STORY BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY CHARITY BURGGRAAF
Plums. Apricots. Dehydrated limes. Dandelion greens. Rose hips.
At Urban Family Brewing in Interbay, a wild array of ingredients make their way into the off-beat beers that are continually rotating through the taps. On any given visit to the taproom, which is separated from the brewhouse floor by stacks of wine barrels holding sour beer, you’ll find 12 taps coursing with Urban Family’s beers, plus occasional guest taps from another local brewery or cidery. And just to the side of the barrels, the brewery team is likely considering their next concoction.
“We love to play around with ingredients you don’t see too often in beer,” says Andy Gundel, the brewery’s director of operations and tap house general manager.
Urban Family was born as Urban Family Public House in Ballard, a project of childhood friends and New York natives Tim Czarnetzki, Dave Powell, and Sean Bowman. Tim and Dave moved to Seattle, opened the pub, and encouraged Sean to join them. Though the original idea was to serve as a traditional bar serving East Coast beer otherwise unavailable on the West Coast, the duo bought a small one-barrel brewing system, hired a brewer, and started making their own.
Sean eventually took over as head brewer, and his first beer, a sour ale dry-hopped with Nelson and Azacca hops, garnered a bronze medal at the Washington Beer Awards last year.
As Urban Family grew, the team relocated in mid-2014 to its current location, a warehouse on the Magnolia side of the Fishermen’s Terminal. Now in a much bigger space, the team spread its wings, expanding to the current 10-barrel system and hiring a bevy of employees, including Andy — who had frequented the brewery after it moved to Magnolia and was voluntarily running its social media channels — to work full time to help run the space and keep the brewing on track.
As the brewery grew, it experimented with numerous beer styles and versions, eschewing flagships for experimentation. “We’re in a spot right now where we’re trying to do a lot of different things and see what sticks, what people like,” Andy says.
It hasn’t always been easy, and at times, the brewery does seem to be experiencing some growing pains. For example, it’s not always clear whether any of the beers will become mainstays or what the offerings will look like a few months out, but the group is currently brewing at full capacity and looking into expansion options.
“My challenge to the brewing team was to have fun and make things they wanted to make,” Andy says. “You can try and please people, but you’re never going to please everybody, and I’d rather the team have fun and create something that they’d want to drink.”
To that extent, you’d be hard-pressed to find the typical microbrewery lineup of standards like porter, pale ale, amber, and stout.
“I hear from a lot of brewers in the industry that, ‘I like the place where I work, but I don’t care for my beers,’” Andy says. “Sometimes you get pigeonholed into making a basic stout, a basic IPA, a basic this and that. And that’s an awesome business model because everyone will find it approachable. It worries me a little when people come into Urban Family and say, ‘I don’t know what any of this stuff is.’ But hopefully, different flavors and ingredients will start bridging the gap.”
Recent creations include a fall pumpkin beer with hay, a milk stout aged in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels with maple syrup, an apricot plum sour, a rose hips tart saison, and a saison brewed with Meyer lemons and dandelion greens, called Clouds of Pale Gold that nabbed a gold medal in the Experimental Beer category at the Washington Beer Awards in 2016.
“I always say if we enter beer competitions, we could throw almost any of our beers into the experimental category,” Andy says. “They tend to defy categorization.”
Awards aside, all of that experimentation means the group sometimes sees work go down the drain – literally. “We threw out an IPA once,” Andy says. “It wasn’t something I wanted to put out there. I wouldn’t have minded if it was something I just bought in the store but I didn’t think it was good enough to have our name on it.”
The beers tend to be an all-hands-on-deck affair. Andy recalls grating and juicing dozens of limes for one beer, a process that left workers’ hands raw. And Urban Family bottles all beers by hand. Right now, they’re churning out around 18,000 bottles a month, and it takes five people about six hours a session to bottle.
While some breweries’ experiments are weird for the sake of being weird, Urban Family’s are carefully thought-out, meeting-of-the-minds projects that seek complementary flavors. “We don’t just throw things together,” Andy says. “We want to make sure those ingredients pair well together and pair well with food.”
The brewery is also producing an occasional East Coast IPA, a style that differs from the resin-forward, bitter-hops bombs popular on the West Coast. The East Coast version is more juicy than bitter, with notes of tropical fruit and a cloudy appearance. The brewery’s favorite hop, Azacca, helps.
“We tend to use it in everything,” Andy says. “It has tropical, guava notes and tends to push more of the juicy aspect than the bittering aspect. We try to balance the bitter out by using juicier hops, but we want you to know that it’s still an IPA.”
Also present in Urban Family’s beers is an indigenous yeast culture blending brettanomyces and saison yeast that is reused from one batch of beer to the next. “We’re on the 20th or 30th generation of it right now, and my hope is that we can use it forever,” Andy says.
Using a house yeast culture will help with consistency, lending an undertone that’s distinct to all Urban Family beers, regardless of style. “We want you to be able to take a sip of our beer blindfolded and know it’s our beer.”
Though the team couldn’t say for certain which beers they would be serving this winter, one thing’s for sure: those beers won’t be easily put in a category box.
“We’re definitely trying to do some weird stuff,” Andy says. “Otherwise, we’re kind of boring.”
Megan Hill is Edible Seattle’s Managing Editor and Social Media Manager. She also freelances for a number of other publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.