There’s a certain undeniable magic to Seattle. After all, this is the town that gave us Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Kenny G. Home of the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the 1917 Stanley Cup champion Seattle Metropolitans. Birthplace of Microsoft, Amazon and Tommy Bahama activewear. The coffee’s pretty good, too.
You can also count amazing craft beer among Seattle’s many gifts to the world. And when it comes to craft beer, the once-sleepy suburb of Ballard is at the epicenter of its craft beer revolution.
If you’re like many British Columbians, your first exposure to Ballard was likely on the 1990s Seattle-produced sketch comedy show Almost Live!, where the suburb and its elderly Scandanavian residents were frequently the butt of jokes.
However, today, Ballard is thriving, with new residential developments popping up on every block to serve the nearby growing tech industry in South Lake Union. And where there’s young urban professionals with disposable income, there’s bound to be top-notch restaurants, über-cool bars and craft breweries a-plenty. At last count, there were 13 breweries and tasting rooms within a 45 minute-walk between Ballard and the neighbouring suburb of Fremont.
“People who live in Ballard generally don’t leave Ballard,” says Wayne Jehlik, owner/brewer of Obec Brewing.
And why would they? I must admit, after my recent trip there, I didn’t want to leave either.
1108 NW 52nd St.
Much like Vancouver’s Yeast Van and Portland’s Inner Southeast, Ballard has that magical mix of industrial-zoned land and working-class residential that seem to be the perfect breeding ground for craft breweries.
Stoup Brewing is situated on NW 52nd St., right in between a modern two-level home that could be on the cover of Architectural Digest and business that manufactures and repairs fishing nets. The newly-built corrugated metal-clad building Stoup calls home pays homage to the area’s industrial roots, and inside, the brewery’s tasting room is lively and inviting. One entire wall is festooned with stickers and posters from breweries all over North America, providing a splash of colour in the otherwise sleek, modern tasting room.
On sunny days (of which there are plenty in Seattle; it gets about 40 per cent less rain than Vancouver), Stoup pulls up its huge garage bay doors to let the fresh air in and opens up its spacious beer garden.
“The beer scene is great here,” says owner/brewmaster Brad Benson. “There’s so many great breweries nearby making great beer, so it’s become a destination. It started with just the locals, then people from all over Seattle started coming, and now we’re getting tourists from all over the world.”
Benson has been brewing since 1982 and his beers benefit from those years of experience. There’s no absurd experimentation for experimentation’s sake at Stoup, just thoughtfully conceived beers executed at a consistently impressive level.
If IPAs are your jam, then you’re going to love this place—there were six different ones on the board when I was there. However, my personal favourite was the Loral Saison (6.1% ABV, 30 IBU), a delicate, well-balanced beer with lovely floral hop flavours and restrained pepper notes from the French saison yeast.
Lucky Envelope Brewing
907 NW 50th St.
When Raymond Kwan left behind a career in finance to brew beer with his best bud Barry Chan, the two first-generation Americans decided to incorporate their shared Chinese heritage not only in the name of the brewery, but in their approach to brewing.
The brewery’s name comes from the ubiquitous hóngbāo—the red envelopes stuffed with money exchanged during holidays or special occasions.
“We wanted a name that would differentiate us from everyone else, but also has a connection to our heritage,” says Kwan. “Growing up, the memories that stick out are the holidays and being around family, and the lucky envelopes were always there.”
The beers at Lucky Envelope are “culturally inspired,” he says. That means not only incorporating Asian ingredients and flavour profiles not typically seen in American craft beer but also paying tribute to their neighbourhood: for the National Day of Sweden every June 6, Lucky Envelope brews a Gotlandsdricka, a juniper ale similar to Finnish sahti.
“We’re brewing with traditional European techniques and implementing non-traditional ingredients,” explains Kwan. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean Chinese.”
Located right around the corner from Stoup, Lucky Envelope’s tasting room was decked out in decorations to celebrate the coming of the Year of the Dog on my visit. Many of the thirsty locals had brought their dogs with them for the occasion, or so I had thought. As it turns out, Seattle’s breweries are by and large dog-friendly, and most tasting rooms are ankle-deep in puppers, which is just the best thing ever.
