Friday, 18 September 2015

A Seattle walk/crawl, a loop around Downtown-Lake Union-Ballard: 9th September 2015

I'd long promised myself a couple of weeks in the Pacific North-West of the USA and this August/September I'd finally managed to achieve that goal. I'd had a blast visiting relatives in Boise, Idaho, spent a number of days in the beautiful small city of Bend, Oregon (and almost managed the Bend Ale Trail), drove up to gawk at the neck-stretching panorama of Crater Lake and hiked in the colourful Blue Basin of the John Day National Monument Painted Hills. Now I was spending a last few days in the cosmopolitan sprawl of Seattle, home to breweries such as Pike and Elysian, but although these are decent enough, well established, places to visit, I really wanted to see what was happening in the relatively recent Seattle beer scene. I therefore decided to spend most of a day walking to and then walking around the Ballard district of Seattle, home to what seemed to be an impressive concentration of fairly young, smallish start-up breweries and their associated taprooms.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Walk from Westlake Avenue

My starting point on this walk was the long diagonal thoroughfare of Westlake Avenue. This starts off in Downtown and runs north towards Lake Union for about 12 blocks (or just over half a mile or so in 'old money'). It's crammed full of eating places, both fast-food and not-so-fast (I ate at The Wurst Place, ouch! - Wurst, Frites and great Craft Beer), and these places are full most lunchtimes & evenings with workers from the nearby huge Amazon South Lake Union campus. After negotiating these hungry people on a mission for lunch I reached the Lake Union Park area where the sidewalk merged into a dedicated cycle/footpath and I could see the expanse of Lake Union spread out in front of me.

It's billed as 'The lake in the middle of the city' and is full of small marinas, boating/sailing rental establishments, seafood restaurants, the occasional private property and also houses the extensive Museum of History and Industry (or MOHAI) at its southern-most tip (just at the right edge of the photo). I reluctantly gave this a miss and followed the cycle/footpath north along the west side of Lake Union whereupon I was constantly overtaken by a quite incredible number of runners & cyclists until I went under the high level George Washington Bridge (which takes Highway 99 over Lake Union)...

...before reaching the more lower level entrance for Fremont Bridge where Lake Union flows into the narrower channel of the Fremont Cut and the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Since this is at a lower level the bridge has a degree of vertical swing capability and as I approached it from the south today the bridge had been opened to allow a tall-masted yacht through. This meant that everyone (runners, cyclists & cars) had been rendered stationary for at least a few minutes (note the prominent Fremont Oktoberfest signage).

After crossing the bridge I took the steep metal grilled steps down to the water's edge and followed another path east for a few minutes. This led me to my first stop of the day, the exuberant foliage which was not quite hiding the front of the Fremont Brewing 'Urban Beer Garden' which has been operating since 2009.

Even just after noon there were quite a few people sitting out in the lush surroundings of the beer garden and so I headed inside to obtain a few beers with which to join them. Inside there's a large open space with a number of benches and then the bar area at the back with the tap list on a chalk board behind the bar. There were 11 beers to try which included 1 on cask (woo!) and 2 of which were specials having been randallised (or put through one of those hopinator thingies).

I took away a tray of tasters and went to sit in the beer garden which was full of flowering plants and green shrubbery; a very pleasant place to sit in and unwind during the day. And the beers were more than pleasant too, although the cask beer (Summer Ale with Mango) was strangely flat (or perhaps my taste buds had been completely transformed after 2 weeks in the 'States). Standouts were the Bellingham Beer Week Citra IPA (loads of grapefruit citrus, resiny, a definite alcohol kick and a grapefruit, piney, bitter finish) and the Seizoen Bretta (sour lemon, earthy, then loads of bretty spiciness) from Logsdon, but there was also a Hefeweizen (Wandering Wheat) with additional mint which was pretty strange and didn't seem to work too well, but, as always, was certainly worth trying.

