By Kendall Jones
By its most simple definition, craft beer is the good stuff. It is more of an artistic endeavor and less of an industrial process. Craft beers are produced by privately owned breweries that are miniscule in comparison to the big, national brands. Although somewhat dated, microbrewery and microbrew are still acceptable terms, but craft is more common in today’s beer vernacular.
Over the past 30 years, a change has been brewing in America. In 1983, there were less than 100 breweries in the entire country. Most of them produced big beer — the brands you recognize from TV commercials. Today, the United States boasts more than 2,500 breweries and virtually all of them produce craft beer. It is still something of a novelty in most parts of the country, but in the Northwest we’ve been drinking it for a long time and craft beer is big business.
Did you know that you live in one of the best beer regions on earth? According to the Brewers Association, the national organization that tracks this kind of stuff, about 25 percent of the beer consumed in the greater Seattle-Tacoma area is craft beer, about four times the national average. Portland is the only market that consumes a higher percentage of craft beer, about 30 percent. Those numbers are remarkable; most metropolitan areas in America struggle to consume 8 or 10 percent craft beer. Brewers and retailers work hard to satiate our appetite.
Portland alone is home to 51 breweries, more than any other city on earth. Washington currently has nearly 200 breweries, more than any state but California. In 2006, the state Legislature formed the Washington Beer Commission and tasked it with the duty of promoting Washington beer. It is the first and only commodity commission of its kind in the United States. According to the National Beer Wholesalers Association, the Washington and Oregon beer industries provide nearly 40,000 jobs.
Those are the beery facts, but many inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest are still unaware that they live in one of the world’s great beer regions.
What is it about the Northwest that inspires us to create and consume so much craft beer? Is it something in the water that gives us a refined sense of taste and a greater appreciation of life’s rich pleasures? Probably not, but something about life in the Northwest makes us appreciate things like a $4 cup of coffee, grass-fed beef, and handcrafted artisan cheese. For whatever reason, we value quality and reward creativity more than many other parts of the country. Our penchant for craft beer is just one more expression of our Cascadian sensibilities.
Ground Zero for the Craft Beer Revolution
Our fondness for good beer was born about 30 years ago. After a long career working in big breweries on the other side of the country, Burt Grant moved to Yakima in 1981 to build his own brewery: Grant’s Brewery Pub — the first brewpub to open in America since Prohibition. At roughly the same time, Redhook Ale Brewery opened in Seattle. Hale’s Ales (then in Colville), Columbia River Brewing (Portland), Hart Brewing (Kalama), and other breweries soon followed suit.
At a time when you could count the number of American craft breweries on your fingers and toes, a handful of them were in the Pacific Northwest. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Washington and Oregon enjoyed a reputation as the undisputed hotbed of craft beer. Other regions, like Colorado and Northern California, soon earned their own reputations. By the mid-’90s, it was clear that craft beer was not a fad and the tide would continue to rise.
Our Visceral Connection to Hops
It was no accident that Burt Grant opened his brewery in Yakima: he wanted to be close to the hops. Each year, the Yakima Valley produces roughly 75 percent of the nation’s hop crop. The other 25 percent comes from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The amount of hops produced in other regions is inconsequential. The total value of the crop ranges from $100 million to $300 million annually ($155 million in 2012).
The most beloved beer style in the Northwest is India Pale Ale (IPA) — a style primarily characterized by its bold hop character. Many local beer lovers judge a brewery by the quality of its IPA. Truth is, hoppy beers are popular everywhere in America, but our connection to hops is visceral. Hops are a northwest tradition that dates back more than 100 years and many of Yakima’s producers are now fourth- and fifth-generation hop farmers.
Don’t Call Me Small
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the local beer scene these days is the variation in brewery size. At one end of the spectrum are the large breweries like Redhook and Pyramid, which produce hundreds of thousands of barrels per year. At the other end of the spectrum are diminutive operations referred to as nano-breweries. By definition, a nano-brewery produces less than three barrels of beer (six kegs) at a time and no more than a couple hundred barrels per year. This type of brewery is a new phenomenon, having appeared on the scene just five or six years ago.
These pocket-size breweries operate out of backyard sheds, garages and small rental units in business parks. Often, a nano-brewery’s beer is available at just one or two locations. They lack the economy of scale needed to be profitable, but that’s not the point. They are part-time businesses, often a first step towards becoming a larger brewery that actually can provide full-time income.
The inspiration behind most nano-breweries is a sincere desire to create and share beer. Small-scale production allows plenty of room for experimentation and creativity. In that regard, nano-breweries are perhaps the best expression of what the Northwest loves about beer.
Local Craft Breweries to Try
1. 7 Seas Brewery
This Gig Harbor-based brewery is all about the can, offering six regular brews and a variety of seasonal beers.
2. Wingman Brewers
Experimental taproom-exclusive brews are just one draw to this Tacoma brewery with five house-made beers on tap.
3. Tacoma Brewing Co.
This 2-year-old brewery is known for both its beers and hard ginger ales. Check out the taproom in Downtown Tacoma.
4. The Harmon Brewery
You can find one of five permanent selections and five seasonal beers at Harmon Brewery and Eatery, The Hub or The Taproom, its two sister establishments.
5. Engine House No. 9
This Tacoma favorite makes its home in a more than 100-year-old firehouse off Sixth Avenue. The pub features dozens of local beers on tap, but pay special attention to its own varieties, like the Tacoma Brew, all brewed in-house.
6. Narrows Brewing Company
This new brewery in Tacoma is making waves with locals with fun events like trivia nights on Tuesdays, beer dinners with local restaurants and more. Enjoy six craft beers at the taproom.
7. Puyallup River Brewing
Pair one of more than 20 craft beers on tap (13 of which are brewed in-house) with a gourmet Chicago-style hot dog.
8. Airways Brewing Co.
Grab one of many award-winning beers and a hand-tossed pizza at the Bistro location or check out a tour of the original Kent brewery/taproom.
Its remodeled Forecaster’s Pub is just another draw to this large-scale craft brewery in Woodinville. Don’t miss the tour — for $5 you get a behind-the-scenes look, tastes and a pint glass to take home.
Triplehorn Brewing Co. currently offers seven bold beers, including the N3M3Sis Nitro Milk Stout (“8.5 percent ABV for the long voyage”).
11. Hi-Fi Brewing
With eight brews in its lineup, this newer brewery has quickly become a Redmond favorite. The brewery even has a “Listener Request Line” where you can tell the brewers what you’d like to drink.
12. Mac & Jack’s
This brewery’s African Amber is a popular ale found on taps at many pubs and restaurants throughout the state. While there is no place on-site to sit and enjoy the beer, tours and a retail store are available.
Brewing Company Enjoy a variety of flagship, seasonal and brewer series beers at this Bellevue favorite.
Photos courtesy “A refreshing beer on the porch,” © 2011 Chris Waits, used under a creative commons attribution license; Hi-Fi Breweries; Last two photos by Jeff Hobson.