What began as a conversation among friends over beers in a downtown tavern is about to turn into a new microbrewery on the corner of Forest and Magnolia streets.
Several blocks away, a husband and wife are almost ready to open their beer-producing facility after developing a business plan while on an overseas backpacking expedition.
Meanwhile, the city’s three existing breweries enjoy busy nights, expansion and acclaim.
In Bellingham, the beer business booms.
“It’s just a realization of options and quality,” Jack Lamb, owner of Aslan Brewing Co., which is preparing to open at 1330 N. Forest St., said, in regards to the growing popularity of craft beer. “To me, there is no limit to the amount of craft.”
Lamb operates Aslan with his head brewer, Frank Trosset, and general manager, Pat Haynes. The trio hopes to open by the end of April, or by early May, at the latest.
Wander Brewing, at 1807 Dean Ave., on the west edge of downtown Bellingham, is run by Chad and Colleen Kuehl. They have set the first weekend of May as their target opening date.
Also, John Luciano and Jack Plueger have applied for licensing from the Washington State Liquor Control Board to open a microbrewery at 1009 Larrabee Ave., in Fairhaven.
Their venture is called Stones Throw Brewery. An opening date there has yet to be announced.
Local brewers say their industry is bolstered not only by beer’s growing popularity and a strong ethic to buy local, but also by the cooperative nature of Bellingham’s competing producers.
The city’s established breweries regularly collaborate to support local events, and the startups say they have received insight and advice from more experienced players.
“It’s kind of counterintuitive,” said Janet Lightner, the general manager at Boundary Bay Brewery. “It’s like a constructive kind of competition. It’s collaboration.”
Colleen Kuehl of Wander Brewing said she thinks craft beer’s increasing popularity has as much to do with a renewed interest in local products as it does with a grander shift in customer preference, particularly among younger crowds.
“It’s just a changing time in the beverage industry,” she said.
Chad Kuehl agreed, and added that he believes craft breweries and brewpubs are, in a deeper sense, turning into the community meeting spaces of the modern era, with most serving nonalcoholic products for crowds of all ages, and many featuring food and live music.
“[They’re] becoming the neighborhood tavern,” he said.
The Kuehls plan to have an 80-seat tasting area with a rotating selection of 10 beers on tap, along with a root beer and a cider. Although they will not serve food in the brewery, they do plan to have outdoor seating space with room for a food truck in an adjacent alleyway.
Wander’s facility sits in a warehouse in between Dean and Cornwall avenues.
Finding such a unique space, close to downtown and with plenty of room for expansion, was among their greatest startup challenges, the Kuehls said. Wander’s faculty features 33-foot high ceilings and remnants of a multi-ton crane system that was once likely used to haul in boats for refurbishing.
The brewery is keeping most of these architectural elements intact, while updating plumbing and adding new bathrooms.
Wander’s interior design utilizes an open-floor concept, with no walls or windows separating the tasting room on one end from the production area on the other. Colleen said the aesthetic is meant to bring customers closer to the brewing process.
On the production floor, Chad said they will be capable of producing 2,000 barrels of beer annually, using a 20-barrel brewing setup.
The barrel is the standard unit of volume measurement in the brewing industry. One barrel is equal to 31 U.S. gallons, which could fill 248 pint glasses.
Wander will focus on beer varieties uncommon to Bellingham, Chad said. Some offerings include a Belgian “abbey-style” beer and barrel-aged brew, ripened over 8-10 months using bourbon casks imported from Kentucky.
Chad said Wander’s beers will be less hop-focused than a lot of the varieties that are currently popular, although the brewery does plan to produce a rye IPA.
While Wander is designed as a production brewery, with a heavy focus on distribution to local restaurants and bars, Chad said they will maintain an active tasting room.
Along with pints and kegs, the brewery will offer growlers and 750-milliliter bottles, slightly larger than the 22-ounce versions traditionally seen in the craft brewing business.
He projected Wander’s tasting room sales will make up 20-25 percent of its total business, at least initially.
The Kuehls started their path into the industry after picking up homebrewing in 2007 while living in San Francisco.
Along with the hands-on experience, Chad would later complete brewing education courses at the American Brewers Guild in Vermont. He also worked in the brewery at Hilliard’s Beer in Seattle.
Colleen is currently working toward a craft-brewing business certificate, which is offered online by Portland State University.
Aslan Brewing Co.
