Before I begin, let me say one thing up front: I realize “Top 10” and “Best of …” lists are subjective. I’m also aware that some people do not like these lists for one reason or another. But the fact remains, many more people like to read them for a variety of reasons. Some find them entertaining. Some use them as fodder for debate (which can also be entertaining). And some out-of-town visitors like to refer to them in an effort to streamline their itineraries. So, here we go.
Below is a list of my picks for Bellingham’s best beers and runners up from each of the five currently operating breweries in Bellingham. To keep things on a relatively equal playing field, I only included “regular” beers on draft, so no rare seasonals, one-offs or special barrel-aged beers were included (even though I like some of them more than some of the beers below). I also wanted to choose beers that you could find on tap or in bottles/cans, so that you could actually try them (or re-try them, in the name of research). That half-barrel batch of imperial dunkelweizen aged on ackee fruit in Brennivin barrels might have been the best thing ever, but if no one could actually find a bottle of it to try, it’s just a tease, and putting it on a list like this just annoys readers.
Best: Uncommon California Common
The California Common beer style, originally known as Steam Beer, is a hybrid style that was once brewed across the American West. Anchor Brewing owns a trademark on the term Steam, so the style is called California Common. This beer is fermented with bottom-fermenting lager yeast, but unlike typical lagers, it is fermented at a warmer, ale-like temperature. Relatively speaking, this beer is rarely brewed these days, especially in the Northwest, which is why Wander named its beer Uncommon. Brewed with a Bavarian lager yeast strain, Belgian Abbey malt and Northern Brewer hops, Uncommon is an eminently drinkable beer that offers nuanced malt flavors of biscuit, toast and caramel, complemented by hop notes of herbs and spices along with a balanced bitterness. Dare I say it’s uncommonly good?
Runner Up: Wanderale Belgian Blond
Interpretations of the Belgian-style Blond beer style seem to range from light and clean to rustic and robust. Wanderale seems to fall somewhere in the middle. It is “light” in some ways, but it also offers a layer cake of wholesome flavors. Malts provide notes of biscuits and bread dough; yeast esters give off hints of banana and bubble gum; and hops contribute elements of flowers, spices and herbs. This beer is full of flavor and it’s also surprisingly easy to drink.
Best: Disco Lemonade Berliner Weisse
Tart, tangy, spritzy and refreshing, this Berliner weisse really quenches my light sour ale craving. And I don’t mean light as in light sourness, it just makes for more of an everyday sour ale, as opposed to a funkier, brett-pedio-lacto sour ale, which sometimes requires the right mood. For those wanting to cleave off some of Disco Lemonade’s twang, traditional house-made syrups are available to mix in as you wish, but I prefer the beer straight up. Technically, this a seasonal, but it’s on tap for a good portion of the year, usually during the warmer months. During the colder half, Head of Security Brindle Sour Brown Ale surfaces, which is another lactobacillus brew. Think of it as a darker, “pre-flavored” Disco Lemonade, with the added element of dark fruit notes, making for a similarly great winter substitute.
Runner Up: Ginger Rye Pale Ale
Outside of some Asian dishes, I’m not a huge ginger fan, but this beer quickly grew on me after my first few sips. Made with real ginger and real limes, its freshness really shows. The curious combination of spicy ginger, citrusy lime and rye and caramel malts blends surprisingly well into a refreshingly sweet-and-spicy beer.
Best: Bastard Kat IPA
Sometimes I fancy a palate-smacking IPA with 100+ IBUs. But most of the time I just want a flavorful and balanced IPA that I can drink a lot of in one session, and Bastard Kat is that IPA. It is crisp, bright and clean, and it has just the right amount of caramel-honey sweetness to complement its snappy bitterness. After each citrusy and piney sip, its dry finish resets your palate for another one.
Runner Up: Transporter Porter
This brown porter has a deep mahogany hue, a smooth and velvety texture and a complex mixture of malt flavors, including roast, toast, toffee, chocolate and the slightest hint of smoke. Meanwhile, it offers a nice and balanced interplay of hop bitterness, sweet caramel and creamed coffee.
Best: Scotch Ale
I can’t think of too many beers that appeal to both beer geeks and light beer lovers (and even non-beer drinkers), but somehow Boundary Bay’s Scotch Ale is one of them. It has rich and wholesome flavors of roast and toast, plus faint hints of smoke and peat, but it’s also easy to drink, and it isn’t heavy or cloying. It’s rounded out by a healthy dose of hops, but it’s not overly bitter. In other words, it has depth and flavor, yet it’s very drinkable.
Runner Up: Inside Passage Ale (IPA)
This Northwest-style IPA has a big malt backbone and an assertive hop bitterness with zingy notes of grapefruit and pine. Inside Passage Ale is a bellwether of this sub-style, so it’s no surprise that it has a strong following in this region. Just beware, it contains a whopping 7% ABV, but it goes down dangerously easy. As an aside, as much as I like this IPA, if Cedar Dust IPA were regularly on tap, I would probably drink it more than Inside Passage.
Best: Chuckanut Kolsch
It was immensely difficult to choose a favorite Chuckanut beer because it produces so many incredibly well-made beers. But after tasting this beer with a fresh palate on multiple occasions, the choice was obvious. Chuckanut’s Kolsch might be considered a “light” beer, but it’s like no other version I have tasted before, as it has an amazing depth and complexity. Up front, it is crisp and refreshing, and then it takes you on a full-flavored ride of malts, hops and yeast, and it leaves you questioning where one begins and the others end. This seamless blend leaves behind clean notes of bread, pears, spices, herbs, wildflowers and more. Experts in the booze biz say alcohol carries flavor, but this beer defies that logic by somehow carrying an unbelievable amount of flavor with just 4.5% ABV.
Runner Up: Chuckanut Pilsner
Chuckanut’s multi-award-winning Pilsner has a rich and bready malt side that is nicely complemented by a spicy bitterness. A cornucopia of flavors and aromas waft about, including crackers, herbs and dried flowers, and they all blend together impeccably well. Clean, dry and flavorful, this highly quaffable beer continues to keep your interest no matter how much of it you drink.