Let’s hop in the way back machine and revisit a bygone time. A time when there was practically no beer scene in town and the seeds were being sown for what we take for granted today. As local brewers honed their craft, benchmark beers emerged that helped define the scene by revealing our local tastes and establishing Bellingham as a contender on a global scale.
Almost simultaneously, Orchard Street and Boundary Bay opened their doors in 1995. Sure, there were a handful of breweries over the city’s history, but as the Tap Trail is all about craft beer, we’ll just use 1995 as ground zero. We’re fortunate to live in an area where there are so many talented brewers who aren’t afraid to push style boundaries and take risks. But what was cutting edge in 1995 wasn’t in 2005, just as what was in 2005 isn’t in 2017. Over the last two decades brewers gained access to more ingredients and knowledge and the level of ability skyrocketed accordingly.
And so here, in rough chronological order, are the beers in and around Bellingham that have been the “benchmark” beers that helped get us to the scene we enjoy today.
It is important to note that this is not meant to be a list of the best or most popular beers in town, or even the most iconic. Many unique and delicious beers are brewed here every day. This is merely one take on some pivotal points in the scene’s history.
Orchard Street Brewery, Stock Ale
Opening in 1995, this brewery tucked away behind the medical complex became one of two options for types of beer in town; the drier and stronger option of Boundary or the slightly sweeter and moderate alcohol volume of Orchard Street. The Stock Ale was amber, malty and sweet with nutty notes and a hint of fruit. Alas, Orchard Street shuttered in 2004, but the Stock Ale lives on in the homebrew community via the recipe at North Corner Brewing Supply.
Boundary Bay Brewery, Scotch Ale
Also opening in 1995, the early days of Boundary centered largely around the day crowd (Would you believe Boundary used to close early because it was empty? Even on weekends?) and many of the standards we still enjoy today. The Scotch Ale, however, was the bill payer in the those days. Essentially an Amber on steroids, it’s big, rich, and strong. A recent conversation with Aaron Smith revealed that while the IPA eventually took the lead role, the Scotch Ale is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
North Fork Brewery, ESB
Opened in 1997, original brewer and co-owner Sandy Savage brought his knowledge of the early California brewing scene from the Triple Rock in Berkeley, his passion for British ales, acquired the old Pike Place Brewery’s mash tun, and created a must-stop on the Mt Baker Highway. While in Deming, this brewery is still important to the local scene. A solid representation of the style, brewer Eric Jorgensen still offers the ESB and other English styles along with his barrel-aged menagerie of Brett and sour beers that he started rolling out back in 2012.
Boundary Bay Brewery, IPA
First things first. The original IPA at Boundary was not what today’s Boundary IPA is. The hops were completely different and it was lower in alcohol. It had German and American hops and averaged 6% ABV. As many things do, it evolved over the years. Hoppier, stronger. Repeat for a few years. Eventually, the beer settled into the AIPA it is today, clocking in around 7% and using exclusively American hops. This is the local beer that is largely responsible for the hophead you may know, or be.
In 2008, the dynamic of the local beer scene changed forever. Seemingly overnight, Bellingham was home to world-class German lagers and ales. Chuckanut eschews the fervent belief of many that more hops equals a better beer and instead opts for finesse and the opposite range of the spectrum. While these beers look somewhat similar, they couldn’t be more different. The Kolsch is a specialized ale, while the Helles is a light lager. Each is malt-forward with the Kolsch having a hoppier edge to it and the Helles being lighter and crisper. Both are painstakingly brewed and continue to win awards around the world.
Kulshan Brewing, Bastard Kat IPA
When Kulshan opened their doors in 2012, they had no idea of the success that would follow. An instant hit, they scrambled to keep up with demand. A solid West Coast style American IPA, Bastard Kat helped drive the fact home that IPA is king in these here parts. You can usually find at least two IPA’s on draft at either of their two locations in town.
Wander Brewing, Wild Warehouse #1
Debuting in 2015, the original iteration of this beer brought home the Gold Medal at the GABF that year. Beginning life as a Belgian Saison, it ages in a French Oak Chardonnay barrel for 9 months and is released once a year. Available on draft and in bottles, it doesn’t last long. While the Wild Warehouse is the break-out beer, Wander has barrels of all sizes lying around filled with beers of all sorts. Expect a wide variety of things from their ever-growing barrel program in the future.
Quickly after opening in late 2015, Structures launched their Fuzz series, which is the ever-evolving flagship IPA. Differing hops, tinkering with malt bills, pretty much anything goes with this beer. Raspberry? Sure, why not? What it always is, though, is Bellingham’s first true East Coast style IPA. Juicy, hazy, and hoppy. You can always find this and a constantly rotating variety of other styles on tap here.
While this article only touched on a handful of beers from a handful of breweries, there are many other important beers and breweries that could be mentioned in a larger, more comprehensive history, but in the interest of brevity we offer this. We encourage you to take the time to explore the ever-growing Bellingham beer scene, as history and new benchmarks are being created all the time.