Even after a number of fairly small tasters I decided that some food was necessary (H2O, pretzels & apples are all free at Fremont and more substantial sustenance can be brought in FOC) and headed west into the centre of the Fremont district proper. This again was full of eating places but also a lot of small arts/crafts shops, and after only a couple of blocks I managed to spy a Belgian beer sun-umbrella which I thought had to be a pretty good signpost for a Belgian pub, in this case the Brouwer's Cafe.

After a bit of experimentation I found the main entrance, a huge heavy wooden door, and as I entered I was fully expecting a small intimate place, but instead a huge, colourful, multi-level cavern came into view - it was quite a surprise and quite impressive (note that for a smaller, more traditional Belgian-influenced place, head to the Stumbling Monk on E. Olive Way, also very good).

As almost always in these establishments with table service, I was intercepted as I approached the bar by a young lad who then shepherded me to an interior table instead of the bar since I was looking for something to eat. Perusing the beer list (64 beers on draft, 300+ bottles) took longer than the food menu but I managed to decide on a Breakfast Croissant and an Organic Blonde Ale by Fish Brewing Company from nearby Olympia (lemony citrus, hazy, quite a bitter lemon-lime finish, nice) and when my croissant it had been artistically shaped into a bacon-tailed fish!

From talking to the guys there it seems they will have the honour of hosting Seattle's Zwanze Day on 19th September (which also co-incides with the Fremont Oktoberfest) and they're expecting a long line of people to be queuing up around the block before the 11am start with the special one-off Wild Brussels Stout almost definitely finishing before noon; I think that really highlights the level of awareness and enthusiasm for craft beer in Seattle. I could probably have stuck around at Brouwer's Cafe for most of the afternoon but dragged myself back through the heavy door to keep heading West. The neighbourhood between Fremont and Ballard is certainly quite a mish-mash of cultures with this being one of the many diverse pieces of graffiti/signage that I encountered.

I got off the sidewalk onto the adjacent (and still busy) cycle/footpath (the Burke-Gilman Trail) and this seemed to follow one of the many railway lines which led me into the more industrial district of Ballard.

Here I passed what must be one of the older smaller breweries in Seattle, Hale's Brew Pub (again with verdant green beer garden); I thought I would be able to visit this on my way back to Downtown (wrong as it happens, see later)...

...and also the newer Bad Jimmy's Brewing Co. tap house (great name, but not open until 3pm today, sigh...).

Instead I headed further along the trail before getting off just before the main shopping street of NW Ballard Way. I did note the to-the-point name of Bev-Mo! (Beverages & More - order your beer online, bottles and/or 100+ kegs, and then pick them up in an hour - wow!)...

...but since I couldn't really fit a keg into my rucksack, I decided to carry on until reaching the more tasteful surroundings of the Jolly Roger Taproom.

This is home to another relatively old Ballard brewery, (established in 1990) Maritime Pacific Brewing Company, with the brewing kit located in the same building as the taproom but taking up all of the left hand side. There was a lot of kit in here, at least 7 fermenters and 5 bright beer tanks.

Inside the taproom it was a lot more comfortable, with a long darkish wooden bar at the back, tables & chairs set opposite it as well as a couple of benches outside. There were a number of Maritime beers on tap, but for some reason I fancied a saison and went for that (it was actually a Guapo's Saison, light lemon with a distinctive lemon-pepper finish, from Hale's down the road) and sat down at the bar to contemplate the collection of assorted pirate skull tankards & glasses behind the bar.

By now it was past 3pm which was when most of the newer Ballard breweries and their associated taprooms would be open to their adoring public. These are located in & amongst the small industrial units between 48th & 52nd Streets above the main through road of NW Leary Way and are all within about a 10 minute walk of each other; great for an afternoon's or an evening's wander about. The first one I came to was (I think) the newest of all of these, Lucky Envelope Brewing (having opened in April of 2015), with a large roped-off outside seating area and lots of adjacent signage indicating 'No Brewery Parking' (I'm assuming their own parking lot must get full to overflowing).

