Innovation Comes to a Head at Craft Beer Breweries


With the number of small and boutique breweries rising faster than the head on a stout porter, craft beermakers in Washington have opened the tap to new customers in an increasingly thirsty market.

According to the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB), production almost doubled in terms of barrels per year at many breweries on the western side of the mountains over the past decade. For example, demand at Pike Brewing Company in Seattle jumped from 17,401 to almost 43,000 barrels in the five-year span, an increase more than 245 percent.

The state board reported that almost two dozen craft breweries have opened for business over the past two years.

As any of the beermakers will tell you, there are more than hops, barley and water that go into the making of a great craft beer. The craft beer industry has grown in terms of both variety and sophistication. Like a fine wine, brewmasters are pairing craft beer with food to bring out the subtle tastes and the differences infused into every brew.

“The craft beer industry in Washington is changing. It’s a different animal,” said Ken Nabors, who has been brewing African Amber at Mac & Jack's Brewery for 26 years. “When we first started there were a total of 26 breweries in the state.

“Now there are 417.”

Nabors emphasized that the majority of craft brewers in the state produce less than 2,000 barrels per year.

The Academy Founders Mac and Jack still own and run the brewery with their team of dedicated beer lovers in the Warehouse District of Redmond behind Marymoor Park.

“We’re still listening to our customers, still learning how to do it better and still laughing about it,” Nabors said with a smile.

Mac & Jack’s does more than produce beer. It also serves as a training ground for a growing armada of craft brewers.

When childhood friends Dick Mergens and Shawn Dowling decided to make a full-time commitment to their hobby of making beer, the pair made a commitment to learn all they could about the business side of brewing before they opened Crucible Brewing in an Everett retail strip mall in late 2015.

Mergens quit his day job at a home improvement center to take a job at the Mac & Jack’s Brewery to learn the business. He worked his way up to the brewhouse before moving to another Redmond brewery—Hi-Fi Brewing.

During his time at Mac & Jack’s, Mergens worked with American Brewing head brewer Adam Frantz to understand the intricacies of how to be an efficient brewer in a commercial brewhouse. Mergens described Mac & Jack’s as “The Academy.” His education was apparently a success. Crucible recently opened a second tasting room in the heart of wine country in Woodinville.

“You get worked to death over there, but you learn a lot,” said Mergens. “Shawn and I continue to tinker with our formulas to offer even more choices for our loyal customers.”

While IPAs and ales are the most frequent pours from taps across the state, the different styles of beer and the diverse patrons who consume the effervescent beverage are as different as the weather on each side of the Cascades.

Spokane Craft beermakers have developed subtle differences in the mixture of ingredients and distribution methods that reflect each region of Washington.

A prime example are the numerous craft breweries that sprung up in Spokane during the ‘90s to serve the thirsty college students from Gonzaga and nearby Eastern Washington University in Cheney. The smaller breweries formulated and served pale ales that have become known as “Spokane-style” beers that are meant to be enjoyed with friends.

No-Li is a template for the style of beer that still dominates the nightlife in Spokane. The pale brew can race its beginnings to five of the pubs at the heart of the U District scene that have opened since 1993. Each pours a version of the light beer to go well with food and an evening out on the town.

Founded in 2011, Iron Goat Brewing Company joined the party in 2011 from its trendy location in the historical district on Second Avenue. The pub offers its standards like Paul’s Pale Ale, Goatmeal Stout, Bleating Red Ale and the nasty Trashy Blonde.

For those in an adventurous mood, the brewmaster at Iron Goat serves an aggressive India Pale Ale, a Head Butt IPA and the Impaler Imperial IPA.

The dark varieties served down the block at Perry Street Brewing and the field-to-tap pilsner from Big Barn Brewing Co. are just two more of the unique offerings to be discovered as you drink your way through the core of downtown.

Yakima It only makes sense that the region known for producing some of the best hops in the world would have its own pedigree of craft breweries. Yakima may not be a popular destination for beer connoisseurs quite yet, but locals believe that will change as new breweries open and the established brewhouses adapt to changes in the desire of thirsty customers.

Valley Brewing Company on River Road is one of the newest breweries in the incontrovertible hop capital of the country. The latest entry in town offers brew options with a lineup of bright and juicy IPAs that will soon be available in distinct sleek cans.

According to some regular patrons, the brewery itself is worth the drive from either side of Washington.

As the name implies, the Yakima Craft Brewing Co. offers new releases from ingredients raised in the valley in a taproom serviced by the totally unique Yak Craft’s Bottom Up System.

The hoppy Top Cutter and Field 41 have made Bale Breaker one of the region’s true success stories. Wandering Hop is a relative newcomer to the emerging craft beer scene in Yakima. Founder Nathan Cooper recommends one of his signature New England IPAs to new visitors who make the trek to Wandering Hop on North 20th Avenue.

