In a lot of ways, the North Fork Brewery is an outlier.
On a map it's halfway between Bellingham and the Mount Baker Ski Area. Meanwhile, the beer exists in some nostalgic, uncanny valley between the Pacific Northwest and Great Britain, and it's not quite like anything else.
Those poor, unfortunate souls who haven't ventured up Mount Baker Highway don't know North Fork churns out some of the best British-style ales in the region. And after a day, or a few days, of exploring the immaculate Nooksack crest, it's near impossible to turn down North Fork's beer and pizza on the road back to civilization.
Thanks to open fermentation, small batches and just a general outlook on the craft, the ales can be a little rough around the edges. Yet all of the classics - a gorgeously creamy porter, an understated ESB, and a flowery India pale ale - succeed in part because they're not trying to be perfect. This time on an impulsive trip to the brewery, a few miles past Deming, I tried some intriguing trial-run brews that were new to me.
Black Lager. A good black lager, like this one, is the best of both worlds: crisp, yet rich with caramel- and roasted-malt flavor. This deep, dark lager doesn't sacrifice one end of the spectrum for the other. It's as opaque as a stout in the center, with reddish brown around the edges, and a faint, barely-there head that lingers patiently. Notice some slight nuttiness, and how surprisingly refreshing a beer so dark can be. Nothing about this lager says backwoods; it's a well-made Schwarzbier by any standard. Right now, on the beer menu, it's scribbled in by hand. I wouldn't mind seeing it stick around. A-
Mysterion Pale Ale. Brighter and peppier than North Fork's standard light-bodied ale, a Lighter Shade of Pale, the Mysterion's crisp, balanced, luminous-orange body makes it a fine summer beer. Aroma and flavor of spices come from the namesake Styrian hop, an Austrian-Slovenian variety you don't see around here too often. Almost by definition, a good pale ale won't blow you away. The best pales manage to be simple and tasteful - but not boring. This beer's simple, but kind of quirky, in a good way. Overall it's a strong, original effort: hardly bitter, but full of flavor. B+
Sour Porter. Sour beers tend to polarize beer people, and to be honest, I'm wary of the novelty. North Fork's regular porter - a rich, dark, cream-engulfed masterpiece - has only one flaw in my book: not being on tap often enough. But that local classic bears little resemblance to the sour porter. Here, aging the beer in a bourbon barrel imparts a strong whiskey overtone. (Because of the extra labor, it's served in a 10-ounce glass, and costs a buck more than a regular pint.) You might convince yourself that, somewhere in there, you taste flavors suggestive of black cherry, or red vermouth. But sourness overpowers the subtleties. So if whiskey sours are your thing, ignore my grade, because odds are you'll love this beer. Otherwise, there's a much better dessert drink on the menu that's more rewarding, and basically just as adventurous. (The barleywine.) C-
IN OTHER BREWS
-- Speaking of sour beers, Elizabeth Station, curator of the most diverse craft brews in town, will host a small festival for the style Sept. 20, with a bouquet of rare and hard-to-find kegs on tap, as part of a larger weeklong celebration of the Bellingham beer scene. In general, Elizabeth Station does a great job of keeping people posted on what's new and what's on tap at 1400 W. Holly St. So like them on Facebook.
-- What's that? You want to hear more about this weeklong celebration of Bellingham beer? Sorry, I'm too busy daydreaming about Bellingham Beer Week. All five of Bellingham's up-and-running breweries - Aslan, Boundary Bay, Chuckanut, Kulshan and Wander - should be well represented, alongside regional and world-class brewers. So circle the week-plus-a-weekend of Sept. 12 to 21 on your calendar. And of course, check bellinghambeerweek.com for the busy list of tastings, film screenings and showcases. It's bound to be, uh, hopping.
First Draught runs monthly in Take Five. Disagree with the reviews? Got a beer we should know about? Send news and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call 360-715-2276.