Story by Dikla Tuchman
Photography by Cleary O’Farrell
Meandering down Ballard Avenue on a rare sunny Friday afternoon, it’s easy to forget you’re still within Seattle city limits. Pedestrians with their dogs stop to look in the windows of flower and antique shops or pause to read bar and restaurant menus. Bikers pass by on their way downtown or to the well-known Burke-Gilman trail stretching east through Fremont and beyond.
The former site of one of Washington’s largest and oldest microbreweries, Redhook Brewing, Ballard has deep roots in the brewing industry. These can be traced back to the neighborhood’s establishment as a Scandinavian enclave of Seattle, a community steeped in European traditions, including the centuries-old tradition of craft brewing.
When Redhook founders Gordon Bowker and Paul Shipman opened the brewery in 1981 in an old transmission shop on Leary Way, microbrewing was a foreign concept to most people. Bowker ventured out in search of investors and his second inquiry prompted a response that epitomized the mindset of the early ’80s: “Breweries don’t start up,” one investor chided Bowker, “they shut down.”
In 1993, Redhook moved from Ballard into a large facility in Woodinville, Washington, but the tradition of local craft beer not only lives on in the northwestern nook along Salmon Bay, but it has grown tremendously just in the last few years.
The latest growth spurt in Ballard’s population and commerce can be attributed to Seattle’s former mayor, Norm Rice. Rice’s plan aimed to reduce suburban sprawl by targeting certain Seattle areas, including Ballard, for high-density development. In the last 10 to 15 years, people have moved to Ballard, in part, due to its proximity to downtown and the availability of affordable housing. Subsequently, more people mean an increased demand for business.
Last January, Tim Czarnetzki and his partners, David Powell and Sean Bowman, opened Urban Family Public House on Ballard Avenue. Czarnetzki contemplated other neighborhoods when looking for the perfect location for Urban Family, but settling on Ballard wasn’t a difficult decision, even though he was well aware of the challenge of getting to this somewhat isolated part of town. “But, we’re right next to the water, it’s a great community, and you couldn’t ask for a better group of businesses than on Ballard Avenue. Plus, we live here, it’s part of our home.”
Urban Family is an eclectic tribute to the 100-year-old building it is housed in. Walk up to the bar and you’ll notice a familiar, yet out-of-place item lining the wall—a shelving unit full of old library card catalog boxes, which act as an ingenious cash register system.
“We’re focusing on beers outside of Seattle, not because we don’t love Seattle beers, but because every bar on the street carries [them],” says Czarnetzki. Having moved to Seattle from Washington D.C. in 2009, he still taps into his East Coast craft beer roots; the beer menu is loaded with selections from Belgium, California, Colorado, Maryland and Delaware.
Across the street from Urban Family sits The Noble Fir. Open a year and a half prior to Urban Family, Noble Fir isn’t just another beer bar. It’s a community pub with an earth-conscious, travel-themed flair. Owners Ellen Kelly and Rick Weersing fondly recall when the Urban Family co-owners were some of their regulars.
Self-proclaimed Ballard veterans, Kelly and Weersing opened Noble Fir in 2010 without much knowledge of either the Seattle beer scene bar ownership.
Their idea to open a bar evolved as they kicked around ideas for their business venture. They eventually settled on combining their two passions: beer and the outdoors. “That’s how we’d plan a lot of our hiking trips, over a beer or a glass of wine,” said Weersing. Kelly chimed in, “And then when we’d go hiking, we’d talk about where we could go have a beer when we finished our hike.”
As relative newcomers to the close-knit Seattle beer community, Kelly and Weersing have received a lot of support from fellow pub owners and local brewers. “The beer community has been tremendously supportive of what we’ve done. The fun thing with having local breweries is getting to know the brewers and have them make special one-off beers for you,” says Kelly.
Local beer is relatively easy to come by as Ballard is now home to four breweries, ranging from the larger, well-established Maritime Pacific Brewing to one of the newest, and smallest, breweries to open in Washington: Reuben’s Brews. And all four are located within a few blocks of each other.
Craft beer rookie Adam Robbings is the owner and brewmaster at Reuben’s Brews. Named for his son Reuben, the microbrewery, which opened last July, is located in a small, 1,500-square-foot warehouse, easily found by identifying its location as behind the “Add Bardahl” sign, a Ballard landmark. Robbings started the brewery after his wife bought him a homebrew set “to basically shut me up” says Robbings, because he would analyze and criticize hop profiles in each beer he tried.