A 20-minute drive into the farmlands that surround the city will bring visitors to the Cowiche Creek Brewing Company on Thompson Road where visitors can sample a wet IPA or a pale ale while enjoying views of the mountains that surround the fields.

Gig Harbor Founded in 2015 by longtime Gig Harbor resident and beer enthusiast John Fosberg, the Gig Harbor Brewing Co. is home to five regular pours, four seasonal brews and four specialty formulations. The founder’s favorite is the Sturdy Gertie® Double IPA with 7 percent alcohol by volume.

“It’s not super hoppy,” Fosberg said with a proud smile. “But it has a dark malty taste, high alcohol content and is a delicious beer.”

Unable to find warehouse space large enough to accommodate his fledgling operation, Fosberg opened the first Gig Harbor Brewing Co. facility in Tacoma on South Tacoma Way. He was talked out of changing the name of his new business by some of his investors.

“They told me to just make my beer,” he said. “They will find you.”

And they did. Fosberg credits his brewmaster Mike O’Hara for his efforts to develop many of the trademark brews, including his best seller, the Giggly Blonde Ale. O’Hara spent eight years perfecting his talent as the brewmaster at Georgetown Brewing in Seattle before he brought his talents to Gig Harbor.

Fosberg opened a tasting room next to Skansie Brothers Park on Harborview Drive when the right space became available. His beers, he said, have quickly gained a reputation around town for their traditional easy-drinking style.

Founded by four local beer enthusiasts, the proprietors of Wet Coast Brewing Co. believe that there is much more to operating a brewery than simply producing a quality craft beer. The people behind Wet Coast want their patrons to “experience their beer, to celebrate life and to rejoice in all things wet.”

Wet Coast utilizes a 3.5-barrel brewing system at its facility at 6820 Kimball Drive to provide a selection of Northwest-inspired craft ales in an on-site taproom where patrons can enjoy a pint of cream ale and a Mexican lager.

The year-round varieties available from Wet Coast range from the Brass Rail Pale Ale to a Bottleman Brown Ale with hints of nut and chocolate. There are also two IPAs with alcohol volumes from 5 to 6.2 percent.

Idaho Not to be left out of the action, the Gem State has more to offer drinkers than potatoes for vodka. Idaho is the nation’s third largest producer of hops, and the state’s capitol in Boise has developed its own style of craft beer.

Former Boeing engineer Mike Francis pours the results of his experimentation at Payette Brewing. His Twelve Gauge Imperial Stout is aged in bourbon barrels for 12 months, which he said introduces hints of vanilla and oak to go along with tastes of chocolate and coffee.

Grand Teton Brewing in the town of Victor at the base of the namesake mountains is made with water from glacial runoff that has been naturally filtered for 500 years through limestone. The result is a hoppy pale ale with strong overtones of citrus.

Despite a reputation that would defy the image as a hub for craft breweries, the northern portion of the state has established its reputation for natural, hand-crafted craft beers served at family friendly breweries.

Mickduff’s Brewing Company in Sandpoint was established in 2006 by two brothers with a passion for brewing their own style of craft beer and living year-round in their idea of paradise.

The tap handles at Mickduff’s include a Huckleberry Blonde Ale made with fruit puree for a zesty flavor. The local brewery’s version of a Black-and-Tan is made with equal parts of Tipsy Toehead Blonde and Knot Tree Porter.

Down Highway 2 in Bonners Ferry, the Kootenai River Brewing Company features the dark McGregor Scottish Ale as well as the award-winning Hoptic Blast IPA that visitors seem to either love or hate, according to Jeremiah Holes, the lead server in the brewery restaurant.

Each batch of beer, he explained, is distinctive because each is made with the best available hops from local farms. Overall, the beers at Kootenai tend to be a little more “hoppy.” That includes the bourbon barrel-aged porter made with coffee from a roaster right in Sandpoint.

“Depending on the day, I’ll usually have a Grizzly IPA or one of our popular beers flavored with local huckleberries,” said Holes. “Our brewmasters tend to get creative depending on what is freshest at the markets or in our own fields.”

The Kootenai River Brewing Company was established in 2010 and currently serves 11 distinct beers from a taproom at the crown point of the state near the Canadian border with views of the Kootenai River and the scenic mountain ranges of North Idaho.

Whether your preference in a frosted pint is a Spokane-style light ale or a dark rich porter, craft breweries in Washington and Idaho have what you want on tap cold and ready to enjoy.

Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis in California and has received acclamation for his work in the areas of sustainable energy and the insurance industry. He is the author of three books that document colorful periods of history in Washington.

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