I was in Washington last week for work. Flew into Seattle, but spent most of my time in Mount Vernon -- about 60 miles north of Seattle proper. We're pretty spoiled with good beer here in the North SF Bay Area. but I was impressed when Google Maps pointed out 5 breweries within 20 miles or so of this rural town (if you count the one in the "big city" of Bellingham). My co-worker Ryan "Big Ship" is also a beer lover so we were pumped up to explore as much beer culture as we could. Unfortunately we were there to work. We put in some long days but did manage to visit two breweries.
Monday we went to the Skagit River Brewery, right in the heart of "The Vern". The brewpub is housed in a spacious 19th century building that was originally a mill. Funky and old are the operative words for the decor, the atmosphere is very casual and mellow -- my kind of place. We tasted all of the beers they had. They were out of the Brown and had just dusted their supply of their single hop (Simcoe) IPA.
The Sculler's IPA seems to be their flagship brew and was quite tasty. More on the malty side than the hop bombs we're used to in Nor Cal (Racer 5, Moylan's IPA, Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, etc.). The citrusy hops didn't seem to stand up to the large malt character and by the end of his second pint, Big Ship wasn't enjoying it all that much. The two lagers -- Dutch Girl and a Red Lager I can't remember the name of and which I don't think is on their website -- were not that memorable. Their stout was quite nice -- somewhat similar to a Guinness, but with a touch more roastiness and I'm pretty sure a higher ABV. I also remember really enjoying my taste of the porter -- not one of my favorite styles. But the standout here was a seasonal American Wheat. I believe they used American hops, but sparingly, more like a hefe. They went a little wit with it, using orange peel and coriander. Not sure what yeast they used (definitely not Belgian), but it seemed to be adding just a bit of fruit esters which really went well with the spices. A great beer! When the server brought our check we learned that Monday was $2 pint night so we went another round. The server was also kind enough to take us on a short tour of the brewhouse. They're about to release their next seasonal which is an interesting sounding bourbon barrel aged vanilla flavored affair.
A couple nights later we trucked out west of town to the La Conner Brewing Co. Definitely a more upscale establishment: wood-fired pizza oven, paninis, that kind of thing. A guy at the office in Mount Vernon had told us that they had a world-class German-award-winning pilsner and some other good beers as well. I had a pint of the pilsner and while it was good, it did not live up to the hype. I was not much of a pilsner fan before last month when I tried and was blown away by both the offerings from Steelhead (the one in Eugene/Burlingame/Irvine, not my old buddies in Mad River) and Trumer. These were the first Pilsners I'd run across that had some serious hop character to them -- something I'd not experienced from the style before. After these, La Conner's was pretty average. We did not try all the beers, but most were quite good, but not great. I remember the brown being the tastiest of the bunch. I plopped down the $8 for the "exclusive" Belgian Style Sour with local raspberries -- aged in bottle since 2002 and according to their website a GABF winner. Maybe something had gone wrong in the bottle since that GABF because I wasn't getting it. It had a hint of the off flavor I've come across in some (friends') homebrews before that I can only compare to the taste of chewing on a pencil: woody, but not in a good way.
On the other nights we tasted some beers picked up from local stores that we hadn't seen before. Mostly WA or OR beers, but some from Colorado that apparently aren't distributed around here. Once thing we noticed kind of consistently is that the NW IPAs are much maltier and less hoppy than what we love in our favorite local brews.
I did get to try my first Mac and Jack's African Amber, but only on our way home at the Seattle airport. I'd picked up a tip that we might find it there, but the first two bars we came across did not have it and didn't know if it was available elsewhere. We sat down and ate lunch. We were done eating and just into our second 26 oz beers when we happened to ask another employee about the Mac and Jack's and were told that the next bar down the concourse had not only the amber but 3 other M&J beers. We had about 10 minutes or so before we were supposed to board so we pounded the rest of our beers and headed down the Africa Lounge. I was quite bloated and buzzed -- not the ideal state for tasting a new beer, but I definitely understand what the hype is about. Great maltiness with a big crystal/caramel and chocolate malt character, nicely balanced with some bitterness and a liberal dose of hope flavor and aroma. I haven't brewed an amber, but will likely try to clone this one soon. But maybe not before I try to come up with something like that Skagit River wheat beer.