Washington’s Beer Renaissance
written by Jackie Dodd & Sheila G. Miller | photography by Jackie Dodd | illustrated by Allison Bye
From hop farms to breweries to colleges to pubs, Washington is arguably the top state for all things beer. As you cross the Evergreen State, you can participate in the harvest of beer’s best ingredients and sip some of the most iconic and diverse brews available. Join us as we check out Washington’s up-and-coming beer town, Bellingham, discover just how important this state is to the cutting edge of the brewing industry, and learn how beer might just change the world.
Washington is Beer Central
the Rainier Beer commercial was deceptively simple. A two-lane highway in rural Washington with a breathtaking view of Mt. Rainier. As the motorcycle approached, its engine seemed to sound out these words: RAAAAAAAINIEEEEEEEER BEEEEEEEEEEEEEER!
From these humble times, Washington’s brewing industry has exploded over the past forty years. But Washington has always been at the forefront of the beer industry. Seventy-five percent of all hops grown in the United States are from the Yakima Valley. There’s an American Hop Museum in Toppenish. Washingtonians have always had an important relationship to beer—over the past few decades, the rest of the country has finally figured it out.
Between July 2016 and June 2017, nearly 453,000 barrels of Washington-made beer were sold to importers and distributors within Washington, according to the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board. The vast majority of those (almost 94 percent) came from brewers that produce 60,000 barrels or fewer each year.
Washington is the only state with a beer commission—the commission receives 10 cents a barrel produced by every brewery in Washington (up to a maximum of $1,000 per brewery) and puts on as many as twelve tasting festivals each year and uses the proceeds to market Washington’s beer. According to the commission, there are 366 breweries in Washington today. Yes, 30 percent of them are in Seattle and King County. But don’t count out any region of the state—there are breweries in far-flung locations such as Sequim, Chewelah, Index and Oroville.
And while much of the beer produced in Washington is quaffed in other states, many breweries are making a point of hanging onto that local feel.
Redhook, which is based in Seattle, has a pub in Woodinville and an outpost all the way in New Hampshire. It also just launched Brewlab, a new pub right in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The pub will serve as a sort of testing ground for new beers. Redhook is also launching a series of beers called the Washington Natives series, house IPAs that will have ingredients only sourced in Washington—they’ll be consistently on tap at Brewlab.
Earlier this year Iron Goat Brewing, in Spokane, opened a taproom that was built using repurposed materials from the site. Iron Goat has collaborated with breweries around the state and describes itself as having a strong commitment to “keep beer independent.” One of its collaborators was Everybody’s Brewing, a twee spot in White Salmon that takes collaboration to a new level.
Everybody’s Brewing has collaborated with Backwoods Brewing in Carson and Grains of Wrath in Camas, among other Washington breweries. It also is willing to reach across the Columbia River to make great beers with Oregon breweries—a recent collaboration featured Big Horse Brewing, Logsdon Farmhouse Ales and Thunder Island Brewing.
One way in which Washington is likely to keep great beer happening is in its education of the next generation’s brewers.
Eighteen states have community colleges or universities that offer some sort of craft brew training—most of those offer certificates, like a program at Skagit Valley Community College. But only a handful feature bachelor’s degrees dedicated to the industry. Central Washington University, in Ellensburg, is among them, having launched the state’s only craft brew degree program in 2015. The interdisciplinary program features coursework in everything from chemistry to sanitation to marketing to entrepreneurship. Students will graduate with a knowledge of the brewing process, but also the business of running a brewery.
Can Washington Beer Save the World?
In the world of Washington brewing, there are myriad ways to differentiate your brewpub. One common theme that does more than just bring more drinkers to beer—through philanthropic work.
Many breweries offer kegs as donations to nonprofits or events, but that’s the least of it. Breweries big and small are getting in on the action, and making the world a better place in the meantime.
Bale Breaker Brewing, in Yakima, recently released Sesiones del Migrante Mango IPA in kegs and cans. Sesiones del Migrante is a beer series being brewed as a collaboration between Mexican and American breweries—the beers are designed to celebrate migrant workers who harvest hops in the Yakima Valley and travel thousands of miles for the harvest. Some of the proceeds of the sales and other events will go to La Casa Hogar, a nonprofit that works with immigrant Latino families.
