By Dan Culver
Welcome back to our Puget Sound Beer Adventures series. This particular stop takes us to Bellingham, WA for a visit at the Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen. The brewery and restaurant was opened in July of 2008 by Will and Mari Kemper, and yes it is the same Kemper you might recall from the craft brewery Thomas Kemper, which was brewing up some good craft beers in the 1990’s. Since the Thomas Kemper, days Will and Mari have traveled the globe and opened brewpubs in Mexico and Turkey, along with traveling to Europe to gain even more perspective and experience in the brewing world. Now they are back, and lucky for us, they have set up shop in our neck of the woods with a state of the art brewery just up the I-5, where he creates great brews in the authentic German style.
Will summed up his brewery as European influenced (mostly German but some British), producer to consumer, style focused and modern. Will, who has a B.S. in chemical engineering, is also a graduate of the Siebel Institute in the areas of microscopy and microbiology. So needless to say he has an eye for detail when it comes to brewing beer. When you have a beer from Chuckanut you know the utmost care and effort went into creating it thanks to Wills experience and know-how. This was realized on a national scale when barely a year after opening their doors they took home four medals at the Great American Beer Festival. They were also awarded Best Small Brewpub and Best Small Brewer. With this they were given a trip to Germany where they enjoyed the beers of the Cologne region, specifically the Kölsch style beers. Will’s fondness of Kölsch led him to attain a strain of yeast only available in Cologne, and he now has it in his possession in order to create the closest German style of Kölsch possible here in the states.
We were very lucky to have timed this stop just right and found Will in the brewery on a Saturday morning just before opening. We had him all to ourselves for a great run down and tour through his modern brewing facility. As later we found out from his wife Mari this was a special treat as Will usually keeps a busy schedule and it makes it hard to work in tours unless scheduled far in advance. Will was a very gracious host and spared no time getting right down to showing us a step by step process of his highly technical and mostly automated operations of brewing. As he took us through the brewery he shared and pointed out some of the advancements of the facility which most can only be found in other modern facilities such as New Belgium’s, which of course is far larger.
He’s very pleased to have the capabilities of a large facility but on a much smaller scale. This allows for it to be run by just two and sometimes one person, and with a laptop miles away. It was some pretty cool stuff to see and it’s fun to see the advancing technology we see every day being harnessed in the brewing world like pneumatic valves being controlled with a push of a button and the temperature being controlled within a tenth of a degree Fahrenheit with his computer program. In order to do all this though he said a lot of the brewery was made from custom fit equipment and pieced together pieced together by himself.
Besides the physical operation processes of brewing he also shared a bit of his brewing philosophy stemming from his earlier days of brewing. One specifically is how he saw a resistance to the Thomas Kemper brewing of prototypes of non-conforming beer styles in the late ‘80’s, and now where he is on the other side and sees a resistance to brewing craft beer without extremism, commonly found in today’s craft brewing. Part of his brewing philosophy is his belief in taste as a science, and thus lends to his focus on perfection of styles versus maybe just brewing beer and leaving the taste to chance. An example is why to filter beer to create the right taste; yeast does not taste good in beer, and without filtration you have the yeast settling to the bottom and thus yeast is not a positive flavor so it’s better to remove it. Another example of a difference in his brewing and most other craft beers is his use of type 45 hops versus the traditional type 90. He explained to me how 45 is readied by crystallizing with -40 degrees Celsius allowing a higher concentration. The misconception is that it might cost more but it actually doesn’t because the method gets rid of waste you don’t want to use anyway. After touching on importance of water and steam pressure he revealed the Vienna Malt he uses as he feels it has the best taste.
With all this information and knowledge shared by Will we were starting honestly starting to get a little overwhelmed (not to mention thirsty). He really is operating a unique brewery and is a unique brewer in his own right. It’s all paid off too as he is at capacity after he brought in new tanks not long ago. Most of his beers end up in Seattle and all in kegs but there is talk of a new, much larger brewery which would include a bottling facility of his own.
After the well guided and informative tour I think we gained some really good perspective for future beer tasting and brewery visits. Which brings me to the next step for us during our visit, which was walking across the driveway to the Kitchen for some over-due tasting of the fine beers Will had and just told us about. We were greeted by his wife Mari as she educated us even further about the beer styles we were enjoying and a little bit of history about each one. Unfortunately the new Cologne-yeast Kölsch was not finished (missed it by a week) so I went for the Pilsener (gold medal winner) first. This was also the beer I chose to fill a growler with for the sampling with friends back here in Portland.
Hope you enjoyed this part of Puget Sound Beer Adventures and look for the next one where we stay in Bellingham and share a little about the Bay.