On my calendar I circle 10 days in September for two reasons. One, it’s Bellingham Beer Week and, two, that’s my cue to take a look back at how far the local beer scene has come in the past year. We’ve grown. A lot.
Since last fall, four local breweries have opened their doors: Atwood, Gruff, Stones Throw and Structures – with a handful of others on the horizon. Meanwhile our existing brewers produce more beer than ever, and more interesting beer than ever: barrel-aged ales, kettle sours, beers brewed with local raspberries or blackberries, and so forth.
For the past few years all of the head local brewers have come together to make a collaboration brew for beer week. This time around, we didn’t get something from the full coalition. But we got consolation prizes in the form of a few new brews made with local ingredients: a Kölsch conditioned on local blackberries from Aslan; a raspberry lager crafted in tandem by Kulshan and Wander; and a blonde from Chuckanut made with malt from Skagit Valley Malting. So I tried those three, and here are my thoughts.
Aslan Black Gold (Blackberry Kölsch). What an enigma. Brewed especially for beer week with traditional hops – Czech Saaz, Sterling – the base is a 4.4 percent alcohol Kölsch. This feels so distant from traditional Kölsch, it’s hardly relevant. (Goose Island and a few other breweries around the nation make this exact style, with blackberries, but I’d never had one.)
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Aslan says it uses 200 pounds of local berries, though in a blind test you might notice esters closer to banana or even strawberry, before you figure out the correct fruit. So the two advertised parts are nothing like the finished whole.
Yet, somehow, it still came out pretty good: two parts sweet to one part acid, with a cloudy opaque pinkish pour that looks like a guava daiquiri, or a grapefruit radler. Pink-white head recedes to a dusting, then lingers on for a while. If it has one fault it’s that some of the stronger flavors, especially the fruit, could pop out even more.
But it’s got the blueprint for a juicy keeper, and I’d say it’s worth a try as more than just a novelty. B-
Kulshan, Wander Raspberry Lager. Raspberries rarely find their way into a lager, but cracking a 12-ounce can here doesn’t feel like much of a gamble, if beer with raspberries is your jam.
Lager can mean a lot of things, most of them German words like dunkel, helles, eisbock, etc.– but you trust this will be light, to complement the fruit. In the glass it’s deep clear purplish red, with a finger of pinkish purple-white head, while even just eyeballing it reveals its thin viscosity.
Aroma of acidic honey-raspberry makes the first impression, followed by a sweet flavor of raspberry candy that seems to rise in intensity before giving way to a distinct lager finish. Often I caught something in the malt on the back end, a kind of soft metallic buzz that seemed slightly out of place. This specific lager finish distracted more than it helped.
Any subtleties lurking in the base beer are masked by fruit, and I’m not sure that’s a mark for or against, but it did leave me wondering: Would this have been better as a light ale, or with a stronger backbone, or some tweak one way or another? Maybe not. Maybe this was the best way to complement the 1,200 pounds of local raspberries in this beer.
In the end the style’s intriguing enough that I watched it fly off the shelves at Kulshan and Elizabeth Station. Bottom line, it’s refreshing, inventive and easy to knock back a couple at 3.5 percent alcohol. If that’s the bar we’re aiming for, it passes easily. B
Chuckanut Skagit Blonde. This thin-gold ale pours with standard white head and a look that’s, huh, come to think of it, pretty much like Rainier. Except it’s an ale, and it’s not quite the beer equivalent of a one-size-fits-all T-shirt. But really, when it comes down to it, how big of a gap is it to the average beer drinker? How often have we overheard someone say, “Yep, tastes like beer.”
Its best trait is an overall feeling of freshness, and perhaps that has something to do with how 100 percent of the malt comes from Skagit County. Aroma and flavor are nuanced and understated, and frankly it’s hard to pick apart how much, if anything, the local malt really adds without a side-by-side comparison.
On the back end you catch the drift of Sterling and Hallertau hops, a minimalist dash of herb and spice. There’s really nothing wrong with this 4.5 percent alcohol ale, except that it didn’t hold my attention for long. Chuckanut has so many crisp, accessible, drinkable beers that are, to me, more flavorful and compelling.
After trying this blonde a few times, I couldn’t find a reason to recommend it over the (world class) Pilsner or Kölsch or Helles – such are the difficulties of having a stacked lineup. C+
In other brews …
▪ Check your nearest Cascadia Weekly for a booklet of events for what remains of beer week. Or visit BellinghamBeerWeek.com.
Aslan Brewing has a planned release date of Friday, Sept. 16, for something called 10,000 Battle Axes, two versions of the same beer aged in rye whiskey and red wine barrels. In the meantime give Aslan’s explosive fresh-hop Centennial IPA a shot.
Celebrate Boundary Bay’s 21st birthday at an all-ages block party from 4 to 10 p.m. Friday. Also, Boundary will have two beer gardens Saturday by the finish line of the Bellingham Traverse, a relay race following the life cycle of the wild salmon.
Check out Barleywood Squares over at the Copper Hog, a panel game with local craft beer celebrities.
Each year Fremont Brewing, from Seattle, makes something special for Bellingham’s beer week, and this year it’s a creamy low-bitterness ale in the style of the New England IPA. (Distribution started just a little too late for a review in this column.)
Gruff Brewing, our newest brewery, has about a dozen beers on tap already at their new home at 104 E. Maple St.
Kulshan Brewing will host a craft market at their K-2 beer colony on Sunday, Sept. 18.
North Fork’s spontaneously fermented sour, DooLittle, got very high marks from the Bellingham Tap Trail’s discerning new beer reviewer.
Structures puts out and discontinues beer so fast I can’t ever keep up, but as I write this, they have a doubly dry-hopped pale ale called Fuzz Words that uses an experimental South African hop, and it’s their official beer of Bellingham Beer Week.
Stones Throw released a dry-hopped pale ale, Fairhaven Park TrAle, with each pint purchase contributing to Recreation Northwest’s project for a wetland boardwalk in Fairhaven Park.
Just in time for beer week, Wander Brewing has two new beers to bring home: bottles of Foeder WƎN, an aged red farmhouse ale with elderberries, and cans of a Citra-hopped double IPA called Googly Eyes.
Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, firstname.lastname@example.org.