No region of the country seems more synonymous with craft beer than the Pacific Northwest. I'm sure we'll get a little flack (from California) for that opening sentence, but we'll stick to our guns here. I'm a native Vermonter with quite a few west coast trips under my belt, and it's easy to see that, on balance, east coasters don't really "get" the pacific northwest in a lot of critical ways. Maybe it's the geographic isolation from the more densely populated east coast, maybe it's the time difference...maybe it's the rain. But the effortless way in which the northwest's residents represent all that's appealing in the world of great beer makes us envious, delivering a consistent and mellow suggestion to the rest of the country to step up our game and keep the beer torch held high. Great beer is literally everywhere now, and my latest conversation with Silver City Brewery was a subtle reminder on why I love that region of the country so much. I love the culture, and the energy, and of course, I love the beer.
If you take I-5 south out of Seattle, drive for 30-40 mins, and then take Route 16 north for another 30-40 minutes, you'll have been driving on the Kitsap Peninsula, which is the body of land directly across the Puget Sound from Seattle. If you keep driving, you'll eventually find yourself in Bremerton, Washington, which is the largest city on the peninsula and home to Silver City Brewery and Taproom, where they set up their new production brewery in 2010. Just 15 minutes north is their original brewpub in Silverdale, where the whole operation got started in 1996.
Not for nothing, but the team at Silver City has built a brewery on good ole fashioned hard work, and I'm putting good money on the fact that you've never heard of them. There are a lot of Washington State residents that have never heard of them. In the past five years, they've completely rebranded their portfolio, significantly increased production and distribution, opened a 36-barrel production facility, and done it all with the same eye on quality they started with almost 20 years ago. Let's not get too carried away, but if you've wondered where true entrepreneurial success comes from, you wouldn't do too badly to take a leaf out of their book.
The primary message that came across during my conversation with their team was clear. These guys are not a brewery in Seattle. Begun in 1996 by Steve & Scott Houmes, they spent the first 15 years of their existence as a brewpub defining themselves by their location west of the Puget Sound. I asked Daniel Frantz, a member of their marketing team, about the kind of folks who live in this area of the country, which is little known to outsiders. "A majority of our people are born and raised here." said Frantz, "We are proudly brewed on the Kitsap Peninsula." Strong roots mean that they've built a strong following in this area of the world, and such is their market saturation that they'll brew close to 14,000 barrels of beer (which is a lot of beer for a craft brewery) by the end of the year and sell almost none of it outside of Washington State.
Resonating even louder than the amount of beer Silver City makes was their approach. The Pacific Northwest is known for producing a wide variety of styles from stalwarts like Rogue, Ninkasi, and Deschutes, to name a few. These breweries don't adhere to a specific "thing". They don't just do sours, or ales, or lagers, or german beers. It's this approach that's reflected in the broad and approachable portfolio you'll find sprawling across the brewery's tap list. The brewmaster at Silver City, Don Spencer, had a clear goal in mind. "Our goal is for you to sit down in our brewery or restaurant and have each beer across our lineup be different." This has garnered them many accolades over the years, including a pile of World Beer Cup awards and a 2015 gold medal at GABF for their Old Scrooge...which is delicious.
It's important to note that their beer is really good. The Scotch Ale is a sweet, lovely tribute to the style, and the Northwest Lager, brewed to be the official beer of Seattle Beer Week, was flavorful and eminently refreshing. When I asked about their creative process, it turned out to be a team effort. Their brewmaster, Don Spencer, who spent his formative beers years at Thomas Kemper, does have final say, but they will often rely on the entire team to front new ideas for recipes and styles, some of them hitting the main rotation after a short incubation period. Next time you hit the brewery, have the regale you with the story behind their summer seasonal, Ziggy Zoggy. It's quite a tale.
More than ever, we find ourselves focusing on the human energy behind the liquid in the class. Breweries like Silver City have lent a tangible credence and legitimacy to the idea that a brewery is so much more than a bunch of metal tanks. Over the years, this crew and their brewery have matured into an established, creative enterprise that firmly, and proudly, flaunts its NW heritage. With absolutely no desire to move into a market that's not 100% ready for them, you'll have to make a road trip to western Washington to give them a try, but I think it'll be well worth it. Authenticity and local pride, the hallmark and key differentiator in great beer over the past 10 years, comes through in spades when talking to them, and I'm sure we'll see their continued success in the years to come.
Published November 2015