With a pale ale from the Pacific North West recently crowned the World's Best Beer, ShortList headed Stateside in search of a brew lover’s paradise
Word to the wise: Book a window seat when flying Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and your jaw might hit the ground before the landing gear does.
Lakes are great, peaks glacier-topped and the Cascade Mountain range sprawling - right the way up to a monolithic mound of rock and ice known as Mt Rainier. Towering over Seattle, it's also listed as one of the 16 most dangerous volcanoes on the planet.
Thankfully, if anything is erupting in Washington State right now, it’s the beer scene. With a whopping 80 per cent of all US hops produced in the Yakima Valley, the number of breweries dotted along this rugged corner of the world continues to rise and, as such, so does the quality of the brews. Different, daring and delicious, there be liquid gold in these hills.
Appearing in the distance like a fishing village on steroids, Seattle is a perpetual mishmash of old and new. Gleaming skyscrapers soar above the country’s oldest farmer’s market, seaplanes buzz past Amazon's national headquarters before splashing down on Lake Union, while urbanites mill around the impossibly steep slopes of this former frontier town seeking out the next big thing.
And make no mistake, having quadrupled its microbreweries in the last six years alone, Seattle now has more of them than any other US city. Who knows, at this rate, a few years from now the amber brews might outnumber those frothed up in Starbucks.
Heard the one about the Englishman, German and American who walked into a pub? No? Turns out the trio were interior decorators working for the hugely popular Pike Brewery and Restaurant, a hugely popular downtown venue which feels like Hoffen house, Texan saloon and hardened East London boozer all jumbled into one.
This global tip of the hat extends far beyond the furnishings too. Just open a menu: from Pike’s Derby Lager, using lighter Sorachi Ace hops from Japan and even a small portion of brown rice to unlock its floral notes, to the bar’s biggest seller, the Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale, it's a taste of the world, just bottled by Uncle Sam.
Not a drop is wasted within these walls, with the ale-glazed wings from Mt Vernon full proof of that.
While the Scandi-style neighbourhood of nearby Ballard is not without its charm, no borough lays bare the cool of Seattle quite like Fremont, a short cab ride north of the city centre. Stuffed with art studios, fiercely independent cafes and statues of Lenin (okay, there’s just one of those), it really is the Shoreditch of Seattle.
Pets, children, fixies - leave them all outside and join the legally responsible adults filling their growlers inside Fremont Brewing Co. (3409 Woodland Park Ave, WA 98103). Serving award-winning suds daily, highlights include Mosaic & Equinox (tangerine-tinged ale made using organic hops from Cowiche Canyon) and the house IPA Brother Imperial. Guffaw all you like at the 'one billion’ IBU count wryly written on the label, the sheer kickback of this hop heavy treat will still end up knocking you for six – or, if we’re going to be geographically accurate about this, a home run.
Handy tip: if you do ever find yourself sleepless in Seattle, you’ll find the perfect nightcap at Oliver's Lounge, perched inside the famous Mayflower hotel (405 Olive Way, WA 9810). Grab a seat beside one of the huge windows facing out onto the city's trendiest downtown areas, order yourself bottle of Old Seattle ale and drink it all in.
Your mate Dave was wrong about Carlsberg Extra Cold then and he’s wrong about it now. Should you want to settle the debate over the finest drop known to mankind for good, head an hour’s drive south west of Seattle to Washington’s leafy capital of Olympia, now home to the World’s Best Beer 2015.
Thousands of entries, four continents, one winner: after making international moves with an official beer line for The Hobbit (Smaug Stout, Blog Belgian Triple Style etc.), Fish Tale Brewing recently went one better, scooping the ale industry’s equivalent of the Oscar for Beyond the Pale. Fashioned in the same graffiti-clad warehouse local boys Nirvana once performed in, this pale ale merges four different types of grain and five varieties of hops to achieve its sweetly malted finish.
Leading ShortList around the large fizzing vats holding the stuff, General Manager Matt Lisowski manages to epitomise the cowboy ethos of the Washington beer scene while stopping just short of going full on Wonka: “We at Fish Tale are at the forefront of experimental brewing, where we’ll keep discovering new flavours for as long as we can – frankly we offer tastes nobody else does.” One sip of the Spire Mountain Cider, which has the looks and texture of stout but tastes like Sour Nerds, and we’re inclined to agree.
If Lisowski’s dedication to the craft is shared by his staff, this counts double for the site’s master brewer, Paul Pearson. Pinching a single hop between his thumb and forefinger, he explains just what makes the ones from this region so special (fertile ground, British-proportions of rain) and never takes his eyes off it, for what feels like a solid five seconds, this spherical green mound holding him in some ethereal trance, much like a certain ring did for characters of a certain film franchise they know a lot about around here. Or maybe it’s the fumes.
