Seattle is home to nearly 70 breweries — a staggering number, greater than several states can boast. Summer is one of the best times to backstroke through this ocean of cool beer as the pandemic loosens its grip. There’s always something new to try and someplace new to go as breweries continue to take root in this thirsty city, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. Ersatz biergartens have sprung up in parking lots as the pandemic forces breweries to become creative about how to gather people safely.
Exhibit A lies about three miles north of downtown Seattle’s high-rises, where a patch of gray industrial land has become a popular brewery district in only a few years. Eleven breweries with taphouses occupy the roughly six-block square of what’s now called the Ballard Brewery District; another opening by a well-regarded brewer, Bale Breaker Brewing Company, should happen by summer’s end.
But even this list doesn’t fully capture the sudsy 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 its nearby brewery about one mile west of here. A bit farther to the south sits Holy Mountain Brewing, one of the best microbrewers in the nation. A beer lover could wander 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 bicycles.
A changing neighborhood
Beer has been in Ballard for a while, with the godfathers Hale’s Ales, which began brewing in 1983, and Maritime Pacific Brewing Company. The neighborhood really got rolling in 2012 after Adam and Grace Robbings opened Reuben’s Brews among the salvage yards and body shops.
The Robbings had no idea if anyone would show up, but customers started arriving even before they opened. Within eight months, two more breweries opened. One of those was Stoup Brewing. Like the Robbings, Lara Zahaba, who started Stoup with her husband, Brad Benson, wanted to brew close to the vibrant neighborhoods nearby. The more breweries that appeared, the better all the breweries fared, both owners said. “Rising suds lifts all boats,” Adam Robbings joked.
Craft brewing is a collegial industry. These days in the neighborhood it’s not unusual to see a forklift driving down the street, as one brewer drops off grain to a colleague who has come up short. The 11 breweries in the immediate district 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 a table and an agreement not to permit groups of sizes that exceeded state mandates).
Walking around the neighborhood one mid-June at noon, the place at first seemed like nothing had changed since I’d lived nearby a decade ago, when practically the only reason to come was in search of a body shop, not a well-built farmhouse ale. I passed a wrecking yard, a company that does asphalt stripping and another that performs heavy equipment repair.
Sometimes the air shook with the dolorous sound of a big ship’s horn in the nearby Lake Washington Ship Canal. The scene made me glad. So much about Seattle has gone upscale in the last decade, making much of the city feel polished and superficial. But here, still, was the scruffier city that I’d fallen in love with decades before, one that was less wealthy, less concerned with appearances, less like everyplace else — even as it, too, was changing.
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 drinks critic for The Seattle Times. Tan is an old friend with an unerring palate. He also knows the city’s beer scene better than nearly anyone. He was my Virgil with a pint glass.
Obec’s setup is typical of breweries everywhere in the neighborhood, which is to say that the pandemic had turned the place inside out. Everybody now sat outdoors at picnic tables placed on the asphalt out front, beneath white tents.
Hoppy brews, garnet-colored lagers and ‘wild’ beer
The Pacific Northwest is famous for its big, hoppy beers, fitting for a region that grows about 95 percent of the nation’s hops. Obec veers in the other direction, proudly serving up less aggressively hop-forward Old Country brews. The highlight was its granat, a garnet-colored lager rarely made outside the Czech Republic that’s halfway between a pilsner and a dark lager. At Obec and elsewhere, patrons usually can order flights of 5-ounce pours (about $2 to $3) so they can sip numerous offerings without falling off the bar stool.
Next, we walked about four blocks away to Fair Isle Brewing, whose handsome interior, with its wooden rafters, calls to mind the interior of the casks in which some of its ales are conditioned. In the land of I.P.A.s, Fair Isle’s website declares, “We brew saisons and farmhouse ales … and that’s it.” These so-called “wild” beers that highlight funky yeasts and bacteria are popular right now. Part of Fair Isle’s patio is reserved as pop-up space for the young talented cooks around town to test their concepts or promote their brand.
