A good beer is hard to find.
But great beer, brewed locally? Whatcom County should count its blessings. And with three well-established breweries and a fourth brewery just opened, we can.
They're run by connoisseurs of the draught craft who have earned the title "head brewer."
THE NORTH FORK BREWERY & BEER SHRINE
In December 1997, Sandy Savage ignored his real estate agent's advice and bought a rustic pizza joint on Mount Baker Highway, a few miles from the fork in the Nooksack River.
Brewpubs were sprouting up across the country, and Savage knew he'd found his calling.
Make beer, he told himself, make beer.
"All the sparkles lit up in my eyes," he says, leaning over the bar.
Nowadays, if you ask Savage how the beer industry is going, you'll get a one-word drawl of an answer.
For beer lovers, The North Fork Brewery & Beer Shrine is hallowed ground. The shrine is a collection of dozens of old beer bottles, relics dating back to the early 20th century. And Savage's wife, Vicki, has officiated at least 100 marriages by the brewery's stained-glass window.
Step through a partly hidden door into the brewery and it would be easy to mistake it for someone's garage. Maybe that's because Savage and his wife lived upstairs for about a decade.
It's quiet enough for voices to echo off the cold concrete floor. An old mash tun sits littered with bumper stickers. Solar power keeps the place warm enough, or cool enough, depending on the season.
The brewery is a small, delicate operation, with a couple of 109-gallon batches brewing at any given time. That means the beer gets all the attention it needs.
"You're not going to find too many smaller than this," Savage says, "so they're all babied."
The brewery's specialty, and Savage's passion, is English ale. The style is traditional: open fermentation, no conical bottoms on the tanks, and a lot of heavy lifting.
"I wanted it to be like this," Savage says. "There's extra labor, racking it twice, three times. I wanted an English beer."
These days his former apprentice, Eric Jorgensen, does just about all of the grunt work in the brewing process. Jorgensen, who has more than a decade of professional experience as a brewer at North Fork, pitches new recipe ideas to Savage, who will give him an honest assessment before inevitably saying, "Sure, go ahead."
Call Jorgensen the head brewer, or call Savage the head brewer - it doesn't matter. But the beer matters, and so does the food and the atmosphere.
"We sell a good, intimate time," Savage says, taking sips from a glass of Extra Special Bitter. "Look around. You got loggers sitting next to hippies."
The not-so-secret ingredient in just about everything on the menu is - what else? - beer.
The French onion soup uses stout, discloses Jorgensen, who has probably worked every job in the building. The clam steamers use Extra Special Bitter, because it has the least offensive hoppy-ness. In the pizza dough, it doesn't really matter what you use.
As long as it's beer.
Brewer's pick: Extra Special Bitter. It has a subtle bitterness; best to drink it fresh at the brewery.
When it's on tap: Try the porter. It's creamy, with notes of chocolate and coffee, and a thick, smooth head.
Fun fact: The brewery makes a couple of barley wines. They're aged six to nine months and carry such monikers as Son of Frog and Spotted Owl.
Where it's sold: Poured fresh at the brewery, with to-go growlers available. North Fork beer is a rare find outside of the brewery, but it's sometimes on tap at select Bellingham bars: Uisce Irish Pub and Redlight Wine Bar, for example. Owner Sandy Savage is toying with the idea of bottling the barley wines.
Location: 6186 Mount Baker Highway, north of Deming.
Phone: 360-599-BEER (599-2337).
CHUCKANUT BREWERY & KITCHEN
There's no firehouse rush at Will Kemper's brewery.
With a calm mouse click, a valve opens - shhhthnk - then slams shut.
Computers, Kemper explains. These days he wouldn't brew without one.
From his desk or his smartphone, Kemper can raise or lower the temperature of the tanks one-tenth of a degree. That's the level of control the head brewer has at Chuckanut Brewery, Kemper says, because it makes better beer.
Slowly, he repeats: "Makes. Better. Beer."
If it wasn't for the long row of fermentation tanks, the whirring hum of Kemper's gadgets might convince you it's a laboratory. Then again, it kind of is.
Chuckanut's strong suit is nuance. Some breweries might try to overpower you with flavor. In the beer culture of the Pacific Northwest, bizarre is the new normal.
"We went from blandness being the norm to a situation where you have to be off-the-wall," Kemper says. "You have to be extreme. You have to be almost undrinkable."
So Kemper is doing something truly bizarre: He's following Old World traditions to offer Old World beers in a market saturated with black IPAs, swampy red ales and other novelties.
"Why do we do that, as opposed to being like everybody else?" Kemper asks. "Well, the answer is almost inherent in the question."
For American craft brewers, European lagers remain largely unexplored territory. But Kemper has been treading new ground since the '80s as one of the pioneers of the scene. He started out making American-style ales before he spent years traveling the world, studying beer and helping to build brewpubs in Mexico and Turkey.
You might recognize Kemper's name from another branch of the beverage industry: He's one half of the duo that came up with Thomas Kemper Root Beer more than two decades ago. But deep down, for Kemper, it has always been beer first, soda second.
"My heart doesn't lie in making soft drinks, to put it bluntly," he says.
That's good news for beer lovers, because Chuckanut's brews have earned a Michael Phelps-like collection of medals since opening four years ago. The brewery itself has won the Great American Beer Festival award for Small Brewing Company of the Year twice, in 2009 and 2011. The awards helped the brewery to expand with five new 20-barrel fermenters this year.
Every step in the process is an exercise in quality, from Kemper's closely monitored vat of purified water to his authentic European yeast strains. It takes a few dozen steps, and only the best ingredients, to make a nuanced brew.
