STORY AND PHOTO BY TIM NEWCOMB
Western Washington beer palates have evolved alongside the brews at the nation’s largest brewpub, Bellingham’s Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro. Since opening almost 15 years ago in downtown Bellingham, proprietor Ed Bennett and his brewers have been tinkering with the brewery’s recipes — and plan continual evaluation of the brews. And that has given Boundary Bay plenty of regional and national acclaim.
Even as their space limitations have capped the number of beers Boundary Bay can create, they have become the nation’s largest of 950 brewpubs—defined as a brewery that sells at least 25 percent of their beer on site. And with Boundary Bay churning out 5,738 barrels (31 gallons per barrel) of beer in 2009, that has entrenched the brewery in the palates of Bellingham residents.
Bennett earned a master’s degree in wine chemistry from UC Davis, but it was there he also took courses on crafting beer. “Pretty much from the get-go I wanted a brewpub,” he says. He put his undergraduate business degree, his MBA and CPA to use combining beer with a restaurant in a converted building on Bellingham’s Railroad Avenue. His brewpub model was a growing concept in the mid-90s, establishing him in Whatcom County, and Bennett says that the food—from enchiladas to smoked salmon chowder—helps diversify the crowd.
But what was popular 15 years ago isn’t what has them winning awards and landing on taps all over Washington pubs and restaurants now. Tastes, simply put, have evolved.
Boundary Bay’s India Pale Ale (IPA) has skyrocketed in popularity, but they didn’t even open with an IPA on tap. For years, it was Boundary Bay’s Scotch Ale (with a touch of sweetness) that was the flagship beer. It remains their number-two seller with a strong local cult following. As customers clamored for a hoppier, more complex beer, the IPA—which debuted a year after opening—and other complex beers (including Imperial IPA, and Imperial Oatmeal Stout) have also become signature tastes. Bennett says that anyone can make a strong beer, but the key is to have flavors and aromas with complexity and balance.
“As the industry evolves, the opportunity to educate people’s palates on craft beer comes with it,” Bennett says. It is like wine, where people start where they feel comfortable, but some choose new, perhaps more challenging, flavors over time. In the last five to 10 years, the big, hoppy flavors of IPAs have taken Boundary Bay past Bellingham and across the state.
Some of Boundary Bay’s most popular brews have undergone evolution. The Bellingham Blonde started as the Shuksan Gold, but after just a couple of years shifted to where it is now in taste and name. “It has evolved in a controlled manner to where we say ‘that’s the recipe we want,'” Bennett says.
Where some microbrewers test repeatedly until they get exactly what they want, Boundary Bay lets the consumers and the brewers work together to drive recipe tweaks over time. They’ve never thrown out a batch. “The pub is really like a laboratory where we get feedback,” Bennett says. After all, the brewers are like chefs working with recipes, knowing fairly well what their components will taste like put together before the process even starts.
“Most of our recipes have gotten to that point,” says brew master Aaron Jacob Smith. “The center of the bull’s eye may change though, as consumers’ tastes change.”
Even with seven mainstays always on tap at Boundary Bay, there are three taps left open for seasonal brew rotations and unique creations from Smith and his staff. As beer lovers continue to search for new flavors, the lighter blonde ale (Bellingham Blonde has been a mainstay for years), pilsners and their Lightner Beer [no relation to our editor] remain popular, especially in the summer months.
Most of the beers take around three weeks to brew and batch size averages a moderate 17 barrels, leaving time for following up on new flavors and inspirations. In fact, for the first time ever, Boundary Bay created a Belgian-style beer (which requires the use of a different yeast) for a festival this past January and plans are already underway for a 15th anniversary beer to hit the tap in September. “We will not do subtle,” Bennett assures. “We want hoppy, with lots of complexity. We are known for that. We have a reputation as being one of the hoppiest, but it still has to be balanced.”
This summer, expect Boundary Bay to bring back their single-hop series. This popular, focused pale ale beer allows consumers to taste the individual flavors and aromas of hops, helping the brewers understand which hops are the most popular. Since most beers have a range of two to five hops “seasoning” the brew, the single-flavor beers are interesting taste experiments, similar to a single malt scotch or single origin coffee.
Boundary Bay even makes their own trips to Yakima to meet growers and personally ship back their hops, says Casey Diggs, operations manager. Working with the growers in Yakima Valley—the valley accounts for 80 percent of all hops in the United States—gives brewers more opportunity to talk with the producers about each bittering or aromatic variety. With beer being nothing more than the right combination of local water, yeast, Yakima hops and local malted barley, careful hop selection is critical.
While regional pub taps may only carry their signature IPA, Seattle Ale Houses co-owner Jeff Eagan is appeasing customers by offering more Boundary Bay products, including their Scotch Ale, ESB, Cask Stout and Oatmeal Stout at some of their locations (74th Street Ale House in Greenwood, Hilltop Ale House on Queen Anne and Columbia City Ale House).
Seattle Ale Houses generally doesn’t offer more than one beer from a pub, but Eagan says he will have to fudge that rule for Boundary Bay, because people clamor for their IPA, but also love to try other varieties. “The IPA is their staple,” Eagan says. “When I put something else on, people ask for that. But the ESB is catching on, too, so I might have to go away from my philosophy.
“People know the Boundary Bay name and how well made and consistent it is,” he says. “The IPA is a popular style, but people are excited to see what other styles they have. Their consistency carries them.”
Whether in Seattle or Bellingham, Bennett, Smith and Diggs all hope that as palates evolve, consumers will understand that Boundary Bay is much more than one style of brew. It is a laboratory always evolving, just the way the customers and brewers want it.
Boundary Bay Brewing and Bistro
1107 Railroad Avenue
Bellingham, WA 98225