Photo by Eric Creitz

Washington’s Best Beers Taste Better on a Boat

Up in Bellingham, a brew-fueled cruise series is taking happy hour to sea.

It’s time for happy hour. A midweek interlude from everyday responsibilities. An evening to catch up with friends, sightsee with family, or relax with a partner. On this particular evening in late spring, happy hour involves a gangplank.

As the crowd walks single-file onto the Victoria Star 2, it sways, buoyed to the dock of Bellingham’s Alaska Ferry Terminal. Onboard, a few families settle at the tables and chairs that line the perimeter of the boat, while groups of friends and seasoned locals head straight to the main attraction: local craft brews.

With the San Juan Islands as a backdrop, couples hold hands on the boat’s outdoor decks and the vessel pulls away from the harbor. Inside, beers from Boundary Bay Brewery in Bellingham, Seattle’s Fremont Brewing, and Diamond Knot Brewery in Mukilteo fill the three tasting tables.

This social event is the second Bellingham Bay BREWers Cruise of 2016. Every Wednesday evening from late May through September, Washington breweries and beer enthusiasts come together for education and conversation. With three featured breweries each week pouring at least three beers apiece, brewers teach passengers about their craft: how they develop new beers, which strains of grain and yeast they use, and new collaboration projects they’re launching with other breweries.

The cruises were conceived five years ago, when Drew Schmidt, owner of San Juan Cruises (and captain of the cruise), and Ed Bennett, owner of Boundary Bay Brewery, joined forces to promote Washington craft beer and offer patrons a unique way to experience local culture. Bennett extended an invitation to regional breweries to get involved. Breweries from around the state—particularly in the Seattle area—jumped on the opportunity, and participation continues to grow each year. By its end, the 2016 season will have showcased 35 craft breweries, with Boundary Bay Brewery onboard every week, switching up its pour list to keep returning passengers satiated.

“It’s a lot of fun hanging out on the cruise with other brewers,” Bennett says. “It’s a very unique way to show off their beers and talk about their brewery. Most of the breweries come back every year!”

On my cruise, there’s much to explore. Diamond Knot is showcasing its grapefruit hefeweizen, a collaboration with Kent’s Airways Brewing. This brew utilizes a specific strain of yeast that results in a cloudy appearance and a very subtle banana flavor, balanced with hints of grapefruit and clove for a uniquely refreshing summer beer. Fremont Brewing has several raw ingredients on display—hops and roasted grains—and attendees are encouraged to smell and taste the components for a full sensory experience, and to help demonstrate Fremont’s commitment to sustainably sourced ingredients.

Stationed on the boat’s top floor, Boundary Bay Brewery is pouring its refreshing Lightner Lager, a session beer known for its balance of malt and hops, with a low ABV for easy summertime drinkability.

In the coming months, beer enthusiasts can look forward to learning about craft beer from the experts while tasting beverages from more Washington breweries, including Pike Brewing, Flying Bike Cooperative Brewery, Georgetown Brewery, and Black Raven Brewing. The snacks, sights, and easy undulation of Puget Sound are just a bonus.