The beer district has also become coveted real estate for food trucks, given the taprooms’ lack of kitchens. 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 partly repurposed during the pandemic as Serious TakeOut. (Try the smoked turkey sandwich with pimento 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 Midnite Ramen food truck. At Fair Isle, I settled in with a crisp house saison ($6 and $9) and a fine margherita pie from Guerrilla Pizza Kitchen.
One afternoon we headed to Stoup Brewing. Its patio is large, walled with bright-colored shipping containers, and its picnic tables are topped with rough-edged slabs of timber. Stoup is known for brewing hop-forward West Coast I.P.A.s, such as its signature I.P.A., featuring Citra hops, a current star hop of the beer world with its pronounced citrus flavor.
With 20 taps, the roster of beers is always solid, Tan said, reaching for a tray of 5-ounce pours (from $2.50 to $4) before us. He took a sip of Stoup’s Robust Porter and declared it more than solid. “One of the best porters in Seattle,” he said. (The porter has won several awards.)
At Stoup and elsewhere, the clock dictates the clientele. On weekday afternoons, parents often meet up while their children play Jenga and board games. After 5 p.m., techies and office workers stop in for a cold one. On balmy weekends, dogs and their owners frequent the patios, and teams from the ball field around the corner, gather to laugh and rehash the game that had just ended. All of this adds to the sense that something more than beer is being fostered here.
A low-key Oktoberfest
On a sunny Thursday on Reuben’s Brews’ expansive patio, every table was already full by 4:22 p.m., and the waiting list had begun. (It can run to 100 people on a busy evening.) 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 thoughtfully done, and sometimes it’s exceptional, Tan told me. And there’s variety, too: Some two dozen drinks are for sale, from rye beers and a housemade alcoholic seltzer to a cask-conditioned ale collaboration with another local brewer, Machine House Brewery. Reuben’s now has three locations in the neighborhood.
I’d made a reservation at the brewery’s new Barrel House, a nondescript metal building that’s Ballard’s version of a distillery’s rickhouse: cool, quiet, a bit dim, the walls lined with 100 barrels of French oak that previously had held gin, red wine or bourbon, but now would help flavor the beer. The focus is on beers that take time. We ordered an apricot sour, and a barrel-fermented doppelbock in the Czech style. Both were excellent. But the third beer stopped us cold: Called Wormwood Scrubs, it was in the style of an English old ale and was two years in the making, including secondary fermentation in oak casks. “Tastes like a stinky blue cheese,” Tan said. “I love it. Beautifully crafted.” It was the best beer we had tasted all week. We sat in the cool warehouse, trying the big beer and the fig, vanilla and bourbon that it held, in no hurry to head elsewhere.
There’s no need to feel constrained by the borders of the Ballard Brewery District. You can walk off that last beer by heading about one mile west to Cloudburst on Shilshole, the shoe box outpost of Cloudburst Brewing (with ensconced dumpling truck), whose brewery lies near the Pike Place Market. Steve Luke, nominated for a 2020 James Beard Foundation Award, is a wizard, often building higher-alcohol I.P.A.s that don’t have any of the heat or sharp elbows such beers would exhibit in lesser hands.
Cloudburst isn’t the only reason to meander. Dirty Couch Brewing, Rooftop Brewing Company and Figurehead Brewing Company all sit not far beyond the Ballard Bridge to the south. And if your beer pilgrimage has brought you this far, go a bit farther to the cult favorite, Holy Mountain Brewing.
But the brewery district offers plenty of interesting beer and people-watching if you don’t want to wander. One day after lunch I sat 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 to another woman who held a leash attached to a little white bathmat. “Does he lick 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 hollered “Uno!” victoriously at his little sister. Their father looked on, sipping a sour beer the color of ruby grapefruit. Across the street, a van rolled up to Stoup Brewing and unloaded boxes of vegetables. Soon people in the neighborhood would swing by, and probably hoist a pint as they picked up their organic carrots. Before I left, every table around me was full.
This was a community growing, a flower sprouting from a crack in the pavement. This flower was watered by beer, and it was doing great.
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