Restaurant News & Reviews

First Draught: Bellingham Beer Week filled to the brim with stuff to do, drink

If the projections hold steady, Bellingham should have roughly three breweries-per-person by the year 2054.

There are a lot of weeks between now and then, and in the meantime Bellingham Beer Week, a week-and-a-half-long celebration of local craft beer, might be as close as we come to taking the leap into that brave new world.

Now in its third year, Bellingham Beer Week has flourished, like a microcosm of the city’s rapidly growing microbrew scene. Sixty-plus events are on the agenda for Sept. 12 to 21: special releases of beers brewed for the festival, beer-and-food pairing dinners, a cooking-with-beer demo, a homebrew demo, a beer trivia night, brewery tours, a fun run (with beer at the finish line) and, of course, a host of tap takeovers by great regional and national breweries.

Much of the credit for the filled-to-the-brim bill should go to Aubrey Laurence, a beer enthusiast who puts in enough time organizing the festival it has basically become an extracurricular part-time job. Except, he does it for free.

So why do it?

“I’m just extremely passionate about craft beer,” Laurence said, “and the camaraderie for craft beer in this town is incredible.”

Last year, as part of the big leap forward for beer week’s visibility, Bellingham’s three breweries came together to brew and can a special release Dark Belgian Ale.

This year’s edition of the collaboration beer, called Whatcom Wheat, featured six more breweries from Whatcom County — for a total of nine, as in, three-squared — working side-by-side. Not many cities can say they’ve literally seen exponential growth in their craft beer scene, in just one year. I sat down with Laurence at one of the new breweries, Wander Brewing, this month to talk about where our beer scene is at, where we’re headed, and where Bellingham Beer Week fits into the big picture.

Do you think a place like Bellingham has a critical mass, if we ever get to a point where we’ve got, like, 30 breweries in town?

Eventually, there may be. But you can compare it to Bend. They have 20-something breweries, depending on where you draw the edge of the city, and we’re the exact same size, in population. Plus, we’ve got Canada right by us, and we’ve got Seattle, and we can distribute to those places in cans, bottles. So I think there’s huge potential for growth in this city — as long as the beer’s good. You can’t just have crappy beer and be successful.

Another thing, a lot of the new breweries, at least in Washington, are fairly small. We have a lot of nano-breweries. It’s kind of coming back to that local movement, where people like having a brewery near their home where they can just go and get fresh beer. If they get bigger and they succeed, that’s great. That means they can expand and sell off-premises, like what Kulshan’s doing. They just bought that new facility, and they’re going to start canning more, maybe bottling, and then selling to other markets. It’s not just people in Bellingham drinking Bellingham beer.

And looking at a place like Kulshan, it’s just such a neighborhood hub, it’s the gathering place in that neighborhood.

So is this place, so is Elizabeth Station. I think people are more likely to drink at a location like that, whereas before maybe they were drinking at home. Walkability’s huge, it’s the No. 1 thing on my mind. The good thing about Bellingham is you can walk to almost any brewery in town here, all within a five-mile loop.

I guess nobody wonders if there are too many Starbucks in town.

Yeah, it’s the same thing. I think eventually quality is going to become the biggest issue. People will start to say, ‘OK, now I have plenty of beer to choose from. I have a limited, finite amount of beer I can drink, and if the beer’s not up to par, I’m not going to drink it anymore.’ That’ll level out the number of breweries. But right now, I wouldn’t even want to put a number on it. I do know there’s plenty of room growth.

Let’s talk about the beer. Have you had a chance to try the collaboration wheat ale?

Yeah, and that was a lot of fun.

So you got a pretty good idea of how that came together, and the negotiations that went into it?

That was one big meeting at Boundary Bay, with the seven active (Whatcom County) breweries, and the two yet to open. I was skeptical: Last year I thought three breweries was a lot. This year we’re like, ‘We’re going to have five (Bellingham) breweries? Oh my God, that’s going to be a lot of cooks in the kitchen.’ And then we thought, well we’ve got to bring Menace in the fold, because they’re in town, at the Local. Then we’re like, we’ve got to invite North Fork, let’s just make it a Whatcom County thing. And then we said, well I guess we should invite the two breweries that aren’t open yet, because we don’t want to leave anybody out.

Then it was like, ‘OK, um, how are we going to do this?’

I was amazed. People had all kind of ideas. Some were very extreme: spices, or local harvest fruits from that time of year. And other people wanted to just do a total, basic beer — like a pale ale or something, an everyday drinker, a session beer — because a lot of places want to have this beer on tap, and they want a beer that people can just drink, nothing super-exotic.

