Fever A-Brewing: Are 10 Ballard Breweries in a Two-Mile Radius Sustainable?

The neighborhood’s beer scene in four pints.

I. IPA

March 8, 2013, was the day this thing really broke open.

That Friday, both Peddler Brewing and Populuxe opened their doors in Ballard, becoming the seventh and eighth places in a 10-block swath of warehouses (with a slice of hip Ballard Avenue) where one could order a beer brewed on site. They joined Hale’s, Hilliard’s, Northwest Peaks, Maritime Pacific, Urban Family, and Reubens. Another in the wings, Bad Jimmy’s, had already rented space in a former Crossfit gym and was raising money on Kickstarter to get going. Meanwhile the folks behind Stoup Brewing—“two thirsty science nerds and a curious connoisseur”—were putting the final touches on their business plan.

In the eight months to follow, what was once a crowded five-brewery scene became something altogether different: a brewing district that borders on the absurd, where one can walk less than two miles and drink 10 beers by 10 different brewers—a kind of wine-country experience, where vats stand in former auto shops instead of chateaux.

And just as you can order an IPA—the very cornerstone of American craft brewing—at nearly every stop, there’s a strong feeling that while each brewery is different, they’re all part of the same entity. You can think of this part of Ballard as a beer-lover’s dream bar with 10 rooms; if you tire of one, it’s no more than a three-block walk through live demonstrations of American manufacturing to the next. The dream bar has something like 70 local beers on tap. The dream bar has rules: Dogs are always welcome. The more squealing kids the merrier (really). The beer you order is sort of your beer, but everyone at the table gets a taste. Some boisterous laughter is fine, but visible drunkenness will draw passive-aggressive stares left over from Ballard’s Scandinavian ghosts. The dream bar takes cards via an iPad with a Square reader attached.

And the dream bar certainly has a coherent aesthetic—cement floors, garage doors, and, oddly, an almost universal eschewing of utility closets: Here, you can see more than just where your beer is being brewed, you can see the mop they used to clean the floor before you came in.

II. The Guest Tap

But this isn’t one big bar. It’s distinct breweries, with distinct sets of owners and investors who need to buy ingredients and make rent and still, maybe, have something left over to walk home with.

Wonderful as this is for the consumer, can it last?

Craft beer can trace part of its genesis to the section of Ballard we’re talking about, which, more or less, is bordered by Leary Avenue Northwest, 20th Avenue Northwest, and Northwest Market Street. It was here that Redhook Brewing, seeking cheap rent and industrial space, began in 1981 in the hope that it could find a market for beer that tasted better than what Budweiser was making and fresher than what was coming from Europe. It caught on, and by the late ’90s, craft brewing experienced its first bubble. Riding the first wave of American craft-brew success, 1,631 breweries were operating nationally in 1998, most of them microbreweries; but despite the roaring dot-com economy, craft breweries started to shutter their doors even as people made money off things like Pets.com.

There just wasn’t enough demand for more than 1,500 different beer labels; by 2001, the number of breweries in the United States had fallen 16 percent. Bubble or not, the number rebounded in a big way: At the end of 2013, the Brewers Association counted 2,722 breweries in the United States, an increase of 400 from 2012. Yet some stats suggest American demand for beer could be on the wane. Restaurant Sciences, an industry research group, found that restaurants sold 6 percent less craft beer on average in 2013 than they had the year before. A recent Gallup poll showed that among Americans who drink, 36 percent prefer beer compared to 35 percent for wine; in 1992, those numbers stood at 47 and 27 percent.

Yet Ballard brewers, neither on the record nor off, won’t give any hint that they are in any kind of fierce competition with the guys down the block. Not only that, but the breweries are likely to pour their competitors’ (if you can call them that) beer on one of the guest taps that are common in these parts.

Indeed, you might think the guys at Bad Jimmy’s—the last of this bunch to enter the fray, in December—would be feeling the pressure most of all. Yet co-owner Seth Mashni insists it isn’t like that. “The way we look at it is everyone’s part of a family, and it’s a good family to be a part of,” he says. “We don’t look at it as competition. It’s more on the line of, ‘What can we bring to the table and how can we help each other?’ ”

When a brewer comes up short on hops, it has the others to call. Same goes for parts and advice. And from an economic point of view, it’s conceivable that when a critical mass of breweries is reached—and if Ballard’s mass isn’t critical, I don’t know what is—they as a group will begin to draw more customers.

“Chateau Ste. Michelle is a perfect example,” says David Mickelson, a founder of Redhook Brewery, referring to the first of the thriving clutch of winemakers north of Seattle. “They haven’t fought any of the wineries around them. They knew that the Washington wine market had to grow for them to be successful.”

It was easy to see this dynamic on display on a recent tour of the Ballard breweries; not only was every place packed—the rare January blue skies and warm air allowed the breweries to throw open their garage doors for overflow crowds—but faces started to become familiar toward the end: There’s the couple from Populuxe. There’s that funny-looking kid from Stoup.

