Thirty years seems like a long time ago that happened just the other day — both, neither, all at once. Most of the current crop of Washington’s breweries didn’t even exist (and wouldn’t for many more years). Redhook was still a small brewery in Seattle. Pyramid was still in Kalama, and Hale’s was just a few years old. Popular beer bars like the Beveridge Place Pub, Brouwer’s and The Pine Box were years away. The Pacific Northwest was still in the early years of the craft beer — oops, make that “microbrewery” — trend, and combined, those tiny breweries couldn’t account for more than a percentage point or two of regional production. Big brands like Rainier, Olympia, Blitz-Weinhard and a smattering of others still ruled the roost.
Today? The Pacific Northwest’s big regional lager brewers are gone. Olympia Brewing’s former facility looks run-down and forlorn, abandoned years ago, a shabby shell of its former self, looming just off of Interstate 5. Rainier’s former home has been repurposed into lofts, and a new version of the venerable logo glows from the top of the building. You can still pick up those old lager brands at the supermarkets and convenience stores, but they’re all brewed in California now, vestiges of what they once were.
The Puget Sound region is an economic boomtown these days, and many of the newer, more forward-thinking brewers are doing well.
The old-school regionals aren’t the only ones to see fortune pass them by. Craft Brew Alliance has seen sliding sales of its primary Pacific Northwest brands, Widmer and Redhook; the final sale of the already-closed Redhook brewery in Woodinville was symbolic of what can happen to what was once a first-wave innovator. CBA’s new Redhook Brewlab in Seattle’s trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood is the rebooted version, a complete makeover of what was once the biggest craft beer brand in the state, with a state-of-the-art brewing system.
Overall, though, the Puget Sound region is an economic boomtown these days, and many of the newer, more forward-thinking brewers are doing well: Seattle’s Cloudburst Brewing celebrated its “first second anniversary” in January; Holy Mountain Brewing is still considered one of the city’s very best; Urban Family’s reboot is doing well and making some exceptional beer; and Fremont, Stoup and Reuben’s are all doing well. Schooner Exact is on the move, shutting down its taproom for a temporary remodel and upgrade; expect this brewpub to be back up and running by spring 2018. In southeastern Washington’s town of Naches, Bron Yr Aur Brewing celebrated its second anniversary on December 31, 2017.
One brewer that may have finally emerged from a thicket of difficult days is Seattle’s Mollusk Brewing. Mollusk started out just a few years ago as Epic Ales, one of the tiniest of nanobreweries, doing eccentric ales with a vague nod to Belgian styles. Epic Ales eventually combined its beers with a small restaurant, Gastropod, and seemed to flourish, enough so that a far more ambitious venture, Mollusk, was finally opened late in 2014. Alas, Mollusk ran into headwinds almost immediately, and the venture struggled mightily. Last November, Mollusk finally split off to become Mollusk Brewing; the restaurant side was sold to a new operator and dubbed the Dexter Brewhouse. Mollusk Brewing gets to focus on its core beer business while an experienced restaurateur takes over and runs Dexter Brewhouse. Let’s hope for positive results for both ventures.
On March 24, the 2018 Washington Cask Beer Festival will take place over two sessions at Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. Search for “2018 Washington Cask Beer Festival” on the Web and get there soon; tickets for this one always sell out.
Down on the southern end of I-5, Amnesia Brewing finally threw in the towel and closed its doors. Amnesia relocated to Washougal, Wash., a few years ago, but again it struggled, even as its original location in Portland, redubbed Stormbreaker Brewing, thrived under new ownership. There are rumors about who will take over the former Amnesia space, but for now, rumors they will remain.
Meanwhile, in nearby Camas, Grains of Wrath is getting ready to open and will likely be brewing by spring of 2018. Another new venture, Mirage Beer Co. in Seattle, made its debut at Chuck’s Hop Shop (Greenwood) on December 1, 2017. Mirage is keeping a low profile, with no taproom and no plans to open one, while brewer and owner Michael Dempster concentrates on his core business of making farmhouse ales, including some sours and experimental styles.
It remains to be seen whether the coming year is one of retrenchment or simply an overall slowdown that will separate the marginal players from the ones with the gumption to stay in the game.
Speaking of barrel-aging projects, 2018 will likely see the first releases from Seattle’s Floodland Brewing when its beers become sufficiently mature to be offered to those who bought memberships in its Oakworks club. Additional beers will be offered to the general public.
As this issue of the CBN hits the streets, it’s likely that Seattle’s ninth annual Belgianfest is already over, held in 2018 on the last Saturday in January. Look forward instead to the 16th annual Hard Liver Barleywine Festival at Brouwer’s Café on February 24, with an epic selection of at least 50 barley wines on tap. A month later, on March 24, the 2018 Washington Cask Beer Festival will take place over two sessions at Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. Search for “2018 Washington Cask Beer Festival” on the Web and get there soon; tickets for this one always sell out.
There is much discussion about the state of craft brewing as we go into 2018. The past year has seen the industry run into some headwinds, and it looks like the last few years of growth have finally hit their peak. The first wave of craft brewing ran into problems in the late 1990s and early 2000s before regaining traction. It remains to be seen whether the coming year is one of retrenchment or simply an overall slowdown that will separate the marginal players from the ones with the gumption to stay in the game. Stay tuned. It’s gonna get interesting.