Something in the Water

Craft beer in the Northwest
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Photos by Jeff Hobson

Around here, people love a good brewski. A stroll down the beer aisle at the supermarket presents beer drinkers with an overwhelming number of choices, including many delicious options produced by local breweries. And we’ve got plenty of those around here. If you live in the greater Seattle-Tacoma or Portland metro areas, you probably have a brewery or brewpub in your neighborhood. It’s not an entirely urban phenomenon; Washington and Oregon are speckled with craft breweries, many located in remote, rural locations.

By its most simple definition, craft beer is the good stuff. It is more of an artistic endeavor and less of an industrial process. Craft beers are produced by privately owned breweries that are miniscule in comparison to the big, national brands. Although somewhat dated, microbrewery and microbrew are still acceptable terms, but craft is more common in today’s beer vernacular.

Over the past 30 years, a change has been brewing in America. In 1983, there were less than 100 breweries in the entire country. Most of them produced big beer — the brands you recognize from TV commercials. Today, the United States boasts more than 2,500 breweries and virtually all of them produce craft beer. It is still something of a novelty in most parts of the country, but in the Northwest we’ve been drinking it for a long time and craft beer is big business.

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Photo by Brandon Sawaya

Did you know that you live in one of the best beer regions on earth? According to the Brewers Association, the national organization that tracks this kind of stuff, about 25 percent of the beer consumed in the greater Seattle-Tacoma area is craft beer, about four times the national average. Portland is the only market that consumes a higher percentage of craft beer, about 30 percent. Those numbers are remarkable; most metropolitan areas in America struggle to consume 8 or 10 percent craft beer. Brewers and retailers work hard to satiate our appetite.

Portland alone is home to 51 breweries, more than any other city on earth. Washington currently has nearly 200 breweries, more than any state but California. In 2006, the state Legislature formed the Washington Beer Commission and tasked it with the duty of promoting Washington beer. It is the first and only commodity commission of its kind in the United States. According to the National Beer Wholesalers Association, the Washington and Oregon beer industries provide nearly 40,000 jobs.

Those are the beery facts, but many inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest are still unaware that they live in one of the world’s great beer regions.

What is it about the Northwest that inspires us to create and consume so much craft beer? Is it something in the water that gives us a refined sense of taste and a greater appreciation of life’s rich pleasures? Probably not, but something about life in the Northwest makes us appreciate things like a $4 cup of coffee, grass-fed beef, and handcrafted artisan cheese. For whatever reason, we value quality and reward creativity more than many other parts of the country. Our penchant for craft beer is just one more expression of our Cascadian sensibilities.

Ground Zero for the Craft Beer Revolution

Our fondness for good beer was born about 30 years ago. After a long career working in big breweries on the other side of the country, Burt Grant moved to Yakima in 1981 to build his own brewery: Grant’s Brewery Pub — the first brewpub to open in America since Prohibition. At roughly the same time, Redhook Ale Brewery opened in Seattle. Hale’s Ales (then in Colville), Columbia River Brewing (Portland), Hart Brewing (Kalama), and other breweries soon followed suit.

At a time when you could count the number of American craft breweries on your fingers and toes, a handful of them were in the Pacific Northwest. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Washington and Oregon enjoyed a reputation as the undisputed hotbed of craft beer. Other regions, like Colorado and Northern California, soon earned their own reputations. By the mid-’90s, it was clear that craft beer was not a fad and the tide would continue to rise.

SR7_0187Our Visceral Connection to Hops

It was no accident that Burt Grant opened his brewery in Yakima: he wanted to be close to the hops. Each year, the Yakima Valley produces roughly 75 percent of the nation’s hop crop. The other 25 percent comes from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The amount of hops produced in other regions is inconsequential. The total value of the crop ranges from $100 million to $300 million annually ($155 million in 2012).

