By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
It doesn’t look like a typical brewery. In an open field, wheat sways in the breeze, while vines climb trellises up toward the blue sky and eagles and hawks circle the adjacent field near the power lines. But this is where Atwood Ales are made.
It is located on a five-acre family farm, just outside of Blaine. Josh Smith started Atwood Ales with his wife Monica Smith.
This spring they celebrated their first anniversary of being in business.
It is very different from most of the other Whatcom County breweries.
“We didn’t choose the easy path with anything that we’re doing,” Josh Smith said.
They’re reluctant to put their beer in kegs. In the keg, they can’t carbonate the beer to the higher level they like to. They also don’t sell six packs in the standard bottle or can.
Instead, they put their beer in 750 milliliter glass bottles — more like a wine bottle.
“It’s traditional for the styles of beer we focus on,” Josh Smith said.
Their beers are another thing that set them apart. They brew more traditional French and Belgian style ales. There’s not an IPA in sight.
“Not that they’re not good,” Monica Smith said. “It’s just that there’s plenty of them out there.
They chose to focus on the European farmhouse ales because it’s what they both like to drink themselves.
“I like the depth and nuance to them. They’re not punch-you-in-the-face beers,” Josh Smith said. “They’re great food beers. They’re great table beers.”
Atwood’s different approach creates a challenge for Monica Smith, who handles all the distribution. But she says she see it as an opportunity to educate people about their beers.
“We’re very thoughtful about where to place our beer,” Monica Smith said. “I want knowledgeable staff.”
Atwoods beers are now in dozens of restaurants, taphouses and bottle shops, from Blaine to Tacoma.
“I don’t think I was expecting to go down south as fast as we did,” Monica Smith said.
She has learned that the best way to get their beer in a place isn’t to drop of a sample, it’s to schedule a tasting.
That gives her the chance to tell their story, and the story of their beer.
They carved the space for their two-barrel brewing operation out of an old barn on the property. They’re planning on expanding the brew house further into the barn, but they’ll have to displace some tractors (and some birds nests in the rafters) first.
The small setup allows them to get creative, Monica Smith said.
“[It] really allows us to play with our beer,” she said. Brewing small batches allows them to take big risks with what kinds of farm produce they want to try putting the beer.
Their setup also forces them to take the weather into account.
Only one of the fermenters is temperature controlled, and most of their brews are bottle-conditioned upstairs in the barn attic.
“We really are under the spell of the weather,” Monica Smith said.
Their regular beer offerings include a farmhouse ale, a session ale and their oyster stout — which is actually made with oysters.
Oyster stouts date back to Victorian England, Monica Smith said. Brewers used oyster shells to balance out the pH. Eventually, Monica Smith guesses, someone must have got tired of shucking oysters and tried dropping the whole darn thing in the kettle.
“It adds a whole other layer of complexity to it,” Monica Smith said. It adds smoother mouthfeel and a brine flavor to the beer, but not a shellfish flavor.
“You don’t taste oyster,” Monica said. “If you taste oyster, we did it wrong.
Their oysters come locally, just two miles down the road from Drayton Harbor Oyster Company, also in Blaine.
Their Mo’s saison is a little different each batch. They flavor it with with whatever is ripe at the time.
“Mo’s saison changes with whatever we have grown on the farm,” Monica Smith said.
They grow almost all their own hops, and some of their own grains for their beers.
“Our ultimate goal would be ultimately to be 100 percent estate-grown beer,” Monica said.
The brewery has given the farm new life. Josh Smith grew up there — his parents bought it more than 30 years ago.
They used to raise cattle, but gave that up when Josh went away to college. Part of their initial goal in starting the brewery was to put the land back to work.
“We wanted to be a farmhouse brewery in every sense of the word,” Josh Smith said.