There are so many new breweries opening these days that it’s difficult to keep up with them all (and that’s a great thing). But when I heard about Optimism Brewing and its unique approaches, I put it high on my list of new breweries to visit. And after doing a hike in the snowy mountains near Seattle last weekend, my wife and I squeezed in a visit, before driving back to Bellingham.
After 25 years of dreaming, a year of planning and then 21 months of construction, husband and wife owners Troy Hakala and Gay Gilmore finally opened Optimism Brewing last month in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood (at the corner of Broadway and Union).
Like many new breweries these days, Optimism does not serve food, but it does have a space for rotating food trucks to drive into the building and serve food. Yes, the building is that big. It’s a massive, beautifully renovated building with enough room to play a round of Frisbee golf and enough seating for an army.
At its center, a long bar with multiple flat-screen beer menus faces a well-planned, 20-barrel brewhouse (with plenty of room for future growth), which can be viewed from three sides. Concrete floors, massive wooden beams, steel rivets, floor-to-ceiling windows and a high, hardwood-finished ceiling tie it all together. It’s an awesome sight, and after gaping around for a bit, I almost forgot why I was there.
Eventually, we meandered up to the bar and found a slew of beers on tap with curious names, such as Unicorn, Yellow, Moxee and Black. Noticeably absent were beer style designations.
We settled on just two beers because we were limited on time and had a long drive home.
Zest was a clean and deliciously hop-forward beer with fruity notes of tangerine, grapefruit, lemon and orange peel. It was snappy yet balanced. Then I tried One, which was rich with notes of toffee, caramel and bread, along with a decent dose of hops. One offered a good amount of flavor, yet it was delightfully sessionable. Overall, I enjoyed both beers, and I look forward to trying the others on another visit.
The service, by the way, was excellent. A friendly server named Jonny even gave us a quick tour of the brewhouse.
Instead of using beer styles on their digital beer menus, images of the beers and flavor descriptors are used to describe the beers. The owners have chosen to do this for a variety of reasons. Here are some of them:
Beer style names are so poorly named, many sound unappetizing (yet are all delicious): Bitter, Pale, Sour, Barleywine, Wheatwine, Old Ale, Wee Heavy, Mild, Weizen, Cream Ale, Brown Ale, etc. Beer geeks are not put-off by names like that, but the general population is.
Beer styles were created after-the-fact and are simply opinions of a very small group of people and are almost constantly debated. Is the beer we consider a Stout really a Porter? The distinction between a Stout and Porter is so slight, heavily subjective and largely academic. Would you say, ‘I like how this beer tastes, but it’s missing this one attribute of a proper Stout, so I don’t like it.’ These debates are harming beer, not helping it.
Beer styles contribute to the ‘wine-ification’ of beer. There are over 120 beer styles, including 9 (!) different types of IPA, depending on whose beer style categorization you prefer. Does beer really need this complex and highly-subjective categorization system? Referring to styles imparts an elitist knowledge that makes people feel dumb or afraid to try new types of beers. We believe beer should be approachable, not intimidating, and not require memorizing an arcane style book.
Some people may think style names help them select a beer, but they also prevent people from trying a beer they may like. I have never had a smoked beer that I like, so I will rarely try a beer labeled as a Smoked Beer. What if there was a beer that is technically a smoked beer but the other flavors melded well with the smoke, or the smoke was subtle enough that I would like the overall beer, but I’d write it off if it was labeled as a Smoked Beer. That doesn’t help anyone or the beer.
Someone knowledgeable about beer styles should be able to use flavor descriptors and a picture of the beer to make a good guess about what styles our beers resemble. And does it really matter if you can identify the style? Isn’t it the taste that matters?
While I’m intrigued by the concept, and I respect their decision to take this approach, I do not believe we can just abandon beer styles altogether. Styles are absolutely necessary to keep beer competitions fair and equal, and they help many consumers know what they’re buying. Beer styles are also the most efficient way of communicating a large amount of information with just one or two words. It’s easier to simply say, “IPA,” for example, than it is to ramble off multiple sentences to describe a beer’s color and levels of maltiness, hoppiness, sweetness, bitterness, dryness, alcohol content, etc.
That said, I do agree with some points. Perhaps beer styles can be creatively constraining to some brewers (especially the ones who like to draw within the lines) and frustratingly confusing to some consumers. Although, the general public is becoming increasingly educated on beer styles, and I don’t believe anyone in America feels bound to them. If anything, people are becoming more and more open-minded and receptive to beers that deviate from normal style parameters.