Elliott Bay Brewing Company
The Elliott Bay Brewing Company Aims for Sustainability
BY ROB LIGHTNER
PHOTO BY MYRA KOHN
When most of us hear the term “green beer,” our minds drift to painful St. Patrick’s Day memories and (for some of us, anyway) doubts about the safety of mixing food coloring with alcohol. Sensibly, Elliott Bay Brewing Company prefers terms like “organic” and “sustainable,” which give a less ambiguous impression of their mission to minimize their impact on the environment.
Owners Todd Carden and Brent Norton met while working for Maritime Pacific Brewing Company and opened their first brewpub in West Seattle in 1997. Their commitment to sustainability extends to certifying most of their beer and food as organic, recycling waste oil and spent grain, participating in Seattle City Light’s Green Up program and giving time, money and expertise to local organizations which share their vision. In 2007, they opened their second, larger brewpub in Burien, more than doubling their brewing capacity (to nearly 1600 barrels per year) and adding much more room to grow. Nine of their year-round brews and eight of their seasonal beers have been certified organic by Washington State since 2008; Elliott Bay was the first King County brewery to get certified.
The Burien pub is airy and inviting, and Elliott Bay’s head brewer Doug Hindman’s affable attitude suggests that the complex brewing system he manages brings him more joy than stress. “Craft brewers are generally a pretty agreeable lot,” he says, and not surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with him. Like many other professional craft brewers, Hindman started at home and turned his hobby into a career. As he shows off the ten-barrel brewery (which still looks fresh and new three years after launch) located beneath the restaurant, it’s clear he’s planning for the future. There’s plenty of space for more barrels, pumps and other equipment as the brewery’s needs grow, and since the demand for organic beer is no less strong than for any other product, he’ll likely fill up his space.
Organic certification of breweries has been controversial. Prior to 2007, the National Organic Standards Board (which includes consumer and environmental advocates as well as industry representatives) allowed up to 5 percent of the ingredients to be conventionally grown in organic-certified beer. NOSB tightened its definition in 2007 to mandate 100 percent organic ingredients with only a few exemptions, largely those that are difficult to obtain organically. Today, organic-certified beers must contain 100 percent organic malt and other ingredients—except hops, that all-important flower that flavors nearly all varieties of beer. This has led to a polarized campaign to take hops off the list of exempted ingredients, and the rhetoric can get as bitter as the strongest IPA.
Hindman, while not exactly a fire-breather, does come down firmly in favor of the hops exemption—at least for now. There just isn’t a large enough volume of organic hops (or organic hops varieties, for that matter) for him to keep up with both his production and his certification. “I’m not going to convert all my hops to the one organic variety I can get,” he said. The growers he works with are wary of growing organically, as hops are notoriously delicate. Hindman believes that the rules change would mean that most, if not all, of his 17 organic beers would lose certification for at least a few years as the organic hops market matures. That would be a major blow to Elliott Bay and to many smaller organic brewers, but it’s hard to see how organic hops can ever creep out of its tiny niche without such a rules change.
Of course, there’s a lot more to beer than just hops, and as Hindman tries to source organic pumpkin or flaked oats, “it’s a bit like a treasure hunt, and it’s kind of fun to get out there and dig around for resources.” He has worked with Briess Malt & Ingredients Company to add a new organic barley variety to the supply chain, which allowed him to certify several more of his recipes as organic. He suggests that other brewers who want to improve their own sustainability shift to using organic barley as their base malt, as it is not much different from, and sometimes better than, conventional barley. He also praises the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s certification agents who worked with him to certify his brewery and recipes and helped him navigate the complexities of compliance. The rules change over time, as they may this fall, when the NOSB meets in Washington, D.C. to decide whether or not to continue exempting hops. Hindman plans to be there to observe and offer his perspective, but the outcome is still unclear.
For now, though, all systems are go and his organic beers, like the potent, hoppy Demolition Ale and the tart, wheaty Luna Weizen, are available at their brewpubs, select Northwest bars and in kegs. The food at the brewpubs is worth the trip even for those who don’t care for beer, and the focus on sustainability extends to the rest of the menu. Burger and sandwich buns are made with spent grain from the brewing process, and waste oil from the fryers is collected and used to make biodiesel. It doesn’t taste like a mouthful of good deeds, though—the sweet, hefty No Doubt Stout BBQ pulled pork sandwich with fried red onion strings would still be reward enough even without its meritorious conduct on the way to the table.
Elliott Bay Brewing Company4720 California Ave SWSeattle, WA 98116(206) 932-8695255 SW 152nd St.Burien, WA 98166(206) 246-4211www.elliottbaybrewing.com
Rob Lightner avoids beer that is literally green. His work can be found in Fantagraphics’ Beasts collections and on the Slog as half of the Stranger Testing Department.