Three to See in Bellingham
Bellingham, Washington was until recently way behind the times on beer. The city has had a few breweries over the years, but only Boundary Bay (est. 1995) managed to survive. The city would go 14 long years before getting a second permanent fixture, medal-laden, lager-centric Chuckanut, which opened in 2008. Speaking yesterday to Will and Mari Kemper, I learned that many Bellinghamsters thought that was one too many, too. Old-timers chafed at this new interloper, and the early years were touch-and-go for Chuckanut, even as it was racking up best-brewery awards (two of its first four years) at the GABF.
Sometime in the early teens, the tide turned. Bellingham now has 13 breweries, with at least one (Twin Sisters) scheduled to open in weeks. What’s really remarkable is how accomplished the new breweries are. I know this is a pattern we’ve seen replicated in city after city across the country, but it still startles me to see it firsthand. It may have been a beer desert as recently as five years ago, but now it teems with great breweries.
I was in town to speak at Chuckanut and Visit Bellingham paid for me, John Holl, and Tyra Sutak to come and stay in town during Bellingham Beer Week. I made good use of my time; in the two and a half days I was here, I managed to make it to make it to (I think) eleven of the city’s breweries. If John and Tyra write about their three favorites, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the names Kulshan, Wander, or Menace make their lists—all are great breweries. But in the interest of focus, I’d like to mention three breweries that alone should entice you up here. This is about the furthest point you can go north and west in the lower 48 (Bellingham is actually north of Victoria BC and twice as close to Vancouver than Seattle), so you have to want to get here—and I think these breweries could convince you to come.
It’s a little ironic that Will and Mari were treated like impertinent upstarts when they opened Chuckanut’s doors a decade ago. More than anyone working today, they can lay claim to be the OGs of Washington brewing. Co-founders of Thomas Kemper, their history dates back to 1986 and the founding days of craft brewing. Then as now, Will was attracted to the clean simplicity of well-made lagers. But unlike the first time around, Chuckanut is Will and Mari’s alone, and represents an undiluted sense of their vision.
Chuckanut has won about every award there is to win, and their mostly-German taplist is a master’s course in elegance through simplicity. Their brewing tree includes some of the more accomplished figures working today—folks like Josh Pfriem and Wayfinder’s Kevin Davey, and those folks are collecting their own caches of awards. Chuckanut’s beers are absolutely faithful to tradition and are so good not because they express “innovation” but because they demonstrate the mastery that comes from honing a craft over a lifetime. On my first visit I ticked off the classics: helles, kolsch, dunkel, marzen, pilsner. It was like a visit to Germany.
One anecdote expresses why I admire these beers so much. John and I arrived early before his speech to eat with Will and Mari and I ordered the helles. It’s a classic example, the kind built for consumption by the liter. As I was admiring it, Will said no, that batch wasn’t quite on the money. To his palate it was slightly under-attenuated, which made it fuller and sweeter than he wanted. The quality of perfect drinkability he aimed for wasn’t quite there. Of course, to my coarser palate, it seemed just fine and I wouldn’t have had any trouble putting back a couple liters. But this is the thing; a good helles and a great one are separated by the barest degree. People who have mastered the art know that distance, and it gapes in front of them like a chasm.
If you go to Bellingham, you must start at Chuckanut. The Kempers’ commitment to quality has affected the city’s breweries. The young guns hold Chuckanut’s beers as a benchmark. This is the power of an anchor brewery—it places the bar high for those who come after. I heard a lot of young brewers express admiration for this brewery, and I think the rapid ascent of quality in Bellingham is owed to the standard Chuckanut set.
The next brewery on my recommended list actually reminded me of 80s era pioneers in some ways. It is a bare bones DIY set-up with a mash tun fashioned from dairy equipment. It allows for single-infusion mashing only, and doesn’t give the brewers much flexibility. In other ways, though, Structures is very much a modern brewery conceived by and aimed squarely at younger people.
The brewery’s best-selling beers are hazy IPAs with names like Fuzz and Juice on Juice. (The latter is a limited release beer that is very popular on the secondary and trade markets, I’m told.) I have no doubt that the founders are big fans of these beers, but their hearts lie with barrel-aged saisons and Berliner weisses. The IPAs pay the bills so the brewers can pamper the ales slowly evolving in wine barrels and puncheons in the next room.
And man, are they good. The Berliner weisse is made through a slightly unorthodox process, but the goal is still a 3.5% tart ale made fruity and complex by wild yeast. The beer that knocked me out, though, was called Isolation. It’s one of their barrel-aged saisons, a 70% blend of steel-aged saccharomyces-only ale (they use the Dupont strain) with 30% blended from their brettanomyces-inoculated barrels. The base beers are made with pilsner malt, wheat, and spelt, and the beer is almost milky pale (it’s easy to see how wheat beers in Belgium and Germany came to be called “white beers”). It is an amazingly elegant beer, with a Pinot gris-like balance between delicate acidity and pastel stone fruit esters. John tasted his glass first and let out a gasp of surprise, which pretty well captures my experience. I bought a bottle to compare the keg-conditioned and bottle-conditioned versions. The latter was a bit drier, which made those esters a more vivid, but it was otherwise similar. That’s the beer people should be trading for.
The final brewery on the list has a similar mainstream-appeal-to-support-niche-beers strategy Structures embraces. The main brewpub is big and airy, and there are a slate of popular and approachable beers. Aslan has grown rapidly in its four years and has a big, pretty new brewhouse to fill lots of cans and pint glasses of lager and IPA.
But around the corner from the brewpub is a cozy space that embodies the passion projects that really get the founders excited. It’s called the Aslan Depot, the meaning of which is not immediately obvious when you walk in. It looks and feels like a cross between a speakeasy and 30s era gentlemen’s cigar club. (The building was originally a streetcar and bus depot.) Along one wall are dozens of barrels of aging beer, a big bar looms back near the wall, and overstuffed leather couches create a comfy parlor near the windows. The entire time I was there I wished I had a maduro smoldering between my fingers.
But the drinking space is there to coax people to drink beers like Justice Temple, a wild saison in the Structures mode. Brewer Frank Trosset is a huge fan of Belgian beer and had just returned from a week abroad. He and co-founder Jack Lamb took me down to the basement to show me the hoard of Cantillons and Drie Fonteinens he’d brought home. Inspired by those beers, Aslan is working with Northwest terroir, and the Justice Temple was made with yeast swabbed from a Yakima peach. They have big plans to continue working with native microorganisms and this project is only getting started.
Bellingham is a wonderful little city, and I wish I’d had more than a few days to experience it. Until the last few years, most of the tourist flow was made up of people looking to hike the hills and dales outside of town. I’d like to return and experience some of that. But now it also makes a worthy beer destination, one nipping at Seattle’s heels.