Often when we talk about craft beer, we’re talking about aggressive beer: a triple IPA, or a stout that’s rich as fudge, or a bizarre coffee- and chicory-infused saison.
Yet the recent explosion of craft breweries left a trail of lighter beers, both locally and nationwide, and now we have thousands of lagers and pale ales that aren’t affiliated with MillerCoors, Pabst, or whatever AB InBev is. More and more, these are like gateway beers for people who used to drink macro brews.
Here in Bellingham, we love our strong and/or hoppy beer, but we’ve got crushable craft beer too. Over the past month, I studied some of our local breweries’ session brews: the decorated Helles lager from Chuckanut Brewery; a new drinkable-but-different pale ale from North Fork Brewery; and a hazy low-IBU IPA from Structures Brewing – kind of playing to the strengths of each brewer.
Spoiler alert: They ranged from above average to pretty great.
Chuckanut Helles Lager. There’s a trifecta of light Euro-style beers from Chuckanut that stacks up to any in the country: a Pilsner, a Kölsch and this Helles. At the brewery, I tend to reach for one of the others, if not the Vienna lager, but this is still one heck of a Helles. The highlight is its light, bready malt character. The style comes from Munich, and here the pour is a delicate clear pale yellow with a sheet of bright white head above lazy bubbles of carbonation. Sometimes that incongruous word, “bready,” gets tossed around because there isn’t a better way to articulate some beer flavors. But here, that word is a spot-on way to describe the finish. The body is light-medium, but it feels a little thinner than 5 percent alcohol might suggest. (Meanwhile, 20 IBUs sounds about right.) Like so many of Chuckanut’s beers, this one feels endlessly drinkable. A-
North Fork Emergency Pale Ale. One finger of white head tops this hazy light gold pale ale. Carbonation’s medium-low, viscosity’s medium-thin for the style, with faint honeylike sweetness in the malt. Other than the slightly high 6.3 percent alcohol, nothing’s too out of the ordinary, except for one big interesting twist from the hops, Sorachi Ace. Harvesters say this dual-purpose hop with Japanese origins gives off aromas such as lemon, lime and dill – and this is a fine showcase of all three. An herbal bite, like Saaz hops in a sharp Pilsner, comes on strongest, while orange zest and juicy citrus abide in the background. To my taste, however, parts of the hop profile don’t mesh perfectly with the malt. That said, capturing the best parts of (a) a refreshing lager and (b) a flavorful pale ale, in one beer, seems like an impossible thing to do, but North Fork almost pulls it off. B-
Structures Splash IPA. This hazy weak-gold IPA opens with a burst of citrus aroma – orange juice, tangerine, grapefruit – then doubles down with more awesome complex floral and citrus flavor. You might call it a New England IPA, a cloudy glowing beverage at 5.1 percent alcohol, with brilliant loose white head. It’s a wonder no one else, to my knowledge, has released something like this before in Bellingham. The process uses minimal hops for bittering, at 11 IBU, and massive, ridiculous dry-hopping. Sounds simple enough, right? But simple things can go bad fast. The execution here is solid, even great, especially in the aroma. Texture and viscosity are straightforward, on the light side, letting the hops pop through in layers that fuse and play off each other. There’s a lot to be impressed with here. The thing that impresses me most, though, is how fresh it feels, and the thought that this will inevitably become a thing in the Pacific Northwest. Get Structures beer in six-packs, and I don’t know if I’ll have time to drink anything else. B+
In other brews …
▪ This month, long-awaited Gruff Brewing quietly opened with weekend hours, noonish to 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at 104 E. Maple St.
▪ Bellingham Beer Week(s) is around the corner, Sept. 9-18. Already, Kulshan and Wander breweries have released a low-alcohol raspberry lager for the festivities, with other events in the works. Keep tabs on the week through Facebook or bellinghambeerweek.com.
▪ Aslan Brewing started aging an imperial recipe of their Ginger Rye ale in bourbon barrels. Atwood Ales continues to expand distribution, and you can find a handful of their beers at the downtown Food Co-op. On tap at Boundary Bay is a single-hop 6.4-percent alcohol pale ale, Escape Velocity, with all 40 IBUs squeezed from the Galaxy hop. Chuckanut Brewery’s new Skagit County location, South Nut, is in the “finishing touches” stage of construction. Kulshan’s pouring a style of beer I’ve never seen in town, Dampfbier, a warm-fermented 13 IBU Bavarian-style ale with aroma and flavors like clove and banana. North Fork was still advertising Electric Berryland bottles when I visited this month (and at $20, they say, not $25). Structures released a purple 7.4 percent alcohol blackberry IPA, called Rubus, brewed with 160 pounds of Skagit berries.
Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, firstname.lastname@example.org.