Whatcom County’s annual Ski to Sea relay race from Mount Baker’s snowy flanks to the beach at Fairhaven’s Marine Park began in 1973, in an era when beer connoisseurs argued the relative merits of Bud vs. Miller, Rainier vs. Olympia.
Since then, the race and the craft beer movement seem to have flourished together, and local brewpubs and the wide variety of beers they produce are now as much a part of Ski to Sea culture as wacky team names and recreational-division blisters.
How intertwined are beer and race? Well, the race organizers at Whatcom Events offered a commemorative growler and pint glasses as inducements to teams willing to register by mid-January. Boundary Bay Brewery, the oldest local brewpub, turns out a commemorative ESB for the race, and has sponsored a formidable team of women athletes in the past. Other brewpubs also sponsor teams.
At this point, the race and the burgeoning brewpub scene have become defining characteristics of this community.
The brewpub ranks have grown so rapidly that even the locals are having trouble keeping up with the latest brews and venues.
Here’s a quick look at some Whatcom County breweries and what makes them special:
▪ Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro, 1107 Railroad Ave., is the oldest local brewpub, the one that blazed a trail for others to follow since its opening in 1995. On a given day, you can usually find seven year-round “flagship” brews on tap, plus an array of seasonal offerings. Their restaurant and summer beer garden help to keep the place busy.
“Their IPA is the standard that I measure all other IPAs by,” says local beer aficionado and City Council member Terry Bornemann. “Their food is top-class. Their summer beer garden strives for good music in a family-friendly setting.”
Another satisfied customer, Scott Sanderson, touts Boundary’s Dry Irish Stout as “the standard I compare other stouts to.”
The restaurant menu offers lots of choices. Yam enchiladas have had a following for years. So has the smoked salmon chowder.
▪ Kulshan Brewing Co., founded in 2012, has already become the largest local brewer by volume. Kulshan now has two locations, both with an on-site brewery: 2238 James St. and 1538 Kentucky St. Kulshan offers 11 year-round brews plus a variety of seasonal specialties.
Patron Terese Van Assche recommends the Transporter English Brown Porter. “Their Transporter is well-named,” she said. “It truly does transport me to beer heaven. Good music on Wednesdays and Sundays, and great beer, plus it is easy to carry on a conversation and not shout over the crowd.”
Kulshan has no restaurant, but patrons are welcome to bring in takeout from neighboring restaurants. Food trucks with a wide range of dishes are available.
▪ Aslan Brewing Co. opened in 2013 and quickly became a mainstay of the downtown scene, operating in a glass-fronted building at 1330 N. Forest St. that had been home to auto-related businesses for many years.
Aslan serves six regular brews, including one that is non-alcoholic. Among other brews usually available year-round are Bellingham Brown and American Stout. Patron Frances Badgett says she enjoys the ginger rye ale.
You can also expect a wide range of seasonal beers.
The kitchen provides imaginative dishes that would go good with a pint, such as grilled rockfish tacos, yam tacos, gourmet mac and cheese, waffle fry poutine and much more.
▪ Chuckanut Brewery opened in Bellingham in 2008 at 601 W. Holly St. in Old Town, and has since opened a second brewpub in Burlington.
The beers at Chuckanut tilt toward the cosmopolitan; they even spell it “bier” on their website. Examples: Vienna Lager, British Brown Ale, Irish Dry Stout and Baltic Porter Lager. Patron Ken Cox recommends the pilsner and the Kolsch German Ale.
The restaurant menu stresses ingredients from small farms in Whatcom and Skagit counties.
▪ Wander Brewing, 1807 Dean Ave., has already developed a passionate following since it opened less than four years ago. Bellingham resident Greg Seeligson says it is his favorite local venue, only partly because it is close to his house. The main reason, he says, is the Uncommon California Common, an amber brew described on the website as a steam beer using a Bavarian Lager yeast strain fermented at ale-like temperatures, with Belgian Abbey malt.
Another local beer connoisseur, James Bertolino, gives Wander’s Shoe Toss Rye IPA high marks.
Wander relies on a rotating schedule of food trucks to feed its patrons. Check the website for details. One day you might get a Cuban sandwich; on another day, pizza.
▪ North Fork Brewery is located well beyond Bellingham’s outskirts at 6186 Mount Baker Highway, about a half-hour’s drive from the city in a location popular with skiers and hikers.
This is a smaller operation where the available brews are likely to vary, but the website says the IPA is the top seller. County Council member Carl Weimer recommends the Son of Frog, described on the website as a dark red English-style ale.
North Fork also has homemade non-alcoholic root beer for kids and anyone else.
The North Fork’s restaurant specializes in pizza. Weimer also recommends the antipasto salad.
▪ Gruff Brewing Co., 104 E. Maple St., close to both Boundary Bay and the Bellingham Farmers Market, has been open less than a year and is already finding loyal followers. Patron Evelyn Jefferson says the East Coast IPA is delicious, and is one of her locally-brewed favorites.
Other possibilities include a creme ale, pale ale, and a pineapple hefeweizen.
This is a smaller place that, as of this writing, is open Thursday through Sunday. Check the Facebook page for hours.
▪ Stones Throw Brewery opened about a year ago at 1009 Larrabee Ave., in the Fairhaven Historic District in southern Bellingham finally filling the need in a logical place for a brewpub. According to the brewery’s website, that address was home to one of Fairhaven’s best-known brothels during its disreputable boomtown days around the end of the 19th Century.
Maria McLeod of Bellingham said she appreciated the family-friendly atmosphere on her first visit, as well as the porter and IPA, which account for two of the three brews normally on tap.
The other is “Flat Penny Pale Ale.” McLeod said the availability of pretzels, nuts and jerky was a nice touch.
Nearby restaurants will also make deliveries to Stone’s Throw patrons, and food trucks will also be in the area.
Two smaller neighborhood-style brewpubs round out the local list:
▪ Structures Brewing, 1420 N. State St., opened in late 2015. The available beers are subject to change. They recently featured a pale ale dubbed Endless Bummer, and an imperial stout called Skyhammer, with a 10 percent alcohol content. Their flagship brew is dubbed “Fuzz,” and it is made with oats and spelt.
▪ Menace Brewing opened in Bellingham’s Fountain District at 2529 Meridian St. early in 2017. Their Chili Bravo brew, accented with actual peppers, is getting some favorable notice. So is the Amarillo IPA.