No-Li Brewing in Spokane takes a more direct approach—buy our beer and we’ll give money to a good cause. In 2015, the brewery had charities of the month, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Meals on Wheels and the Wishing Star Foundation. Everyone who bought a taster tray received a $2 token that could be donated to the charities. Recently the brewery ran a special on cases of beer, donating all the money to a women’s shelter, and also held a fundraiser for a school that was vandalized.
Big hitters are also in on the action.
Pyramid Brewing’s general manager, Robert Rensch, calls it the triple bottom line. “It’s a fancy way of saying we not only recognize and prioritize profits, we also prioritize our people and the communities we work in, and also our planet, the environment,” he said. “We use a lot of water and a lot of energy, so we are constantly striving to reduce the amount of water and energy and wastewater we use and our impact to the environment.”
Pyramid’s employees put in more than 1,000 hours of volunteer hours—paid time off to volunteer on projects that make an impact on the community. For Pyramid, those primarily include environmental organizations. Tap it Forward, in September, brought Pyramid employees out in both Portland and Seattle—in Portland working with the Forest Park Conservancy, and in Seattle with the Nature Consortium in Vision Point Park.
“People like to give business to (companies) they feel contribute to the community and align with their thoughts and beliefs,” Rensch said. “That’s the way forward.”
Beer Town: Bellingham
We’re like a family,” Chad Kuehl said. “We all go to each other’s houses for holidays.” Kuehl was talking about the “beer family” he acquired in Bellingham, where he opened Wander Brewing in 2013. At the time, only three other breweries were in operation there, a number that has quadrupled since Kuehl and his team joined the Bellingham beer scene. The established breweries embraced Kuehl and his wife, offering advice and friendship as the couple forged a trail in the world of Pacific Northwest beer in a town that’s quickly becoming a favored destination among beer tourists worldwide. The family atmosphere he describes is palpable when wandering the ale trail from brewery to brewery. Even if it’s your first trip to this beer town, you’ll never feel like a stranger—one of the many reasons to make this small town a big part of your beer travel plans.A group of 20-something beer fans from Vancouver, B.C., sat down at a table at the Elizabeth Station Bottle Shop and Tap Room, saying they visit Bellingham at least once a month. When asked what the purpose of the visit was, they all pointed to the flights of beer in front of them, laughing at the shared gesture. Elizabeth Station isn’t a brewery—it’s the convergence of all the breweries in Bellingham as well as a healthy supply of beer from across the globe, a central meeting spot for the beer crowd. It’s a place to sample beer from across the country and decide what the next beer stop might be. With shared tables and a great mix of locals and beer tourists, it’s almost impossible to leave without making at least one new friend.
If your goal is to explore the breweries from oldest to newest, your first stop has to be Boundary Bay, a brewery that’s been in operation since 1997. With a sizeable taproom, restaurant and patio, this is a place where you could easily spend an entire day. The beer is good, the food is hearty and filling and the staff is friendly.
From there, you should head to one of the most decorated breweries in Whatcom County, Chuckanut Brewing. The awards started piling up after its 2008 launch, but owners, Mari and Will Kemper, have been brewing since the 1980s in America and abroad, establishing themselves as not just brewers, but experts in the world of all things beer. This is a team that knows what it’s doing and the catalog of well-made beer is proof.
Kulsan Brewing is your next stop. This space has been brewing up delicious craft beer since 2012. With a friendly neighborhood atmosphere and rotating food trucks out front, it’s the perfect place to settle in for a pint of award-winning brew. Aslan and Wander are next on the list—the breweries opened within days of each other in 2014 and have been taking turns wowing judges at beer festivals across the country in the past few years, cementing these two breweries as don’t-miss beer destinations not just in Bellingham but in the entire Pacific Northwest.
One of the newest additions to the Bellingham beer scene is a brewery out of Wyoming, Melvin Brewing. Not just a taproom for beers brewed in Jackson, it’s an entirely separate brewery with unique beers brewed just for the Pacific Northwest, a beautiful addition to the Whatcom County Tap Trail and evidence that this is a city that’s being noticed as a major player in the larger world of craft beer.
For many, the exploration of Bellingham beer is a family affair. With nearly all breweries both kid and dog-friendly, it’s easy for most young families to find a place to hang out for the day. It’s hard to go to any place in Bellingham without enjoying your pint in close proximity to adorable dogs or babies. Maybe this is part of the reason the beer scene in Bellingham feels like a family—maybe it’s because the people drawn to making beer in this town are salt-of-the-earth types, or maybe there’s something in the water. Regardless of the reason, Bellingham is a destination worth the drive no matter where in the Pacific Northwest you rest your head.