Celebrating Bellingham beer

Bellingham breweries past and present are known for their great tasting beer

By Isaac Bonnell

Bellingham likes its beer, no doubt, and once again a Bellingham brewery has landed the attention of beer lovers nationwide.

Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen, now just a year-and-a-half old, was recently named the small brewpub of the year at the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The brewery won two gold medals and two silver medals for its entries — all of which were in lager categories.

“No Washington state brewery has ever done that before,” said Mari Kemper, who owns the business with her husband, Will.

For those keeping track, that means Bellingham now boasts the small brewpub of the year (Chuckanut Brewery) and one of the largest brewpubs in the nation (Boundary Bay Brewery). To borrow from Olympia Beer, there must be something in the water.

Beer has been brewed commercially in Bellingham since before the city officially incorporated in 1903. Long before Boundary or Chuckanut was the Bellingham Bay Brewery, also known as the 3-B. Located at the intersection of Ohio and Ellis streets, the brewery produced around 50,000 barrels (1.5 million gallons) of beer a year and quickly outgrew the other small breweries in town.

Before the 3-B, Jacob Beck, a saloon owner, was one of the first to brew in 1885. Back then, Bellingham was still comprised of four distinct towns: Fairhaven, Bellingham, Whatcom and Sehome.

Beck owned a saloon in Old Town and brewed a small quantity of beer to serve at the saloon. He closed the business in 1887, though, after leveraging the saloon to build a new opera house, which floundered, said city photo historian Jeff Jewell.

After Jacob Beck came the Happy Valley Brewery in 1891. This small operation along Padden Creek only lasted a couple years, Jewell said.

“Like a lot of things in Fairhaven, once the boom years were over, so many businesses collapsed there,” Jewell said. “And by that time many people knew the railroads weren’t coming to Fairhaven.”

The first mid-size brewery to open in Bellingham was Whatcom Brewing & Malting,  located on Iowa Street. This brewery was open for only four years, from 1899 to 1903, before being taken over by the 3-B.

Bellingham Bay Brewery

Built in 1902, the Bellingham Bay Brewery was the largest brewing facility this town has ever seen. The five-story brick building was accompanied by an ice-making facility that provided 20 tons of ice daily, which was used to cool the kegs.

“In those days you had to keep the keg on ice below the bar,” so ice production was key for the beer industry, Jewell said.

While previous breweries in Bellingham had used water from Lake Whatcom or local creeks, the 3-B instead drilled its own well on the property.

“Getting a clean water system was an early challenge for the brewery,” Jewell said. “The water here was not so good. We think of this place as having pristine waters, but before the municipal sewer system, many people just used the creeks.”

3-B beer was quite popular among the local saloons, several of which were “tied-houses” that served only 3-B’s signature lager beer. The brewery further secured its local dominance by offering free home delivery in town.

“In Whatcom and Skagit county, it was very well known,” Jewell said. “It was considered like rooting for the home team.”

But the brewery was built with larger markets in mind. 3-B beer was shipped up and down the West Coast, from San Francisco to Anchorage.

“The California market was big. Just about everything produced here went to California,” Jewell said. “Their main market was San Francisco; their breweries got knocked out in the 1906 earthquake and that was a boom time for the 3-B.”

The 3-B wasn’t the only Washington brewery seeking to capitalize on a thirsty market, though. Seattle Brewing & Malting, which had Rainier Beer, and Pacific Brewing & Malting were the two largest breweries in the state at the time. And with the railroads came East Coast beers.

“Even back then, Budweiser had a foothold on the West Coast,” Jewell said.

The temperance movement, however, was making great strides at the time and Washington citizens approved a statewide prohibition of alcohol effective Jan. 1, 1916, four years before national Prohibition. This spelled the end for the Bellingham Bay Brewery.

In 1927, Darigold began using the facility, mainly the ice plant, for making and storing ice cream. That ended in 1967 and the building was torn down in 1970.

Modern craft brewing

By the time Ed Bennett was looking to open Boundary Bay Brewery, it had been 80 years since Bellingham had its own brewery. The beer industry had changed significantly in that time, as had the public’s taste in beer.

Bennett came to Bellingham in the early 1990s after studying winemaking and brewing in California, where he had originally planned to start his own winery. But wineries take a large initial investment, Bennett said, and craft breweries at the time were just starting to become popular. So he fixed his sights on brewing beer in the Pacific Northwest.

“At that time there weren’t many brewpubs outside of Seattle,” Bennett said. “I went around to other towns, but kept coming back to Bellingham.”

Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro opened its doors in 1995 with six beers on tap, mostly English-style ales like Extra Special Bitter (ESB) and India Pale Ale (IPA). At the time, there were also two other breweries in town to compete with: Orchard Street Brewery (now the Jeckyl & Hyde Deli) and Mount Baker Brewery (now the Bellingham Bar & Grill).

But Boundary quickly outpaced the rest and in 2007 and 2008 it was producing more beer than any other brewpub in the nation. To be considered a brewpub, a brewery must also have a restaurant on the premise; there are now around 950 brewpubs in the country.

This year, Boundary Bay is on track to produce 5,800 barrels (approximately 180,000 gallons) of beer. Unlike the 3-B, most of that is sold in Washington.
“We’ve kind of maxed out on our production,” Bennett said.

In January 2008, Bennett purchased four acres in Ferndale with the hopes of building a second brewery there. “If we build a bigger brewery, then we’ll have to find more markets and grow our distribution,” he said.

On the other side of downtown, Chuckanut Brewery is also at capacity, brewing 700 barrels (21,700 gallons) a year, said Will Kemper. The company hopes to double that in 2010.

Will first started brewing beer in 1985 when he started the Thomas Kemper Brewery on Bainbridge Island with Andy Thomas. At the time, craft beer was widely unknown.

“When I got into this in the ’80s, there was such a lack of information and equipment for brewing,” he said. “Now it’s wonderful. A whole craft brewing industry has sprung up.”

The craft brewing industry now accounts for about 5 percent of the total beer market and is growing steadily every year, Kemper said. In the early years, Washington was a leader in the craft brewing industry and at one time boasted more microbreweries than any other state.

That has since changed, but the Kempers hope that their award-winning beer will help make Washington — and Bellingham — a destination for beer lovers around the world.

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