I recently traveled up to Bellingham, Washington and, together with some fellow craft beer writers, took a tour of the fair city and its burgeoning craft beer scene during the 2nd annual Bellingham Beer Week. Beer Week was truly a success, with a wide range of events, book signings, special tap takeovers, and a great Oktoberfest celebration to cap off my visit. I was treated to a delightful array of breweries, restaurants, and some of the amazing outdoor adventures that Bellingham has to offer. Two special Bellingham Beer Week beers were brewed for the celebration. One was a collaboration between all 3 Bellingham breweries, and the other was brewed by Fremont Brewery in Seattle.
Bellingham is a college town of about 80,000 that’s 90 miles north of Seattle and 20 miles south of the Canadian border. It has 3 existing breweries, 1 new brewery about to open, and various restaurants, bottle shops, and other craft enthusiastic establishments that are helping promote the gospel of good beer. Just how big will craft beer get in Bellingham? Other writers have compared Bellingham to Bend, Oregon, home of Deschutes Brewery and 17 others. Bend is slightly smaller, so by pure numbers alone, Bellingham can most likely handle a few more breweries setting up shop. Having a college in town certainly doesn’t hurt consumption levels. I’ve never been to Bend, but I did see a strong correlation between Asheville, North Carolina and Bellingham. Both cities are extremely close in population size and both have a vibrant outdoor adventure based community that craft beer helps fuel. A thirst for adventure and a thirst for great beer seem to go hand in hand. Look no further than Asheville’s aggressive craft beer expansion in the past few years to get a sense of what could come in Bellingham.
Amazing hiking exists in the area surrounding Bellingham, and a trip to majestic Mt. Baker is only 90 minutes away. This is a town chock full of outdoor adventures but you don’t have to sacrifice good craft beer or excellent food while you’re there. It’s truly the best of both worlds for those seeking community driven craft beer and farm to table food, all within a tranquil and serene outdoor setting.
In part 1 of my coverage, I take a look at some of Bellingham’s seasoned veterans in the craft beer world, and the path they have helped carve out for the newcomers. If you make the trek to Bellingham, these are must visit locations.
Boundary Bay Brewery- Bellingham Pioneers
Boundary Bay Brewery has been been brewing for 16 years, and has won an absurdly high number of awards (seriously, check this list out!) including largest brewpub in the nation. Ed Bennett founded Boundary Bay in 1995, naming it after a waterway just north of Bellingham that is partially in both American and Canadian territory. The bay was a major smuggling point for bootleggers during the Prohibition era who brought spirits to the thirsty masses. As Bellingham’s first craft brewery, the name is fitting, because it is from Boundary Bay’s pioneering spirit that opportunities have opened for other breweries in town.
Mr. Bennett’s passion for his craft shines through in conversation. Ed originally came from the winemaking world. He received his Masters degree in Wine Chemistry, but after graduating he intuitively saw more of an opportunity to open a craft brewery. 16 years later and the brewery is still going strong, producing over 6,000 barrels a year, with a large majority of sales happening directly in the brewpub.
I was lucky enough to be at Boundary Bay during their yearly Oktoberfest celebration. To celebrate, Boundary Bay’s year round outdoor beer garden is transformed into a Bavarian retreat, with festively dressed patrons and servers toasting, and a polka band charming the crowd in the background. A rye cask ale was tapped for the night, freshly hopped with Cascade hops grown right in the beer garden itself!
In a massively IPA world, it’s sometimes hard to remember that some breweries had anything other than an IPA as their flagship beer. When Boundary Bay first started, for many years their most popular beer was Scotch Ale. As the IPA craze has grown, Boundary Bay’s IPA has become the best seller, but Scotch Ale remains a strong second. One of my personal favorites from the day was Traverse Ale, a red IPA that Boundary Bay specifically brewed for a local race. It was a great combination of hoppy and extremely drinkable. One of Boundary Bay’s biggest missions since opening has been giving back to generously to the community that supports them. Boundary Bay is a real example of how craft beer helps establish a tight knit community, one that has allowed other breweries to emerge.
Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen- German Lagers in an IPA World
Chuckanut Brewery is one of Bellingham’s hidden gems. For a Pacific Northwest brewery, Chuckanut certainly bucks the trend. Their flagship beer, a pilsner, has won both bronze and silver medals at the Great American Beer Fest. Last year, The Brewing Network named Chuckanut’s pilsner as their “beer of the year.” Chuckanut brews German style lagers for the most part, employing a high tech, computerized step mashing process, designed by one of their brewers who doubles as a computer engineer. Their brew house is quite easily the most pristine I’ve ever seen. While giving us a tour, their head brewer told us “we have a rule that no beer hits the floor throughout the day.” These guys clearly care about precision and quality. This is a true appreciation of craft.
Will and Mari Kemper, owners of Chuckanut have moved all over the United States, as well as Mexico and Turkey, owning or helping set up different breweries along the way. Their adventures have led to Bellingham, where they set up shop 5 years ago, creating Chuckanut Brewery. Will’s knowledge and education is extensive, and it comes across in the beer that Chuckanut makes. Chuckanut’s Pilsner and Vienna Lager were true standouts during my trip. Subtle and precise like a lager should be, but full of flavor for being so damn sessionable.
After receiving a tour of the brew house, and a sampling of Chuckanut’s delicious lagers, my fellow writers and I were treated to a talk by John Holl, editor for All About Beer magazine, and author of The Great American Craft Beer Cookbook. John discussed the art of pairing food and beer. His recently released cook book features 155 different recipes for cooking with beer, all of which came from different breweries and brewpubs. Chuckanut is featured in the book with a recipe for Rolling Chicken with Beurre Blanc.
The Copper Hog- A Gastronomical Experience
The Copper Hog is a gastropub that crafts food meant to pair perfectly with this writer’s favorite beverage. The tap and food list change quite often, dependent upon seasonal availability. The gastopub has been around for 5 years and manages to find an interesting niche with its food and drink. The food still fits the description of traditional pub fare, but it’s certainly a more creative, experimental, and upscale version of pub classics. Most of The Copper Hog’s food options are locally sourced from area farms. Owner Aaron Matson’s dedication to bringing in quality craft beer, hosting tap takeovers, and establishing good relationships with local breweries have made The Copper Hog a go to spot for locals to get their fill of great food and drink.
In part 2 of my coverage, I’ll examine some of the newer craft beer establishments in town, and what the future might look like for Bellingham’s craft beer scene.