Chuckanut Brewery is having a banner year. They’ve won 15 awards between the North American Beer Awards and the Washington Beer Awards. Chuckanut’s second brewery, South Nut, is running at full capacity and providing craft beer drinkers around the region with Chuckanut’s highly sought after world class lagers in draft and bottles.
After a brewery tour with Chuckanut Brewer Steve DeMoney, I sat in the Chuckanut tap room, along the waterway in downtown Bellingham on an 80 degree day and chatted with Chuckanut’s Owner and Brewmaster, Will Kemper. As many of you know, Will Kemper is a legend in the craft brewing industry. He started one of Washington State’s first microbreweries, Thomas Kemper Brewery, in 1984. Now he has over 30 years of brewing under his belt and has awards from the international to state level. He likes what he’s been seeing from Chuckanut this year and when I mentioned I enjoyed Chuckanut’s shirts and their logo he responded with, “I was wearing our new shirt and it’s the first one I’ve been complimented on!”
Happily for us, Will Kemper doesn’t need to worry about t-shirt design, but he does need to worry about beer. And he’s very good at it.
Lately, everyone seems to be making their style of beer. And that style is lagers. Most prominently, Kulshan released Bellingham’s their Premium Lager, Bellingham’s first canned lager in over 100 years. Aslan quickly followed with their Classic Lager. Nearly everyone in town has a lager, but no one makes them like Chuckanut. Few are as lauded or awarded for lagers as Chuckanut Brewery.
Kemper told me that for the past few years he has been focused on getting South Nut up and running. With that accomplished, he is able to refocus on brewing at Chuckanut. Working more closely with the Chuckanut brewing process means that his way of doing things introduces a signature “nuance” back into the brewing process. 15 awards later and we can see the evidence that it’s working.
But today I didn’t want to talk about the past or awards. I wanted to learn about the world of Chuckanut and its future. Specifically, I’ve heard more people wondering why they can’t find Chuckanut’s beers in cans. With all of these local lagers being canned, will we see Chuckanut move in that direction?
“yes, we are investigating canning our beers.” – Will Kemper
He told me, “Packaging doesn’t do anything to benefit the beer.” Canning is really a way to increase volume and expand territory, so when it comes to the delicate nature of Chuckanut’s high quality lagers the canning process needs to be dialed in.
And that is exactly what they are doing. Will is in talks with Krones AG, a high end canning and packaging company in Germany. Chuckanut is attending Drinktec 2017 and has a few meetings scheduled with Krones. Drinktec dwarfs any of the world’s beer festivals, including the Great American Beer Festival.
If packaging doesn’t do anything for beer, why does Chuckanut bottle? That comes down to the specifics of canning and bottling. And the answer is very basic, but important. Kemper explained, “Oxygen in beer is not a good thing. When you can a beer you have a much bigger hole when filling,” at this point he links his fingers showing the large opening of a
can. “With bottling that opening is much smaller.” It’s a matter of lowering the probability of error.
The larger hole in a can means much more can go wrong. Kemper told me that Chuckanut can’t mask mistakes in their beer by dumping hops into it, or using heavy handed malting. Their beer is much more delicate. Will is simply ensuring that the high quality needs of Chuckanut are met with the same level of technology.
There’s also the issue of carbonation. All of Chuckanut’s beers are naturally carbonated. That means all those bubbles you see in Chuckanut’s beers are the result of a natural process. There are other breweries in Bellingham that naturally carbonate a few of their beers. But none of them make natural carbonation a part of their full brewing philosophy.
Natural carbonation creates tinnier bubbles and a specific mouth feel. Those tiny bubbles are created through the process of “spunding”, which is German for “bung”, or to close off and seal. The vessel is closed off and the CO2 that is given off by the yeast builds up in the fermentation vessel, giving the brewer natural carbonation.
Canning requires force carbonation to retain the quality and shelf life of the beer, so any canning process needs to be carefully vetted to respect the flavor and mouth feel of Chuckanut’s beer.
“Whether with us or for a brewery that carbonates their product, the beer going to the actual package already has its CO2 level. The difference with us is that that CO2 level is established way sooner due to natural carbonation instead of right before packaging,” Kemper explained. “That creates another issue because we have to maintain the correct CO2 levels throughout the process instead of adding it at the end.”
He continued explaining that not all filling operations are created equally. “The only thing we can do to ensure the best product for our consumers is to not be casual with the filling procedures. Assuming that one filling operation is essentially comparable to most others is way too simplistic and incorrect if quality is the intent.”
But canning also means Chuckanut would have to expand, again. Kemper tells me that any canning of Chuckanut beer would happen at South Nut because there’s just no room in North Nut. So the move to canning has to be carefully considered and weighed against other priorities.
There are 16 fermenters at North Nut, about 12 of which are online. In the coming weeks, four of North Nut’s 20bbls fermenters will be moving to South Nut’s 20bbl brewhouse, so that they can experiment with a number of different beers. He mentioned wanting to experiment with anywhere from 20-30 different new styles. They have brewed many of those styles, but South Nut’s size allows for more.
Chuckanut Brewing respects traditional brewing. It doesn’t create haze, or add lots of hops to its beers. Its entire brewing process is a testament to high quality proven standards of brewing. There is no timeline for when they will can, but it sounds like Will Kemper is well on his way towards doing it. Until then, you can continue to buy their 500ml bottles at the brewery.