“That’s their saving grace, those folks walking the neighborhood buying beer,” says Mike Hale of Hale’s Ales, who explains that selling a keg’s worth of beer on site, one $4 pint at a time, can bring a brewer $400, whereas selling a keg to a wholesale distributor might bring only $60, and selling straight to a bar or restaurant, $110. Kurt Stream, a local beer historian and author of Brewing in Seattle, says that as much as a third of small breweries’ sales happen in the tasting room.

Yet Stream—echoed by Mickelson—warns that a market correction could happen: if not in Ballard, then somewhere among Seattle’s 30-plus craft breweries. “Will the craft-brew bubble burst in Seattle and the Ballard area anytime soon? It’s possible,” he says. “The local market is now becoming crowded with the sheer number of new breweries opening. While before there was instant hype . . . surrounding the opening of any new brewery, the average Seattle craft drinker is becoming a bit weary.

“The novelty of it all will dissipate, and the survivors will be the ones that have built a loyal following brewing quality and innovative craft beer.”

III. Barrel-Aged

Last year, eminent beer blogger Kendall Jones suggested naming the section of Ballard that’s sprouting breweries like weeds “the Redhook District,” in honor of the first craft brewery to put down roots in the ’hood. But though Redhook was first, it wasn’t alone for long; after Redhook came Maritime and then Hale’s. What’s happening today in Ballard is a little bit of history repeating.

Mickelson recalls that he and the other Redhook folks weren’t exactly pleased when brewers like Mike Hale showed up—which Hale attests to—but at the same time they recognized a common enemy: macrobrews and European imports. “At first we hated it—you don’t want to share; but really, we weren’t competing against other craft beer, we were competing against the imported product that wasn’t fresh.”

Similarly, Hale today says that Seattle breweries needn’t compete if they can focus on convincing people here to stop drinking beers made in California and Colorado: “A beer brewed in San Diego is going to taste best in San Diego.”

This sort of old Ballard brewer wisdom isn’t lost on the new guys. Mashni credits Hale as a mentor, even though Bad Jimmy’s opened right across the street from Hale’s; he hatched some of Bad Jimmy’s business plan at the tables there. Hale fields some of their brewer’s questions, and even took the owners to Olympia on a bus last year to lobby against the beer tax (which didn’t pass).

As for Redhook, based in Ballard for decades (it’s now in Woodinville), some employees recently took a tasting tour of the old ’hood to see what all the fuss was about. Their last stop was Hilliard’s, which, they noticed, was brewing an ESB (Extra Special Bitter), Redhook’s specialty. They struck up a conversation with the brewers, and soon after came a partnership that produced the Joint Effort Hemp Ale, a punned-up brew celebrating the legalization of marijuana.

“I like to think of us as a cool uncle or a brewer’s big brother,” Redhook brand manager Karmen Olson says, perpetuating the old stereotype of hip uncles as weed hookups.

IV: Fresh-Hopped

Hiccups happen in business, but more hiccups happen in new businesses. And, with most of these breweries still in their first year, you get the sense they’re still figuring things out. On my latest visit to Bad Jimmy’s, they were out of their IPA, reducing their beer list to only three. And while I have no doubt it’s great for watching sports, the way their tables are oriented around a big-screen TV gives the taproom an acutely non-communal vibe. (That said, the music was an unimpeachable mix, as was the red ale and stunning habanero ale.)

Meanwhile, Populuxe’s 10-beer roster is so extensive with esoteric styles, ordering can feel like a crapshoot (they do offer samples). The citrusy IPA is decadent and a must-try; the English mild, while true to the style, explains why English beer stays in England (I know, I know, the English invented IPA, blah blah blah).

On a recent trip to Stoup, which seems to have a corner on the “young Ballard implant couple with 2.5 kids” crowd, a credit-card reader malfunction was wreaking serious havoc on their ability to serve. The fact that they had a custom-made snack vending machine and T-shirts, yet faltered on something so basic, created a disconnect. Then again, iPads are just computers, and computers are computers.

In fact, Stoup wasn’t even on my list of breweries to hit on my latest tour, though not intentionally. It was simply an oversight.

But there it was, between Populuxe and Reuben’s, garage door open and sheet-metal siding glistening in the sun. A food truck was dishing up Hawaiian food, and from a distance the line seemed manageable. Ordinarily it’d be a no-brainer to stop in for a pint, yet a voice in the back of my mind quoted Frost: I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.

In other words, we had three breweries under our belts and four more to hit. You simply can’t do them all and emerge anywhere short of hammered (see above re Ballard brewery etiquette).

Later, Mike Hale would note the one downside to all these breweries, if you can call it that: “It can lead to overconsumption. I’ve been known to overindulge. But it’s just so darn good.”

Touché. Two paths diverged in a Ballard ’hood, and we chose the one to Stoup. I got the beer, using cash to avoid the malfunctioning machine; my wife grabbed a snack from the food truck. She tried my beer, I hers. And while the future may remain uncertain for these small breweries, it was hard to imagine a more perfect scenario: Beer in hand, we walked past the dogs asleep on the floor and the children running among the tables, and the shadows became long during a perfectly carefree Ballard afternoon.

food@seattleweekly.com

 
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