I was definitely first into the place today with the barman still cleaning the bar counter and updating the board (he had just taped over the Peanut Butter Stout, boo!). The barman explained that the brewery was owned by a couple of guys of Chinese descent (both made appearances whilst I was in and chatted away as they tended to the 15BBL brewing kit located at the back behind a set of swing-doors). Since they had always been given traditional Red Envelopes (or Ang Pow) from relatives whilst growing up, naming the brewery after one of these would hopefully bring them luck and success in the enterprise (and there was a titular Red Envelope on display in the black cabinet behind the bar).

I went for a 4-glass taster tray this time, deciding on the Schwarzbier (dark chocolate, thin with a dry bitter finish), the American Wheat (a lemon-bitter hefeweizen), the British Stout (dark chocolate, quite thin but with a good bitter chocolate finish) and their flagship beer, the Mosaic IPA (loads of blood red oranges, very resiny, some alcohol heat and a bitter orange finish, very nice). As mentioned I was too late for the Peanut Butter Stout but also too early for the Fresh/Wet Hop beer that was just about to be brewed (amarillo hops were supposedly the 'hop-du-jour' this year for those beers).

I also received some excellent advice from the barman - instead of retracing my steps back through Fremont I could cross the Ballard Bridge and visit Rooftop Brewing and Holy Mountain Brewing before returning to Downtown. I wasn't expecting this (I would have stopped at Bale's if I had known that would be the case) but it definitely made sense to follow the local advice. I therefore thanked the guys at Lucky Envelope for their time and criss-crossed a couple of streets to find Stoup Brewing, another industrial unit complete with large fenced-off beer garden/compound facing the westerly afternoon sun.

This time the taproom space was located at the front right of the unit with another impressive selection of beers to choose from. Standouts this time from my next selection of tasters were the Bavarian Hefeweizen (loads of bananas & pineapples, light, with pepper & cloves in the finish and probably the best Hefe I'd tasted in the US), and also the Citra IPA (loads of citra grapefruit bitterness, and pretty close to a Fyne Ales Jarl).

From talking to one of the owners I found out that the brewkit was almost the same 15BBL kit as used by Lucky Envelope, that she was the first female Cicerone in Washington State (I decided to keep my meagre tasting notes to myself!) and that a stoup was a traditional name for a drinking vessel or flagon - I certainly had no idea of the latter.

I really liked the taproom at Stoup, whether or not it was the great beer itself, all the scattered colourful beer signage & murals or the excited kids playing at the benches (there had been a no-notice teacher's strike that afternoon) but it just seemed a friendly, community place to be - people chatted away, were interested to know where I'd come from and even spent minimal time on their cell mobile phones. I was also interested to know why there were so many new breweries starting-up in Ballard and there seems to have been a combination of factors involved - relatively low rates, good expansion possibilities, access to the Burke-Gilman Trail and the on-going snowball effect of craft beer. It's now very much a destination hub and come 3pm 'til closing time on Fridays & Saturdays all these places are absolutely packed-out.

I then walked south & west from Stoup which took me past the large Bardahl Oil building with its huge neon sign (it would have been interesting to see this at night)...

...until reaching the newly relocated and expanded taproom & brewery for Reuben's Brews.

In here there's another 15BBL brewkit but with larger 30BBL fermenters, with the original premises only a couple of blocks away still being used as a pilot brewery & barrel store (after having outgrown its primary use in approx. 2 years).

In the expanded taproom I found a lot more seating than in the previous breweries (both inside and out), some nice stand-up tables carved in the shape a stylised 'R' (the Ruben's logo), and also 24 in-house beers. Amongst my selection here I had my first pumpkin beer of the year (Pumpkin Junction - dark chocolate & coffee then sweet pumpkin but it wasn't at all OTT) and also their celebration beer, 3 Years Gose Fast (ouch!), full of light lemon-lime, not fizzy(!) with a bitter-sweet lime finish - very nice indeed.

