Washington has a great brewing history. In 1982, a little brewery called Red Hook started hauling its beer to Seattle bars, confusing lager lovers with a beer whose yeast emitted banana flavors. The same year, Scottish-born publican Bert Grant opened the first post-Prohibition US brewpub, Grant's Brewery Pub, in Yakima—the same Yakima Valley that produces so many of America's hops. Grant is also credited for creating the hoppier American version of imperial stout in the 90s and helping popularize the modern IPA in the US.
A wave of breweries followed in their wake, including Pyramid in 1984 and less world-famous but very well-regarded breweries like Big Time (founded 1988), Elysian (1995), and Walking Man (2000).
But we're not here to tell you to drink a Red Hook for old time's sake—a ton of interesting small breweries have opened in Washington in the last 3 or 4 years. Here are a few of them to seek out on your next trip west.
Foggy Noggin (Bothell, WA)
If you started geeking out on beer in the late 70s, like Jim Jamison did, there weren't a lot of options. Jamison got his beer education working through the large menu of imports at Portland's Produce Row Cafe. "I tried every one of those beers," he says. "It took a while." He kept coming back to English, Scottish, and Irish suds. Thirty years later, he opened a brewery in his house to make his own versions of those venerable styles.
With a half-barrel system that produced 120 bbl last year, Jamison's venture, Foggy Noggin, is a textbook nanobrewery. He runs the show with help only from family members, including his wife, his daughter who runs the tasting room, a son who helps brew, and another son who cleans and does deliveries. His 2.5 acre space draws hundreds of people to his residential neighborhood on a typical Saturday. He's looking for another location partially because he's afraid of wearing out his welcome with his neighbors.
Foggy Noggin's two flagship beers are Bit O' Beaver, an English bitter, and Christmas Duck, brewed year-round despite the name. He modifies his water to more closely resemble the chemical composition of London water and, despite easy access to the hop-growing Yakima Valley, sometimes has to import hops from abroad to get it right. "We do get a lot of English people who come to the brewery," says Jamison."It tastes like home to them." Not bad for a guy who's never been to England.
Foggy Noggin is also reviving historical styles. Wasky is a Burton ale, the style brewers in Burton-on-Trent made before dialing in on their signature pale ale. It's made with brown sugar, blackstrap molasses, and English Target hops, and if you've been studying brewing water and never got the hang of what "minerally" is supposed to taste like, here's your chance to review it without flying into Heathrow. I cheated and drank mine fresh, but it can also be aged it for a year.
Jamison firmly believes that there's a place for misunderstood and underrepresented beer styles like these even in the hop-happy Pacific Northwest. "If you dedicate 3/4 of your taps to IPAs, you don't really have much of a selection."
Reuben's Brews (Seattle, WA)
Reuben's Brews was founded last August, won its first World Beer Championship medals in October, and has brewed about 30 different beers already. Founder Adam Robbings—who runs the place with his wife Grace Robbings and his brother-in-law and fellow brewer Mike Pfeiffer—has a lot more up his sleeves, too. Variety is key at this 7-bbl operation named after Adam and Grace's son.
Unlike many breweries, which use one yeast strain for every style to save money, Reuben's has no house yeast. "I didn't want our beers to all taste similar, and having a house yeast can do that," says Adam Robbings. At the time of our interview, the 12 beers on tap at the tasting room used 6 yeasts between them.
Yeast isn't the only area where things get creative. The male Robbings is British and has an affinity for their malts, but "really started brewing when I fell in love with American styles" and is likely to match those UK malts with American hops. There are plenty of German- and Belgian-inspired beers in the mix, too.
One of the many flavors they're having fun with is rye. Reuben's Roggenbier, with a malt bill of 50% rye, is a great take on a neglected old German style (imagine a darker hefeweizen with a nice spicy rye bite). The flavors of Reuben's Imperial Rye IPA and American Rye ale will be more familiar to hop-loving Americans but are no less interesting and satisfying, with the non-imperial version being the more citrusy and approachable of the two.
Only some of Reuben's plethora of beers are bottled and none are distributed far from the Seattle metro area. If I was in town I'd head to the tasting room inside their brewery, which has 12 taps and often a cask. What'll be on tap? Your guess (and the brewer's) is as good as mine.
Sound Brewery (Poulsbo, WA)
There's been a brewery explosion on Washington's Kitsap Peninsula, with three new operations opening recently in the town of Poulsbo (population 9,200) alone. Part of this burgeoning scene is Sound Brewery, founded in 2011 by longtime homebrewers Mark Hood and Brad Ginn and differentiating itself with Belgian-inspired beers with west coast twists.
Hood came to Sound with 25 years of homebrewing experience and a computer game industry resume dating back to the '80s. "Instead of just trying to make awesome games, the industry became about big brands and franchises," says Hood, whereas craft brewing "still has that feeling of everyone trying to break through to the masses." He also enjoys the spirit of cooperation in the local beer community. "We are all good friends, have beers together, share deals on ingredients and materials, go to events together, and generally just all work together to make craft beer bigger and keep bringing beer fans to our area," he says.
Sound Brewery walks the tightrope of pushing style envelopes while maintaining balance. "You will never see us brag about 120 IBU, because we don't do that," says Hood. What they do are beers like Monk's Indiscretion, which surprises anyone expecting a straight abbey-style beer by delivering an unexpected dose of juicy hops. Koperen Ketel BPA, Dubbel Entendre, and Triple Entendre are enjoyable homegrown versions of classic Belgian styles, while Humulo Nimbus will please fans of piney, chewy double IPAs like you'd expect from the Pacific Northwest. Then we're back to twists like an imperial stout with Belgian yeast. It's fun stuff.
The Sound team has brewed 19 styles so far and they have more on the way. "We haven't even done lager yet, and we've got a lot of homebrewing awards for lagers between us," says Hood. I'd love to see what this outfit does with a doppelbock!
Sound Brewery sends beer around the area and to eastern Washington, Idaho, western Canada, and occasionally Japan, but it sounds (ha ha, sorry) like a side trip to this beery peninsula would be a worthy part of a visit to Seattle.
Locals and travelers, what are your favorite smaller breweries in Washington? Let us know in the comments.
About the author: Jen Muehlbauer wrote about beer in Boston and LA before settling down in the promised land of the Bay Area in 2009. She also tends bar, teaches beer classes, is a BJCP-certified beer judge, and occasionally makes a passable batch of homebrew. Follow her on Twitter at @EastBayBeerJen.
Beer samples provided for review consideration.