Brewery to expand to Ferndale to keep up with wholesale demand
photo by Vincent Aiosa
Not many local watering holes can boast an almost full barroom at 2 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.
But it’s hard to resist Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro’s relaxed atmosphere — its billowing ceiling sails, upscale pub grub, propensity for blasting ‘80s greats and its place as Bellingham’s go-to spot for merriment. And most importantly — its cold, well-crafted beer that will warm up anyone on a below-freezing afternoon.
One gets the hunch that at least half the customers on this chilly Thursday on Railroad Avenue are playing hooky.
But why not? Boundary Bay seems to magically transport its customers to a happier place. While sipping an IPA one can almost imagine the summer sun streaming in through the brewpub’s roll-up garage door a few months from now, or a heat wave beating on one’s back while chugging a blonde ale in the beer garden in August.
Call it your second dining room, your other office or your true home, this brewpub has become second nature to thousands of Bellinghamsters. In the past few years, that has created a problem for owner Ed Bennett that many business owners would kill to have — his place is so busy, he can’t keep up with demand.
This fall, Bennett will expand to open a new brewpub in Ferndale that will triple production, offer an event space and a new beer destination for north county residents.
But it hasn’t always been this way. When the brewery opened in 1995, history had not yet been made.
“Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.”
– Dave Barry
If the science of brewing beer were anything near as easy as the simple pleasure of swigging one, a lot more entrepreneurs would do it.
In fact, most people don’t realize that brewing beer is an exact science, much more so than fermenting and blending wine, and requires consistency to continually please taste buds.
In Bennett’s case, Boundary Bay initially had two other breweries to contend with in town, but its equation of award-winning beer plus a good location equaled its eventual success.
Bennett, who looks the part of a brewer in a muffled blue and black plaid flannel shirt, fleece vest and a weathered Boundary Bay cap molded to his mop, came to Bellingham with just the right combination of experience and vision to open a brewery.
He had an undergraduate degree in accounting, a master’s degree in finance and one in wine chemistry. Bennett studied brewing at the University of California, Davis in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, right after microbreweries began to gain popularity around the United States.
After graduating from U.C. Davis, he briefly worked in the wine industry in Northern California, but eventually rethought his path.
“Beer was a better fit for me,” he said. “It was a little more affordable than setting up a winery.”
In 1993, Bennett scouted locations for a brewpub around the Northwest – Everett, Tacoma, Mount Vernon – and finally settled on Bellingham.
Originally constructed in 1922 as a transit company station, the Railroad Avenue building was leased in 1994 to Bennett, who spent more than a year restoring and remodeling it into a beer-lover’s destination.
And while initially it was the only brewery slated to open in Bellingham, two others slid onto the scene – Orchard Street Brewery and Mount Baker Brewery (where Downtown Johnny’s is now located) — before Boundary Bay began business in September 1995.
The competition lost Boundary some of its novelty, and business was slow at first.
“Some people look back on those days as the nice days, when it wasn’t quite so busy,” Bennett recalled.
But since then, and with the closure of the other two breweries, growth has been steady. Bennett said they’ve never had a down year.
“Milk is for babies. When you grow up you have to drink beer.”
— Arnold Schwarzenegger
Bennett chalks the success up to a simple concoction of location, good beer and good food.
“Each year it builds on itself, and just in the last few years, it’s gotten to the point where there’s a little more of a wait than there has been in the past,” he said. “But I think it shows people still really want to support us and want to be here.”
The brewpub has also grown symbiotically with the growth and revitalization of downtown.
“When we first started out, it was interesting to me that people said we were on the fringe of downtown, but I’d always felt that it was such a good location, that it would survive and have an impact on this part of town,” he said.
Now, surrounded by Depot Market Square, Morse Square condos and the Waterfront District redevelopment, it’s hard to imagine Boundary Bay being anything but in the center of things.
“Any time you can get a vibrant business, people will see that as an asset to the community, and you get more and more restaurants and things like that, and that attracts people to want to live downtown,” he said. “We were part of that. We weren’t the only thing, though.”
Bennett remembers when the brewpub first opened. Things were quiet and slow in the summer when the students had fled. Gradually, Boundary began staying open later, hosting more live music throughout the week — at least four or five nights a week now — and has a broad spectrum of customers, from boisterous students to professionals, from to ex-hippie retirees to bedraggled tourists in need of a brewsky.
Anyone who has been to the pub recently knows that getting a table most nights of the week can sometimes take awhile.
“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
— Benjamin Franklin
The fortunate problem is that now, Boundary’s spectrum has expanded too much.
In 2005 and 2006, Boundary was the second-largest brewpub in the U.S. out of more than 950 brewpubs based on barrel production, according to the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo., producing 3,905 and 4,507 barrels, respectively.
In 2007, the brewpub produced about 17 percent more barrels than the previous year —about 5,300 barrels — and while results won’t be in until March, Bennett suspects he will be near the top again.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we have a hard time keeping up with our production as we sell more and more beer to other areas of the state,” Bennett said.
Boundary’s sales region extends to most of Western Washington and parts of Eastern Washington. Last summer, it got to the point where Bennett wasn’t able to keep up with demand to customers around the state.
“It’s a great situation to be in, but it got frustrating for the brewers, the sales staff and management,” he said.
After mulling an expansion for a while, now seemed the perfect time.
“It’s a big step for us, but I think it’s the right business model,” he said.
Bennett closed on the 12,000-square-foot former Simplot building on approximately four acres in Ferndale in January, and he hopes to have the brewpub and brewery operating by fall. Located at 1970 Eaton St., the new venture is tentatively called Northern Boundary Bay Brewery.
He aims to produce 15,000 barrels a year there and expand his distribution to new markets in Western Oregon, Alaska, Canada and Southern Idaho, and possibly even as far as Northern California and Colorado.
Eventually, Bennett wants to add an event space that would be much larger than the current brewery’s beer garden area.
Best of all for the brewpub’s current devotees, the new brewery will focus on producing Boundary Bay’s biggest sellers — IPA, Scotch and ESB, which will free up the Railroad Avenue brewery to produce different types of beer never before tasted at Boundary. Bennett envisions lagers, Belgian beers, and more seasonal offerings.
And if that isn’t reason for another round, what is?
Boundary Bay: by the numbers
Boundary Bay by the numbers:
3,905: barrels sold in 2005
4,507: barrels sold in 2006
5,300: approximate number of barrels sold in 2007
57: number of awards won for Boundary Bay beer