Thomas Kemper’s Still Got It at Chuckanut

A craft-brew pioneer’s carved out a niche for himself in Bellingham.

Between traffic and post-Olympia boredom, the drive south on I-5 to Portland can just plain numb the soul. So when the sun cracks through the gloom and I get the itch for a drive without ducking avalanche warnings, I instead head north on I-5 for Chuckanut Drive and towns unknown, ending most recently in Bellingham. There’s something comforting about strolling around a thriving, old-fashioned small downtown, especially with so many of them going to the tumbleweeds. Bellingham is quaint, and the proximity of Western Washington University keeps the downtown lively. The tiny waterside cluster of buildings looks like every day should be Flag Day, festooned with crepe paper. Inspired by my turn down Chuckanut Drive, I stopped at Bellingham’s newest brewery.

Open since July, Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen has garnered immediate attention among beer geeks, being owned and operated by Mari and Will Kemper, one of the founders of the Thomas Kemper Soda Company. Will Kemper’s technical résumé and work history is just plain sick—a chemical engineer, master brewer, teacher, and graduate of brewing programs at both UC Davis and in London.

After they sold their soda company to Pyramid Brewery, the Kempers traveled the world, including Mexico and Turkey, where they helped create and establish breweries before returning home and opening their own shop. Their small warehouse space just north of downtown doesn’t scream brewpub, despite the large letters spelling “brewery” on its side. The restaurant and kitchen look like an outrigger, and are connected to the brewery by a truck port; the interior feels more like a cafe with its butter-colored walls and tons of natural light.

The clean, confident flavors of the beers I’ve tried from Chuckanut Brewery give a reasonable indication of its future. Kemper has developed umpteen-hundred beer recipes over the years, so Chuckanut’s focus thus far on understated classics can be no accident. The “less is more” philosophy holds true here, as in the work of a timeless designer, and the key to all the beers is balance. Right now the taps feature a Kölsch, a Dortmunder, a Vienna lager, and a Rauchbier, and brewmaster Kemper, along with head brewer Josh Pfriem, takes care to brew each to traditional specs. The results are four distinct and vibrant golden-hued beers whose incremental differences might be lost or muddied in lesser hands.

Chuckanut’s Dortmunder is a recreation of a traditional but lesser-known strain of a pilsner-style beer, associated with the city of Dortmund, Germany. Tipping toward the malt side of the equation, this beer, the shade of honey, has a rich, toasty flavor that belies its color and aroma while still finishing super-crisp. The Rauchbier gets its smoky flavor from the wood used in its malt-drying fires. Smoked beer tastes over-the-top all too easily, but Chuckanut’s Rauch has a mellow smokiness that blends well with the smooth malt flavors of this pale brew. Their organic British brown ale has the perfect balance between the chocolatey, caramel aroma and the dry backbone of hops, which keep it from tasting too flat, a problem with many brown ales. Chuckanut also makes an organic amber ale that has a refreshing, almost pale-ale fruitiness accompanying the caramelized malt aroma; it’s lighter on the palate than the average amber.

Part of the brewery’s mission concerns the environment and sustainability, whether through donating spent grain to a local farm or moving toward all-organic brews. Pfriem says, “We want to go toward an all-organic lineup eventually, but right now it’s about the quality of the malt and the beer we want to make. The non-organic malt we’re using in some of the beer is actually more expensive than comparable organics.” With a wealth of experience behind them and plenty of room to grow, expect to see more on tap locally from Chuckanut Brewery in 2009. For now, growlers are available to go; it’s only 88.8 miles and an afternoon away.

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