With the day winding on I decided that I just couldn't make Hilliard's Beer and since Peddler Brewing was closed on Wednesday (it would have been intriguing to visit a dedicated cycling & beer taproom) I headed up to the Ballard Bridge. This is a bit more of a utilitarian bridge than the aesthetically pleasing Fremont Bridge with the narrow footpath/cyclepath located very close to the oncoming traffic (some polite cyclists stopped for me, others did not).

Once back on the south side of the Fremont Cut again, I took the footpath off the bridge, crossed the road (since the sidewalk had disappeared) and walked the short distance to the next cross-street. Here I found a tea & coffee shop (Zoka) and also the quite busy parking lot (it was now well past 5pm) for the Rooftop Brewing Co..

They had only just re-opened in the last few weeks after moving from a 1BBL 'garage' plant to a new 15BBL plant (another one!) and had been shut for close on a year in-between (an incredibly frustrating time for all involved at Rooftop, according to the barman at Lucky Envelope). The somewhat closed-off taproom itself is pretty small, with a few seats at the bar and a few tables facing this but as always there was a more than interesting selection of beers available. These included a Simcoe Single Hop IPA (full of deep earthy bitterness) and also a number of beers made with the assistance of the adjacent Zoka coffee/tea-shop people (I had a Coffee Blonde - full of serious roasted coffee, a bit of lemon, more coffee, a bitter lemon-lime finish with even more coffee - it certainly woke me up.

Although the taproom is small at Rooftop, the large outside terraced deck area more than makes up for it with bench tables distributed around the inside and seating dotted about the outer edges. I managed to get a single seat at the very northern end of the terrace and this gave me a view over the rooftops of the nearby office blocks & industrial units as they crowded into the sloping strip of land area before the Fremont Cut; it may be that this was where the name of the brewery came from.

When I left Rooftop I found myself skirting the more hilly Queen Anne section of Seattle and needed to get down to the main thoroughfare of 15th Avenue West. I accomplished this using a number of sets of steep stairs...

...before walking a mile or so due south towards Downtown. I went past a huge soccer/athletics/golf complex and an almost as large Whole Foods Market store before reaching what seemed to be the somewhat smaller premises of Holy Mountain Brewing Company.

The public entrance for the taproom is at the left side which leads to a far large space at the rear of the building and from here I could get an idea of the sheer volume of kegs that they produce.

The taproom here is a more modem, minimalistic place with the long bar set in front of a number of tall viewing windows for the brewing kit (10BBL with 20BBL fermenters & bright-beer tanks) and the tap selection written on a number of thin chalkboard slates.

Amongst my final selection of tasters I managed the Grapefruit Saison (loads of grapefruit lemon bitterness, then a nice earthy spicy finish), but did also find space for a nightcap of the Bourbon Barrel Aged King's Head (loads of dark chocolate, mega cherries, smooth, more sour cherries in the finish). The taproom is a nice chilled-out place to relax with some great beers at the end of a day but the rear entrance is incredibly close to the main trainline from Seattle to Vancouver and goods trains did seem to trundle by every 15 minutes or so.

And you'll have to forgive me some artistic license this one time. By the time I got to that most famous landmark of Seattle, the Space Needle, it was totally dark, and although it was still open I decided that it made far more sense to come back the next day. This I did and was rewarded with an almost perfectly clear day for some photos of the centrepiece of the 1962 World Fair.

An elevator ride up to the 520-foot high Observation Deck was a must and this gave me fantastic views south to Downtown, Mount Rainier (just about visible through the direct sunlight), SafeCo Field and Puget Sound (there was also an impressive fly-by by a seaplane)...

...and also north/north-east back along the route of my walk with Lake Union visible in its entirety as well as the snow-capped peaks of Mount Shasta and Mount Baker. This was great way to finish a visit to a great city and I'll hopefully be back again soon.

Return travel:-
  Monorail: Space Needle to Westlake Center ($2.25 one-way)