Maybe it is something in the water. The most beloved beer style in the Northwest is India Pale Ale (IPA) — a style primarily characterized by its bold hop character. Many local beer lovers judge a brewery by the quality of its IPA. Truth is, hoppy beers are popular everywhere in America, but our connection to hops is visceral. Hops are a northwest tradition that dates back more than 100 years and many of Yakima’s producers are now fourth- and fifth-generation hop farmers.

Don’t Call Me Small

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the local beer scene these days is the variation in brewery size. At one end of the spectrum are the large breweries like Redhook and Pyramid, which produce hundreds of thousands of barrels per year. At the other end of the spectrum are diminutive operations referred to as nano-breweries. By definition, a nano-brewery produces less than three barrels of beer (six kegs) at a time and no more than a couple hundred barrels per year. This type of brewery is a new phenomenon, having appeared on the scene just five or six years ago.

These pocket-size breweries operate out of backyard sheds, garages and small rental units in business parks. Often, a nano-brewery’s beer is available at just one or two locations. They lack the economy of scale needed to be profitable, but that’s not the point. They are part-time businesses, often a first step towards becoming a larger brewery that actually can provide full-time income.

The inspiration behind most nano-breweries is a sincere desire to create and share beer. Small-scale production allows plenty of room for experimentation and creativity. In that regard, nano-breweries are perhaps the best expression of what the Northwest loves about beer.

14 Local Craft Breweries Near and Far

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The Harmon Brewery

1. Boundary Bay
Bellingham’s favorite brewery has a permanent lineup of seven different beers, plus more than a dozen rotating taps, small-batch brews and seasonal beers.
2. American Brewing Company
This Edmonds brewery features brewmaster Skip Madsen’s signature Breakaway IPA, three
other regular beers and seasonal selections.
3. Foggy Noggin Brewing
Billed as one of the world’s smallest production breweries, this Bothell spot is located in a Bothell neighborhood. It’s only open on (most) Saturdays, so be sure to find them on Facebook or Twitter to get up-to-date information.
4. Brickyard Brewing
This tiny taproom in Woodinville offers big flavors. Get your pints, growlers and kegs to go, with bottles available for select varieties.
5. Dirty Bucket Brewing Company
Small-batch beers are the focus at Dirty Bucket Brewing Company in Woodinville. This craft brewery is constantly innovating, so watch its website for what’s new.
6. Redhook
Its remodeled Forecaster’s Pub is just another draw to this large-scale craft brewery in Woodinville. Don’t miss the tour — for $5 you get a behind-the-scenes look, tastes and a pint glass to take home.
7. Triplehorn
Triplehorn Brewing Co. currently offers seven bold beers, including the N3M3Sis Nitro Milk Stout (“8.5 percent ABV for the long voyage”).
8. Hi-Fi Brewing
With eight brews in its lineup, this newer brewery has quickly become a Redmond favorite. The brewery even has a “Listener Request Line” where you can tell the brewers what you’d like to drink.
9. Mac & Jack’s

This brewery’s African Amber is a popular ale found on taps at many pubs and restaurants throughout the state. While there is no place on-site to sit and enjoy the beer, tours and a retail store are available.
10. Bellevue Brewing Company
Enjoy a variety of flagship, seasonal and brewer series beers, along with the aptly named 425 Pale Ale, at this Bellevue favorite.
11. The Harmon Brewery
You can find one of five permanent selections and five seasonal beers at Harmon Brewery and Eatery, The Hub or The Taproom, its two sister establishments.
12. Engine House No. 9
This Tacoma favorite makes its home in a more than 100-year-old firehouse off Sixth Avenue. The pub features dozens of local beers on tap, but pay special attention to its own varieties, like the Tacoma Brew, all brewed in house.
13. Narrows Brewing Company
This new brewery in Tacoma is making waves with locals with fun events like trivia nights on Tuesdays, beer dinners with local restaurants and more. Enjoy six craft beers at the taproom.
14. 7 Seas Brewery
This Gig Harbor-based brewery is all about the can, offering six regular brews and a variety of seasonal beers.

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