The Watering Hole: Urban Family Public House, 5329 Ballard Ave. N.W., 783-2337, BALLARD
The Atmosphere: It's awfully blustery on the first day of spring, and not another soul aside from the bartender has sought refuge inside Ballard's latest beer emporium. The space used to house the old Sutter Home and Hearth store, but when that business decamped for Fremont, the sizable room was remodeled and split down the middle. One side now houses The Sexton, the other Urban Family Public House—which sounds like a commune for alcoholics, but the decor could not be more understated. The only thing that really stands out here is the wooden porch swing that hangs in the front window. The bar itself is topped with stainless steel, with stool seating for perhaps a dozen. A flat-screen TV tuned to college basketball is on mute, while garage rock plays on the stereo.
The Barkeep: Mike Knox, a rugged fellow with a thick beard and shaggy blond hair, is pinch-pouring for the two regular bartenders, both reportedly out recovering from surgeries. Knox got schooled on cerveza while working at Brouwer's, the beer mecca of Fremont. His resume includes numerous stints at local watering holes over the years, most notably nearby King's Hardware. He just returned to Seattle after a four-month trek across the American West that included stops at 14 national parks.
The Drink: Urban Family is purely a tavern, meaning there's no hard liquor to be had. Instead they have 25 beers on tap, along with a handful of bottles and a limited wine selection. The beer list favors Belgian-style ales, mainly from out-of-state brewers. After asking about my preferences (no ultra-hoppy IPAs, please), Knox settles on Stillwater Premium from Baltimore. A cloudy, flax-hued brew, the menu describes it as being 4.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), and says it is a "farmhouse blond recipe aged with Brett."
Who the heck is Brett? Knox explains it's not a person, but rather Brettanomyces, a type of yeast used mainly in lambics and Trappist beers. This particular genus of yeast tends to taste more acidic when it ferments, and in Stillwater Premium's case a pang of bitterness definitely accompanies the first sip. That sensation fades quickly, though, and it finishes with a nice, even balance of sweet and sour—like an IPA, minus the face pucker. Knox compares it to a saison, a low-alcohol French pale ale, and notes that it was aged in oak barrels. Flavorful as it is, it might be possible to drink an entire barrel's worth.
The Verdict: One of the finest mugs of suds in recent memory. Then again, with the selection at Urban Family, choosing from the tap handles is sort of like picking the cutest puppy from a litter of golden retrievers: You really can't go wrong. These are the craftiest of craft beers, selling for $6–$10 a pour.
Knox offered several other shot-size samples, including the unforgettably named Cats Piss IPA, which is much tastier than it sounds. Perhaps the best of the bunch was Lost Abbey Devotion, a Belgian-style beer from California that at 10 percent ABV packs a punch but still goes down smooth. Switching back to the far less potent Stillwater almost feels like going from malt liquor to Bud Light—except that it's the opposite of swill.