The Buddha’s Hand Citron IPA (6.6% ABV, 70 IBU) was brewed especially for Chinese New Year, and prominently features the fingered citron fruit, a staple of the season that looks like a lemon afflicted with whatever it was that Rocky Dennis had. The light-bodied beer is full of citrus fruit and lemon zest, backed up by a healthy dose of NW hops, making for a very refreshing and surprisingly crushable IPA.
Peddler Brewing Co.
1514 NW Leary Way
Cycling and beer are really one of the best pairings out there. Obviously, if you’re making the rounds in Ballard, you don’t want to drive. And if you aren’t getting at least a little bit of exercise, you might regret drinking all those tasting paddles the next day. Radler literally means “cyclist” in German, after all. Embrace it.
Located on the Burke Gilman bike trail, Peddler is the perfect pit stop for cyclists. In addition to the massive bike rack out front, there’s a bike repair station inside with a vending machine full of parts and tools. There’s even discounts for members of the local cycling club.
Housed in the former home of Maritime Brewing (which has since moved a few blocks away), Peddler’s tasting room on NW Leary St. is bright and airy. On the Saturday I visited, the tasting room was a bustling, eclectic cross-section of the neighbourhood: a group of recent moms and dads with their babies sits at one table; at another, a pair of old-timers in pea coats look like they stepped off a box of High Liner fish sticks as they work on their pints; a table of nurses unwind with a game of Cards Against Humanity, presumably after a long shift at the University of Washington medical clinic across the street; and, of course, there’s a steady stream of thirsty cyclists coming through the door.
The real action is in the back, however. Peddler’s massive backyard beer garden plays host to outdoor movie nights, live music, comedy, arts events, even the odd wedding.
“Give it a sunny day in the summer and it’s packed,” says operations and taproom manager Stefan Hock.
Peddler’s beers are a mix of European standards and Northwest classics. The Horchata Cream Ale (5.5% ABV, 7 IBU) was an interesting take on the light-bodied American ale, dominated by cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla, with just enough lingering sweetness to complement the bold flavours.
1144 NW 52nd St.
The new kid on the block, quite literally, Obec opened last year just a few doors down from Stoup on NW 52nd St., right around the corner from Rueben’s Brews. Pronounced O-betz, the name is the Czech word for “community” and pays tribute to owner/brewer Wayne Jehlik’s Czech heritage. He also happens to be the honourary consul for the Czech Republic in Seattle, making the brewery the city’s de facto Czech consulate.
The tasting room at Obec is sleek and polished, giving off a European vibe in a very contemporary sense. Unlike most of the breweries in Ballard, Obec’s tasting room is 21+, as it also serves locally-produced wine and spirits, in keeping with its “community” mantra.
The beers are a mix of European styles, with a focus on Czech pilsners and malt-forward English ales—in fact, Obec didn’t even have an IPA on tap when it opened, which is almost unheard of in Seattle. While the Czech influence is obvious, the fondness for English styles began when Jehlik started brewing 20 years ago after he couldn’t find his favourite porter anymore.
“When craft beer first started happening here, it was all porters,” he recalls. “Then IPAs became a thing, and all the porters went away, so I had to make my own!”
Not surprisingly, his English Porter (6.2% ABV, 60 IBU) is phenomenal, with flavours of biscuit, toast and caramel, and a healthy hop bite to balance out any residual sweetness.
Jehlik says if it wasn’t for the help and support of neighbouring breweries like Stoup, he might not have even been able to open the doors.
“It’s been serendipity to end up here,” he says. “You’ve got some of the best breweries in Greater Seattle within a mile of here, amazing restaurants, lots of young people.
“It’s a great place for great beer.”
Seattle is only 230 km from Vancouver, so it’s an easy drive. But consider leaving the car at home and opting for Amtrak’s Cascade service. Departing from Pacific Central Station, the trip takes about four hours and offers some spectacular views as much of the track follows the coastline south. Also, there’s a bar on board. So civilized.
If you’re coming from the Island, the Victoria Clipper service provides thrice-daily service from Victoria’s Inner Harbour to Downtown Seattle. And yes, it, too, has a bar.
As for accommodations, there aren’t a lot of hotel options in Ballard proper, but the funky boutique Ballard Inn, located the restored 1902 American-Scandinavian Bank building, is a popular choice. AirBnB is also an option, with dozens of properties for rent within walking distance of the breweries, ranging from private bedrooms and studio apartments, to entire houses.