spacious terrace of Reuben’s Brews, all tables were already occupied at 4:22 p.m. and the waiting list had begun. (It can be up to 100 people on a busy evening.) The scene felt like a low key Oktoberfest. This place is perhaps the borough’s biggest draw for a reason: Everything Reuben’s Brews makes is carefully made and sometimes extraordinary, Tan told me. And variety is also provided: around two dozen drinks are for sale, from rye beer to a homemade alcoholic seltzer to a barrel-conditioned ale cooperation with another local brewery, the Machine House Brewery. Reuben’s now has three locations in the neighborhood.
I had reservations in the brewery’s new Barrel House, a nondescript metal building that is Ballard’s version of the rickhouse of a distillery: cool, calm, a bit dark, the walls lined with 100 barrels of French oak that previously held gin and red wine, or bourbon, but now the beer would flavor. The focus is on beers that take time. We ordered an apricot sour and a barrel fermented Czech style Doppelbock. Both were excellent. But the third beer kept us cold: it was called Wormwood Scrubs, it was in the style of an English old ale and had been in the making for two years, including secondary fermentation in oak barrels. “Tastes like smelly blue cheese,” Tan said. “I love it. Beautifully processed.” It was the best beer we had tried all week. We sat in the cool warehouse and tasted the great beer and the figs, vanilla and bourbon it contained without being in a hurry. to go elsewhere.
You don’t have to feel cramped by the confines of the Ballard Brewery District. You can have the last beer by driving about a mile west to Cloudburst on Shilshole, the shoebox outpost of Cloudburst Brewing (with a walled-in dumpling truck) whose brewery is near Pike Place Market. Steve Luke, nominated for the 2020 James Beard Foundation Award, is a wizard who often builds higher alcohol IPAs that don’t have the heat or sharp elbows that such beers would show in less good hands.
But the brewery district has plenty of great beer and people-watching opportunities if you don’t want to hike. 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 who was holding a leash on a small white bath mat. “Does he lick everything? My dog used to lick everything. Is it a bichon thing? “
The two strangers started talking. At the next table a little boy with a handful of cards yelled “Uno!” Victoriously at his little sister. Her father watched and drank a sour beer the color of ruby red grapefruit. A van rolled across the street to Stoup Brewing, unloading boxes of vegetables. Soon, people in the neighborhood would stop by and probably pick up a pint while picking up their organic carrots. Before I left, every table around me was full.
This was a growing community, a flower sprouting from a crack in the sidewalk. This flower was watered with beer and it was doing great.
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