There are literally hundreds of breweries in Washington (and it feels as if most of them are in Seattle). And, from their inception, each one has had to ask itself this: What should our very first beer be?
As the Pacific Northwest beer palate evolves—early on from pilsners, now to IPAs, and perhaps later to yeastier beers like kölsches and sours—the answer has changed, and for three local breweries, we are privy to the philosophy behind their first choices. Lucky for us, that means that when ordering one of their pints at your favorite bar or restaurant (which are increasingly moving to robust beer selections that rival wine lists, often heavily weighted toward local pours), you’ll know exactly what inspired it! Nowadays, too, most breweries have a rotating schedule of food trucks, which means you can get dinner along with one of your favorite beers.
Tommy Ortega opened his Ravenna Brewing Company in April. And while IPAs remain the standard for Seattle beer drinkers, Ortega says the conversation around them has grown a touch stale. So he wants to help spark a new dialogue around more distinctive beers like his jalapeño kölsch, a light, effervescent, German-style beer, or peach hefeweizen, a wheat beer with a little spice—both of which you can sample at RBC’s Ravenna brewpub (5408 26th Ave. N.E.) while munching on their complimentary salty snacks or enjoying hearty fare onsite from food trucks like Das Brat Wagen, 505 Chile Cart, or Chavoya’s Hot Dogs. “Everybody wants an IPA,” says Ortega. “Everybody wants their IPA to be their flagship. But for me … I went for something different.”
With a new brewery, Ortega prefers to rely on the element of surprise: What is a first-time patron going to raise her eyebrows at when looking at the tap list? If “you have something random on tap,” Ortega says, ”something bizarre and interesting that they’ve never had before, that gets the gears turning in their heads. It gets them talking.” Which is exactly what happened, he says, with the patrons at RBC’s tasting room, who began chattering about the jalapeño kölsch almost automatically.
Manny Chao, co-founder of the wildly popular Georgetown Brewing, sold his first keg in 2003; it was the company’s now-famous Manny’s pale ale. At the time, Georgetown traversed a unique route, eventually helping to pave the way for hoppier beers down the road. “We looked at the market,” says Chao of the brewery’s beginnings. “A lot of our friends were coming off an amber kick, and we felt like Washington didn’t have its own pale ale—there was Sierra Nevada and Mirror Pond—but we thought if we could make a local pale ale, we could get a lot of people to support us.”
It was only after the popularity of Manny’s—available in nearly every Emerald City bar and restaurant—was established that Georgetown began branching out. Next came Roger’s pilsner, followed by Chopper’s red ale and the 9-Pound Hammer porter (named after the popular Georgetown eatery). Only after those beers were established did the group start in on an IPA, its floral Lucille. “My own palate was starting to change,” Chao says. “I was enjoying IPAs and there was a lot of pressure to make a really good one.”
And once they did, many more breweries began brewing IPAs too—like Adam Robbings, co-founder and head brewer at Reuben’s Brews in Ballard, which began selling beer commercially in the summer of 2012 in its taproom, and also provides the opportunity to chow down on offerings from food trucks like Wet Buns and Cheese Wizards parked outside. Its Crikey IPA is one of the city’s most popular, but the traditional sunset-hued concoction was not the brewery’s first. Instead, a roasted rye (read: dark) IPA was the original pour, much different than the citrusy Crikey.
“It’s an IPA and a winter warmer wrapped into one,” says Robbings of the roasted rye. “Hoppy, but rich and dark and warming, a little rye spice, while being highly drinkable. It was an exciting challenge from a brewer’s perspective—and it was a popular first brew.” That kind of spice-forward dark beer is certain to pair well with some of fall’s go-to fare, like smoked meats and savory stews. The beer was born out of Robbings’ home brewing in his garage, and eventually won the people’s-choice award at the PNA Winter Beer Taste in 2010.
When it comes to offering any given style, he says, “you still need to answer the question ‘Why you?’ Why should someone come to your brewery rather than another? You need something different as well as the balance.”