Whatcom County’s craft beer industry has steadily grown in recent years, but production has really taken off in the past 24 months.
Local brewers produced 25,238 barrels of beers last year, according to data from the Washington State Liquor and Canabis Board. That’s nearly double the amount produced in 2014 and up 38.5 percent compared to 2015. A barrel of beer is about 31 gallons.
While the area has seen the arrival of a few small breweries the past two years, much of the production growth has come from Kulshan Brewing and Aslan Brewing, two companies that have jumped into the can market with strong results. Aslan went from 841 barrels in 2014 to 5,531 barrels last year, while Kulshan went from 3,226 barrels to 8,109 barrels in the same period. Kulshan received a big boost in 2015 when its second brewing facility on Kentucky Street came online.
Getting into cans has really pushed beer production up in Whatcom County, said Janet Lightner, general manager of Boundary Bay Brewery. Known for its event cans, Boundary recently took another step into the can market with its Cedar Dust beers, which has also been greeted with strong sales.
“There was a vacuum in canning beer, and they (Kulshan and Aslan) quickly filled it,” Lightner said.
Increased sales of craft beer isn’t just happening in Bellingham. Earlier this week The Brewers Association released a report indicating that by volume, craft breweries represented 12.3 percent of the overall beer industry in 2016. That’s up from 5.7 percent of the market share in 2011.
Lightner believes craft breweries will continue to have more influence in the overall market in the coming years. With Boundary having been in Bellingham for 22 years, she said the brewery wants to continue its slow-and-steady growth plan and is pleased to see how the craft industry has developed in the area.
“There is such a camaraderie with all of the breweries around here that’s still holding together,” Lightner said.
While production growth in Whatcom County has been dramatic, there is still room for growth, said Will Kemper, founder of Chuckanut Brewery. Production at Chuckanut’s Bellingham brewery had been at capacity before the company opened its second facility last fall in Skagit County.
Kemper said two factors are driving the beer production growth in Whatcom County. One is the “buy local” mentality the area is known for bodes well for brewery start-ups looking for a receptive customer base. That mentality also gives existing breweries license to try out a new styles.
The other factor is that the area has a knowledgeable customer base that values quality beer, Kemper said. Like many food products, beer is a a fragile commodity, so local products give it a better chance of being fresh.
Those factors mean there is even more room to grow.
“Where does it go from here? For Bellingham, much further is possible,” Kemper said.
Many of the local operators agree the past two years was a growth spurt and expect the rise in the next few years to be less dramatic. Many expect to see more small, neighborhood breweries pop up that become local gather places, much like a corner coffee shop.
“I think there could be 20 breweries in Bellingham,” said Jack Lamb of Aslan Brewing. That would be double the current Bellingham total of 10. “I can see a situation where there’s an A Street Brewery near a B Street Brewery, with each reflecting that particular neighborhood.”
It’s a trend that’s already started, said Jordan Sly, operations manager at Kulshan Brewing, noting the recent arrivals of Menace Brewing near the Columbia neighborhood and Stones Throw Brewery in Fairhaven.
The other trend Lightner is pleased to see is the increasing number of women involved in the brewing aspect of the business.
“Brewing beer is more of an art, and it so cool to have more of a woman’s influence in it,” she said.
ENJOYING THE CAN SURGE
For Kulshan and Aslan, the popularity of the can products has meant more planning to ensure they don’t hurt draft sales. It’s the beer served to customers at the breweries that made the two companies successful.
Aslan wants to stay with only three regular can labels and the occasional seasonal beer in order to keep 8-12 different styles on tap at its brewery restaurant, Lamb said. That allows the brewery to stay creative, he said.
“We experiment every day in the restaurant,” Lamb said. “If it is worthy, then we will put it into cans.”
Even though they saw the potential for the cans, which are now in many of the grocery stores in this area, Sly said it’s come together very quickly.
“The last two years have been a whirlwind,” Sly said.