Set foot inside any self-respecting watering hole in Seattle and take a look behind the bar. A row of beer taps is set amidst backlit bottles of liquor and stacks of sparkling glasses. Each tap handle bears the name of the beer’s creator and most are proudly displaying the beverage’s local heritage. As integral to Seattle as coffee and the space needle, microbreweries and craft beer makers are found throughout the city.
Gleaming metal brew kettles reflect through the glass windows of a brewery, and the smell of hops pour out over busy streets. Every neighborhood seems to have its own pub, and every season its own special concoctions. Consequently, residents follow breweries like sports teams, with favorite ales instead of players.
According to the Brewers Association, the largest group of brewers in the United States, microbreweries produce less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year – not a large number on the big scale of things. This means that most microbreweries distribute beer locally. Larger brew houses may have their beer on tap at several bars in town and a few throughout the state. Seattle has more than ten microbreweries, each producing beer year-round and distributing their product throughout the city. Every year, Seattle microbreweries bring home gold medals from national and international competitions. Beer drinkers associations, annual events, and home brew shops enhance a city where beer is king.
Every microbrewery approaches its beer differently. Small operations, like Two Beers Brewing Company and Naked City Brewery, make only a few beers at a time, whereas larger breweries like the Elysian and Pike Brewing may have up to a dozen beers on tap at any one time. Each brewery creates its own version of the classic styles with pale ales, india pale ales or IPAs, porters, and ambers on everyone’s list. What the master brewer does with rotating and seasonal beers, however, is where the magic happens. Spicy pumpkin beers at Halloween, dark malty ales during the holiday season, and bright refreshing pales to usher in summer solstices.
Brewing beer is a basic process, but it leaves plenty of room for inventive techniques. Beer starts with hot water and grain. The grain is steeped to impart sugars and flavors to the beer. Adding malts, which give the taste of caramel, molasses, chocolate, and roasted coffee, to the beer further characterizes its flavor. Ambers, porters, and stouts typically have extra malt added. Hops are another ingredient that is added to give beer its bitter or acidic flavor; india pale ales are usually hop heavy. Special flavors are another way to add to a beer’s qualities. Nutmeg and coriander add spice to a Belgian ale, and pumpkin pie filling is often used to create holiday pumpkin ale. Finally, the beer is put into a primary fermenter and yeast is added to convert the available sugars into alcohol. Depending on the style, fermentation can take as little as three weeks or go for as long as four months. In the end, a delicious beer is born. Because microbreweries typically make small batches, they are often able to create dozens of styles a year. The resulting environment ensures that new beers are always available and recurring seasonals are awaited with great anticipation. Another aspect to the brewing process takes place outside, where the annual crops of grains and hops are affected by weather and varying soil conditions. No two beers are ever exactly the same and Seattleites are constantly lining up to taste the difference.
East of Seattle, over the Cascade Mountains, is the Yakima valley where expanses of fertile ground are filled with ranches, farms, and perhaps more importantly, hops. The Yakima River valley produces more than 75 percent of the nation's hops, so it’s likely that just about any beer you drink will have Yakima Valley hops in it.
In many ways, Seattle's microbrewery history reflects the nation's development of microbreweries. In the 1980s, small breweries began to operate in order to offer Americans a change from the stale tastes of the nation's major brewers. People wanted beer that tasted good and they wanted new styles and new flavors. It was only a matter of time before the state synonymous with hops began its own brewing crusade. In 1988, Big Time Brewery opened in Seattle's University District and became the city's first brewpub, a place that created its own beer and sold it on the premises. Soon after, Pike Brewing Company, Maritime Pacific Brewing Company, and others followed. Their styles paid tribute to their geographic heritage and the hop. Today, Seattle microbreweries are known most for their huge IPAs loaded with different varieties of fresh hops from just over the mountains.
Microbreweries are a standing tribute to the city's legacy of progressive perfection, constantly striving to create something better. Local residents have been quick to respond, with loyal patronage and nearly obsessive support. In short, microbreweries are in the hearts and glasses of all Seattleites.