Afterwards, we do as the locals do and head to the pub across the road, where we even find a few limited-edition tipples not available in stores. After all, one does not simply walk into Fish Tale’s pub and order a single pint…
“See this selection?” quizzes Skyler Witter of the city’s Oly Tap Room (312 Columbia St, WA 98501), referencing a smorgasbord of beer cans and bottles crammed inside three lofty fridges, where locals continually come in to pick up six-packs - “It’s all Washington State.”
Not that you’d know it. Between Belgian-style, barrel-aged stouts and Camomile-infused ale (“it’s practically made for English people”) local brewers aren’t just taking on world classics, they’re attempting to kick-start their own in these parts, with many of them, some failed, some on course to do well, available in this friendly two-level bar.
Naturally, after a few wild evenings on the sauce you’re going to want a mini-detox of sorts. And though walking into a place with the words ‘Red Lion’ above the door would normally defeat this aim entirely, not so inside the 12-acre Olympia hotel (2300 Evergreen Park Dr, WA 98502), conveniently positioned between downtown landmarks (Washington’s Capitol building for one) and acres of nature walks and big rivers, allowing you to mountain-bike down Brown Creak trail, spend a day kayaking in the Niqually Wildlife Refuge, or hell, why not both? Either way you’ll deserve a well-earned pint afterwards.
Enjoy Instagramming yourself drinking great beer in scenic locations? Navigate the bending, fog-swept highways two hours north west of Olympia, where pine trees poke through a silvery cloak of fog like a thousand paint brushes piercing a giant hazy canvas and shorelines crash below, you can be that social media braggart - for Kalaloch Lodge, perched just back from the Pacific Ocean, is a veritable ‘Like’ magnet.
Brilliantly, the drinks selection more than matches the stunning view. Pouring a few frosty ones from a curious looking tap handle carved out of logs which floated onto the flanking shore, barman Chad Wallis slides us over a Creekside Amber, brewed exclusively for the Lodge by Silver City brewery just outside Seattle. A fine choice, but then it would be - Wallis is a certified beer sommelier.
A definite thing over here (“some bars in Alaska won’t employee anyone who isn’t”, claims Wallis), the beer sommelier programme works on four levels of strict certification. In the New Year, Wallis will be heading to Chicago to get his third. “The examinations are tough but well worth it because you learn so much” - knowing what's wrong with the lines, when a beer is “skunked”, being able to identify a style of beer by just a sniff – an impress skillset, which won’t help Liam Neeson find his daughter for the fourth time but would certainly help the man drown his sorrows in style.
Other delicacies stocked at the Lodge include Deschutes’ incredible Black Butte pPorter, out of neighbouring Oregon, Harmon’s near-caramelised IPA 1 Hop Wonder, brewed high in the hills of Tacoma. Each one is worth the trip to this beach fronted haven alone, really.
As for sightseeing, unless you're a Twihard - the nearest outpost of civilisation to this beachy haven is the sleepy town of Forks, famous for being the setting of the Twilight series as opposed to eating utensils; and, if we're being honest, it's about as entertaining as watching one of the films - we suggest going on a hike inside the Hoh Rain Forest - yes, an actual bloody Rain Forest. Afterwards, carry on heading two hours north east to Port Townsend.
We'll be honest: there’s something mighty strange about Port Townsend.
Not for the fact it’s so fiercely independent you’ll probably never visit a Pret again. Nor is it because Fort Worden (200 Battery Way, WA 98368) a decommissioned military base most famed as the setting for Officer and a Gentleman, now allows you to spend the night inside its historic dorms and officer’s cottages (just remember to make the bed properly, yeah?). We’re actually referencing the offbeat bonanza that is Strangebrew Fest, an annual celebration drawing people all over to the state in the name of daft beer.
Our favourite? Port Townsend Brewing’s Yoda Green Tea Gold, born a short, short time ago in a distillery not too far away after a squadron of mavericks began infusing golden ale with organic green tea. Very tasty, it is, and you can be sure they'll have a few more tricks up their Jedi-sized sleeves when Strangebrew returns this January (29-30).
Oh and if Mt Rainier does blow, at least you have a head start…
My America Holiday (myamericaholiday.co.uk) can tailor make a fly/drive holiday to Washington State including overnight stays at Red Lion Olympia, Kalaloch Lodge in Forks, Fort Worden and the Mayflower Park Hotel in Seattle. Prices start at £999pp including return flights from London Heathrow to Seattle with Delta Air Lines, 5 nights’ room only accommodation and car hire for the duration of the trip. For more information or to make a booking, call 0208 003 6081. For more information on Seattle call 0208 8774514 or go to Visitseattle.org.