“For us, it all comes down to the quality of the beer,” he explains, pointing out his unconventional use of multiple yeast strains rather than one “house” yeast to make true-to-style beers. “And we’re about doing it the right way, which is why we’re using recycled [material for furniture]; the caps are recycled, and we’re using a local farmer for the hops—a family farmer across the mountain range.”
Four blocks south of Reuben’s, keep your eyes peeled for NW Peaks Brewery, which opened in January 2011. This 850-square-foot garage is easy to miss if you’re not looking carefully. Make your way up the driveway, past the fenced-off side yard, and duck into one of the smallest breweries in Seattle where you’ll meet Kevin Klein, founder and brewmaster. Klein works on a three-and-a-half barrel system with three fermenters and one kettle, shoved into nooks, with enough walking room between the equipment and the “bar” to allow for lines to spill out onto the walkway when things get busy.
“I don’t think that I can fit anything bigger in this space right now,” says Klein. But he plans on expanding in the near future. “It’s all me—it’s just a one-man operation which makes life difficult sometimes.”
Klein started the brewery to blend his two passions—beer and climbing—as the brewery name and logo indicates. “Beer making is the substance of the business and my other hobby was climbing, backpacking, and the outdoors,” says Klein.
“Ballard’s great. It’s kind of the demographic that I wanted to hit—beer-loving people who want to support the community and local businesses and will go out of their way to do that,” says Klein.
Klein’s next-door neighbor, Ryan Hilliard, opened his brewery, Hilliard’s Beer, in October 2011 and has been wildly successful both in Ballard and in the Seattle area, partially due his niche as a canning brewery. While also kegging a portion of their small-batch brews, Hilliard’s focuses on flagship brews like Hilliard’s Saison and Amber Ale that can be found in tall boy four-packs in local stores, bars, and restaurants.
Before concluding your Ballard tour, stop off at the neighborhood’s oldest craft beer fixture, Maritime Pacific Brewing. Owned by George and Jane Hancock, Maritime Pacific has been a staple in Ballard’s economic structure for more than 20 years.
Talking with head brewer, Corey Blodgett, in Maritime’s pirate-themed Jolly Roger Taproom, we discussed Ballard’s beer scene and how it relates to other Northwest brewing communities.
“Oregonians are fiercely protective of Oregon whereas Seattle residents seem to drink anything. They’re not really as loyal as you would think,” says Blodgett. Although, he did agree that within the city limits, if there was a part of Seattle that was most unwavering in their love of local industry, it would be Ballard.
Blodgett’s sentiments are not uncommon: “The people here think of Ballard as an island. They don’t think of themselves as part of Seattle; it’s fair to say they’re not.”
It doesn’t take much digging to figure out that Ballard has a reputation for boozing that goes way back. “People here like to drink. Especially the fisherman,” admits Blodgett.
“Back in the day, Ballard Avenue was closed off to wives and women; it was all men, drinking. No women—unless they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing. It was a drinking-based culture,” said Blodgett. In fact, according to the Ballard News-Tribune, in 1904, drinking and gambling were so rampant that the mayor ordered the city of Ballard to officially close for a day.
At 3:30 p.m. on a Monday in the Jolly Roger Taproom, all bar stools are occupied. “All those guys are regulars,” Blodgett says, gesturing toward the bar and describing the taproom as “more of a small town bar atmosphere.”
And that’s really what the Hancocks were aiming for when they started the brewery in 1990. George recalls Ballard Avenue back in the ’70s when bars were dive joints ruled by bikers and hippies. Though he acknowledges the positive changes and growth of Ballard Avenue, he says he’s glad Maritime is located where it is. “Sometimes I wish we were closer to the hot spots. We are more in an industrial area, which kind of suits us. But, we hope that it is still a destination spot for friends and family,” says Hancock, who labels himself as “just a salty old curmudgeon of Ballard.”
After the dust settles, the Ballard Avenue bar hops of Friday and Saturday have subsided, the Sunday market has wound down, and things go back to “normal,” it’s nice to know that on any given Tuesday evening, you can still pull up a stool at one of many Ballard craft beer locations and discuss local beer with regulars. With beer bars like Urban Family and Noble Fir setting the precedent for quality tap lists, Ballard has built a reputation for being a small town in a big city and is earning a reputation as a craft beer oasis.
Sidebar 1 /
Urban Family Public House
5329 Ballard Ave. NW
The Noble Fir
5316 Ballard Ave. NW
Dutch Bike Company
4741 Ballard Ave. NW
Walrus & Carpenter
4743 Ballard Ave. NW
4912 17th Ave. NW, Ste. B
1550 NW 49th St.
1406 NW 53rd St., #1A
Maritime Pacific Brewing
1111 NW Ballard Way
Subscribe to Beer West today!