Lamb, Trosset and Haynes founded Aslan in September 2012, first establishing a pilot brewery in a garage behind the Upfront Theater on Bay Street.
Trosset, a self-taught brewer, set to work developing beer recipes, eventually testing more than 100 varieties.
Lamb said they picked their permanent Forest Street home, which used to be a Signs Plus Inc. location, due to its proximity to downtown Bellingham, as well as nearby bike trails and bus stops.
The size of the space was also a determining factor.
Aslan has about 6,000 square feet of room for brewing production, Lamb said. And their business plan is geared toward expansion.
With a 15-barrel production system, the company initially projects it will be capable of producing about 2,800 barrels of beer annually.
Along with beer, Aslan will offer wine, homemade soda and a food menu designed by chef Jordan Barrows. The restaurant will seat about 180 people. It will include a tasting room and an upstairs area that can be rented out for private events, as well as outdoor seating.
Its early beer offerings will include a ginger rye ale and an IPA the company describes as “dank.”
Most of the Aslan’s initial business will focus on in-house sales, Lamb said, although its beer will also be available in local bars, restaurants and eventually grocery stores.
Lamb said Aslan beer will be sold in kegs and cans. The canning aspect is somewhat atypical for craft production. Other small brewers that sell beer in cans tend to limit their use for seasonal brews or special events.
The company is focusing on offering variety to attract repeat business. The taps in its tasting room will rotate regularly, and Aslan should have its products certified organic by the USDA in time for its grand opening.
“I think it’s the creativity and innovation that we hope will inspire people to come back,” Lamb said.
Getting their space in order has been the greatest challenge for Lamb, Trosset and Haynes.
The three completely gutted and rebuilt the interior of their location. Lamb said family and friends played integral roles in the brewery’s construction, particularly the expertise of Trosset’s father, Don Trosset, who works in the local construction industry.
“We’d be three months behind if it wasn’t for him,” Lamb said. “I have everything to owe to that man.”
Broader beer picture
Washington saw 62 new brewery permits issued in 2013, bringing the state’s total brewery permit count to 251, according to data from the Beer Institute, a national brewers trade group that represents producers of all sizes, as well as importers and industry suppliers.
Across the nation, the number of active brewery permits is reaching record levels, and is continuing a sharp rise going back to the early 1990s. Using records from the federal Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the Beer Institute reported in February of this year that 3,699 breweries, including both large and small producers, hold operating permits in the U.S. today.
An analysis by the trade association showed that one-third of American brewery permits exist in just four states: California, Colorado, Oregon—and Washington.
The Beer Institute figures account for permits for both large-scale breweries (think MillerCoors or Anheuser-Busch) and smaller craft producers, a category that includes all of Bellingham’s brewers. More than 90 percent of the nation’s permitted breweries produce less than 60,000 barrels annually, according to the trade group.
Using slightly older figures that counted actual brewers instead of permits (some brewers own permits for multiple production facilities), the Brewers Association, another national trade group that focuses mainly on small craft producers and homebrewers, reported 2,483 craft breweries were operating in the U.S. as of June 2013. That represents a nearly 6-percent rise from the year before.
The Brewers Association defines small brewers as those that produce less than 6 million barrels each year. The group’s total craft-brewery count combines microbreweries and brewpubs.
Other local expansion
The industry’s trending growth is apparent among existing Bellingham breweries.
Kulshan Brewing Co., which opened in April 2012 at 2238 James St., has since expanded its capacity twice. Kulshan was founded by David Vitt; its head brewer is Tom Eastwood.
Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen, opened by Will and Mari Kemper in 2008 at 601 W. Holly St., added five 20-barrel fermentation tanks in 2012, after maxing out its capacity the previous year.
Boundary Bay Brewery, which first opened downtown in 1995, moved forward with a long-planned expansion in March. The brewery added three 60-barrel fermentation tanks inside a 4,000-square-foot space next door to its home at 1107 Railroad Ave.
Lightner of Boundary Bay said the expansion would boost the brewery’s production by nearly 30 percent. Brewery owner Ed Bennett estimated the company’s new annual production cap would be somewhere around 10,000 barrels, Lightner said.
The additional capacity should also allow Boundary Bay’s brewers to offer new beer varieties, she said.
“We’ve really just scratched the surface with lagers and ales,” Lightner said.
Evan Marczynski, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Evan Marczynski Photos | The BBJ]
Aslan Brewing Co.