David Whitley discovers why and the US’ Pacific Northwest are possibly the greatest places in the world to drink beer right now.
As anyone who has ever been on one will probably know, brewery tours are probably the most boring things on earth. It’s generally a case of being subjected to a marketing barrage, then yawning through tedious explanations of how various ingredients pass from big metal thing to big metal thing. Frankly, everyone just wants to skip to the free beer sampling at the end. If making beer was really interesting, we’d all be doing it.
So rocking up to Big Al’s Brewery in one of Seattle’s southern suburbs, I was not exactly enthralled by the idea of going behind the scenes and seeing how it all worked.
As the door opens, it’s rather obvious that I was not about to partake in an average brewery tour. By one of the big metal things are two chaps standing with half-full pint glasses in their hands. Micah, t-shirt stretching over a physique that shows signs of dedicated sampling, introduces us to them: “Oh, these guys are just helping out.”
In this case, ‘helping out’ seems to mean hanging around for the day and mucking in with the less glamorous side of the brewing process in return for being able to fill up their glass ‘growlers’ (four to five pint jars) with free beer at the end of the day. Oh, and a drink as much as you like policy throughout the day.
In a beautiful moment, this encapsulates everything that the Pacific Northwest’s brewing scene is about. In a country more regularly associated with the vile approximations of beer inflicted by the likes of Miller and Budweiser, the northwestern states have led the movement towards stuff that is actually drinkable.
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According to Dustin, who has set up Road Dog Tours to show people around Seattle’s small breweries, it all started to kick off in the 1980s. Amateur homebrewers experimented, some of them struck something tasty and expanded operations and we’re now at the stage where virtually no pub in Seattle can get away with not offering a selection of local craft beers.
Big Al’s Brewery makes some tremendous beers. In fact, they’ve got about 12 amongst which there is no weak link. But this isn’t the result of dour assembly line professionalism; it’s a result of passion and enthusiasm. Rock music blares in the background and Micah concedes that he probably has a beer every couple of hours.
“What about driving home?” I ask.
“Ah, um, that guy there’s from the Mercer Island PD…”
Another of the random hangers-on chips in. “Yeah, we try not to kill too many hookers while he’s around.”
It’s an extraordinary scene, as far away from Big Beer as is possibly imaginable. It’s essentially a geeky homebrew operation magnified. We sample in the best way possible, stonking great unmeasured measures straight from the tank, thundered into any random glass left lying around.
Big Al’s has been running as a mini-brewery for three years, and now distributes to around 300 pubs around Washington State. Randomly, it also distributes to Alabama – they were tracked down by the university that uses Big Al the elephant as a football mascot, and the beer sells like the hottest of hotcakes as a result.
We later move on to a couple of other breweries for the sort of extraordinarily generous tastings that get you feeling very woozy by the end of play. Both are, as is Big Al’s, situated in fairly non-descript parts of town. At one, I’m given a map of breweries that have tasting rooms around the Seattle area. There are, without counting too closely, absolutely shedloads of them. I’m sure there are varying degrees of slickness and professionalism amongst them, but from the gloriously odd visit to Big Al’s it’s obvious that a genuine spirit of care and desire rules. Whisper it quietly but, for beer, this part of the world may be as close to heaven as you’re going to get.
Disclosure: David was a guest of the Seattle Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. If you want to tour Seattle’s little breweries yourself, check out Road Dog Tours at Seattlebrewerytour.com.
For more things to do in the city, check out the Grumpy Traveller free city guide to Seattle.