But man, everybody talked, threw out ideas, it went back-and-forth, and people finally came up with: ‘Let’s do a wheat beer.’ And we’ve got all of these hops that are literally two years old, or less, and that’s a really, really young hop.

What are they called?

One of them is, ‘Mandarina Bavaria.’

Whoa.

And the other’s called Hüll Melon, H-U-L-L, from Hüll, Germany. So that one has honeydew-strawberry notes, and the Mandarina Bavaria has tangerine notes. They used a German yeast that’s usually used in Kristalweizen. So it’s like a Hefeweizen, but without the cloudiness, and without the heavy clove and banana. It’s a really easy-to-drink beer, with a really nice aroma.

The intention is to have everybody in town, or whoever wants to, to keg this on fruit, or do a firkin and a cask. Or do it randalized. Have you ever seen one of those? It’s like a water-filter contraption, and you stuff hops in it, or fruit, or spices, or chocolate — whatever you want — and before it goes through the draft, it pumps through and kind of infuses. So around town, hopefully we’ll have a bunch of options to try different randalized beer.

How much of it was made?

Fifty-seven barrels, I believe. That’s huge.

BELLINGHAM BEER WEEK _ BEER REVIEWS

Bellingham Beer Week No. 3: Whatcom Wheat (Boundary Bay, Kulshan, Chuckanut, Wander, Aslan, Menace, North Fork, Gruff, Stone’s Throw). At first the strong, pleasant, fruity aroma feels unexpected, in beer, yet familiar. In a blind test, I thought the cornucopia of alleged hop flavors — tangerine, honeydew, et cetera — came out tasting a lot like banana. Go figure, that’s the one tropical fruit that’s not supposed to be here. Of all our local breweries, this looks and feels most like a Boundary Bay ale: hefty carbonation, a foamy head that quickly reduces to a thin lacing, and a transparent deep-golden body. On the other hand, maybe you’ll find it a little busy. A lot of immensely talented voices are squeezed into one pint-sized can, and it’d be impossible to do it perfectly. But it’s such a cool, creative twist on a basic beer style, and a very cool artifact for what it represents. And overall it’s a unique, drinkable beer, a real accomplishment from a crowded kitchen. Plus, it should make an exceptional base for fruit infusions. B

Bellingham Beer Week No. 3: Cowiche Canyon Hop Lab No. 3 (Fremont Brewing Co., of Seattle). Outstanding. This ale bursts with citrusy hops on the nose, and follows with a just-right, piquant bitterness on the tongue. A great, delicate mouth-feel balances out a full-blown bouquet of floral notes. Grapefruit, mandarin and melon stand out on the palate, with an aftertaste of pine and spices. Everything tastes so fresh. To get a rough idea, imagine a cross between Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA and, in the body, a less-frenetic Elysian Superfuzz Pale Ale. Get it while you can. Elizabeth Station sold out of 22-ounce bombers long before the kickoff of beer week. Last I checked, they had about five kegs left, but all of it could be gone by the time this reaches press. (Haggen might be carrying it.) Last year Fremont’s gift to Bellingham Beer Week was one of the best Imperial Porters I’d ever tried and, for very different reasons, this IPA is just as impressive. A

Bellingham Crush Berliner Weisse (10 Barrel Brewing, of Bend, Ore.). Pours the color of raspberry lemonade, and in some alternate, boozier universe, this is raspberry lemonade. Think of it as more berry than beery. The sweet-and-sour — emphasis on the sour — fruity body clings to the roof of your mouth, and not in a bad way. Raspberry tart dominates the flavor profile, but not-so-subtle hints of strawberry, blueberry and blackberry are apparent, too. Most Berliner Weisse come out to be around 3 percent alcohol or less; this one’s a sturdier 5.5 percent. So beware, the sourness masks the potency, and it might go to your head. It’s a refreshing change-of-pace beer for a late-summer day. B+

Traverse Red IPA (Boundary Bay Brewery). Not a Beer Week beer, per se, the timing of this special release — the weekend of the Bellingham leg of the Northwest Traverse — meant it got canned along with the collaboration ale. Here’s your good old fashioned red IPA: mild hop aroma, a body like burnt sienna, and classic Boundary Bay robustness both in body and in the sometimes-pleasant, sometimes-harsh hop flavor. Starts out strong in more ways than one, but with each sip the bitterness and malty body clash a little more, and by the bottom of the glass the beer works against itself. Most people who reach for a red IPA won’t mind the assertiveness. But as a post-kayaking, post-running, post-biking beer? A thick red ale like this wouldn’t sound too refreshing. C+

(Two other promising special releases, Wander Brewing’s BBW No. 3: Tripel and Chuckanut Brewery’s Local Malt Alt, hadn’t been released in time for reviews. Give them a shot.)

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