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 — governed by pandemic protocols, of course. 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 3 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 tap houses 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 Co., 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 1 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 Maritime Pacific Brewing Co. and Hale’s Ales, which began brewing in 1983. The neighborhood really got rolling in 2012 after Adam and Grace Robbings opened Reuben’s Brews among the salvage yards and body shops.
The couple 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 Robbingses, 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.
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, ‘wild’ beer
The Pacific Northwest is famous for its big, hoppy beers, fitting for a region that grows about 95% 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 barstool.
Next, we walked about four blocks 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 IPAs, Fair Isle’s website declares, “We brew saisons and farmhouse ales … and that’s it.” These “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 the 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 IPAs, such as its signature IPA, 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 ballfield around the corner gather to laugh and rehash the game that 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 a mile west to Cloudburst on Shilshole, the shoebox 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 IPAs 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 Co. and Figurehead Brewing Co. 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.