"Just because you have something bizarre and extreme, that isn't necessarily positive," Kemper says. "We want to present beers where the focus is on desirable flavors, and minimize undesirable flavors."
Brewer's pick: Helles (from German for "bright") was Munich's answer to the Czech pilsner. It's a pale lager, light in color.
If not the Helles: Try the Kölsch. "I don't know if you can find a better one literally in the world," Kemper says. "It has never gotten anything less than a gold medal. So it's a good beer."
Fun fact: About 75 percent of Chuckanut's beer is sent to the Seattle area. Right now it's shipped in kegs, but owner Will Kemper plans to start a bottling line in the near future.
Where it's sold: Poured fresh at the brewery, with to-go growlers available. Also sold in bars, restaurants and grocery stores throughout Western Washington. For a full list of vendors, visit Chuckanut's website.
Location: 601 W. Holly St., Bellingham.
BOUNDARY BAY BREWERY & BISTRO
It's simple, really, says Aaron Jacob Smith as he shuffles to a seat in the bar. It's like making a giant fermentable soup.
Soak grain in hot water for this long, add this many hops, cool it down and sprinkle in some yeast. Then wait a couple of weeks.
As any soup maker knows, each recipe leaves room for creativity. And in the craft-brewing world, pushing boundaries has always been the thing to do.
But Smith, head brewer at Boundary Bay Brewery, is happy to leave the recipe for his IPA alone. With help from the brain trust at Boundary Bay, Smith micro-engineered the ale into a bold, hop-heavy award-winner.
The IPA had been tweaked a few times in the brewpub's 17-year history, but one day, Smith says, there was nothing left to change.
It was his hoppy, bitter baby; and at Boundary Bay, bitter is a crowd-pleaser.
"There was a kind of paradigm shift in the lupulin threshold of people's palates," he says. (Humulus lupulus is the technical name for hops.) "I think that as you evolve in your beer drinking, you acclimate to being able to appreciate bitter more."
Smith learned to brew the old-fashioned way: hiding his brewing tools in his closet and tinkering with malt and hops until something worked.
He got his first job at Boundary Bay through fate, or luck, or whatever you want to call it. He was enjoying a beer at the bar - over there, he says, pointing to a barstool behind him - and someone told him the kitchen was short a dishwasher.
"So I dumped out my beer and put on an apron," Smith says.
From there he worked his way up. After a few years, and a symposium of lessons from the two head brewers who preceded him, Smith's beers were on the menu.
Being head brewer at the nation's largest brewpub is a pretty sweet job, for sure. It's also sweaty, messy, and a lot of work for a hands-on guy like Smith.
"There's this misperception that I sit around drinking beer all day, dreaming up recipes," he says. "But it's, like, 90 percent cleaning."
And there's more work on tap: Boundary Bay will soon add three new fermentation tanks as the brewpub expands next door.
The brewery rotates its tap with a slew of sturdy brews. Every so often the bartenders pour something new, like the beer Smith came up with to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair.
But it's a safe bet you'll see plenty of locals ordering the old standbys, like the Oatmeal Stout and the Blonde Ale.
Brewer's pick: IPA. Yakima hops galore.
When it's on tap: Go with whatever's seasonal. In March, the brewery released an Irish Red Ale that paired well with Bellingham's St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Fun fact: To qualify as the nation's largest brewpub, Boundary Bay must sell at least 25 percent of its beers onsite.
Where it's sold: Poured fresh at the brewery, with to-go growlers available. Big 22-ounce bottles sold at the brewery, grocery stores around the state and at Pickford Film Center. Check Boundary Bay's website to see what's available in bottles.
Location: 1107 Railroad Ave., Bellingham.
KULSHAN BREWING CO
In seven months, David Vitt built his brewery from the ground up.
"This metal came off of my neighbor's barn," he says, tapping his foot on a sheet of metal beneath the bar. "There's a lot of good energy in this building."
The menu at Kulshan Brewing Co. is simple: no food, just four classic staples on tap and two rotating special brews. The food carts stationed outside the brewery rotate, too, depending on the day.
So far the simple menu has worked: It didn't take long for Kulshan to catch on, proving there might just be room for another brewery in Bellingham.
Within a week of opening April 2, Vitt had beers on tap at a dozen businesses, from The Copper Hog in Bellingham to Port Townsend's Pourhouse, and Bellingham chefs were using his American Wheat Ale to grill salmon.
Vitt spent about six years with Fish Brewing Co., in Olympia, before returning to his roots in Bellingham to start Kulshan. He made his first homebrews on his back porch, when he lived on Humboldt Street years ago.
"We're obviously the new kid on the block," he says. "I'm a pretty modest person when it comes to beer. I'm not looking to win any awards. If people like the beer, that's all that matters."
Brewer's pick: Pale Ale. A versatile, drinkable beer that's good any time of the year. "It's my above-and-beyond favorite," says founder David Vitt.
Location: 2238 James St., Bellingham.
Where it's sold: Poured fresh at the brewery, with to-go growlers available. On tap at select bars, restaurants and taphouses in Whatcom, Skagit and Jefferson counties.
Malt: Mashed grains. Aside from water, this is the main ingredient in beer.
Hops: A flowering vine that adds bitterness and flavor to beer.
Mash tun: A vessel used to mash up grain, one of the first steps in the brewing process.
Wort: A heated mix of malt and water. Sugars from the wort turn into alcohol during fermentation.
Ale versus lager: One big difference is in the yeast strain. Lagers also brew at a slower pace and cooler temperatures. Generally, ales are fruitier; lagers are maltier.
IPA: India Pale Ale. A hoppy style of beer with English roots. Popular at all four Whatcom County breweries.
Reach CALEB HUTTON at email@example.com or call 715-2276.