The Ballard Brews Cruise
Craft beer thrives on a few key factors. High quality, small batches, unique beers, and local breweries act as the natural foil to the big bad macro-brewery where distribution, the consistency of standardization, and being “inoffensive” are pretty much all that matters. These factors tend to create pockets of communities with high levels of interest in craft beer. On a national level, certain cities are known for their craft beer culture – Seattle, Denver, Portland (Oregon and Maine!). But any resident of one of those towns can certainly point you to a neighborhood or two where craft brewing drives a unique culture.
In Seattle, the first neighborhood to come to mind would have to be Ballard. One of the oldest neighborhoods in Seattle, Ballard sits just a bit north of downtown along the Puget Sound. The Ballard locks are still filled with commercial fishing boats, reflecting its origins as a fishing town settled by Scandinavians who were reminded of their homes half a world away. Now, Ballard is an interesting mix of that blue collar, Scandinavian heritage (there is literally a Nordic Heritage Museum), Seattle’s historical culture of being on the leading edge of many national trends, and an influx of young professionals flocking to the city in search of employment, individuality, and of course, good beer.
This mix creates the perfect environment to foster a community of breweries built on traditional methods, but striving to create something new resulting in one of the densest groupings of craft breweries in Seattle… and perhaps… THE WORLD. If you check out that link, you will see that Ballard boasts 10 craft breweries clustered within just 5 square miles, and the area is also chock full of restaurants, shops, bars, and music venues.
This fact ultimately led to a pretty fantastic idea among my friends: Why not spend a weekend day travelling to as many of these breweries as we could get to? Obviously driving would be a TERRIBLE idea… so how about biking? And the Ballard Brews Cruise was born.
The Cast of Characters:
Me – The only person who took this seriously enough this to write a couple thousand words about it.
Ingrid – My loving and lovely wife. Although usually she is tolerating my shenanigans, this whole thing was her idea!
Matt – Ingrid’s brother and my brother-in-law. Known to be competitive, travels with a diaper bag many supplies.
Heather – Probably the most seasoned “biker” of the group, she spends a lot of time mountain biking with a much better bike than Ingrid’s “Free Spirit”.
Brad(ley) – We prefer the formal “Bradley” to avoid confusion with me, Brad. AKA “The Bradshow”. Red beard, dreamy blue eyes, and an inconceivable amount of chick magnetism.
Bob – Homebrewer and chef. Don’t drunkenly mention a pig roast or you might wake up to him burying a suckling pig in your yard while “making salsa” which will require a 5 gallon bucket.
Suzanne – Bob’s ladyfriend who is quite the sporting type. Approximately 1,467% better at athletic endeavors than me (and not terribly shy about mentioning that).
Heather part deux – Joined partway through this adventure so she’s only getting half points. But she did increase the total number of people with the same name as someone else on the trip to four.
We used this handy list of every brewery in Seattle to plan our route. We thought it was a bit optimistic (and probably really dumb) to try and visit all 10 breweries, so we eliminated a couple off the bat and landed on a goal of hitting 6 of the 10 breweries. Bikes were tuned, a tandem bike was obtained, and a good night’s rest was slept in anticipation of the day.
A sunny day in Seattle is a glorious thing and this fine Saturday was no exception. Knowing that we were doomed if we didn’t start with a hearty breakfast, the crew rendezvoused at the Hi Life for brunch. We were pretty excited to get the day started, but most of us cheated on Ballard a little by selecting a non-Ballard beer. Black Raven pale ales, Country Boy IPA, Thai Basil Bloody Mary’s and (the lone Ballard beer) a Stoup Brewing Hefeweizen Shandy got us started. Which is to say, don’t sleep on the selection of non-Ballard brews when you’re out in Ballard!
From there, we hopped on the bikes and headed to the first brewery of the day, Populuxe Brewing. Referring to themselves as a nano-brewery, they would be one of the smallest of the breweries we visited, but that in no way resulted in a lack of options. We literally pulled up as soon as they unlocked the chain-link fence to their outdoor area. The group ordered a Belgian pale, British mild, brown ale, Pale ale, a blonde, and a peach and black currant (yessss) Saison, which I have to say is quite the variety. The interior of the place was rather small, but they had a fantastic outdoor seating area complete with 2 sets of cornhole. The cornhole nearly derailed our attempts to keep the train moving after my Matt and I were beaten by Bob and Suzanne (well, really just Suzanne), but we stayed true to the goal and moved on after our first beer.
Second on the list was to be, fittingly, Second Chance Brewing as none of us had even heard of it. However, we quickly realized why, because it just isn’t a thing. It basically just looks like someone’s house where maybe they homebrew and have time to do paperwork for applying for a brewing license? We weren’t 100% sure but we stopped short of ringing the doorbell to find out.
The good news? Stoup Brewing is literally right across the street, and that IS a thing. With the sun getting hotter, the beer of choice at stoup seemed to be the Citra IPA, which was a perfectly light and, well, citrusy IPA. Matt and I redeemed our cornhole loss by beating Bob and Suzanne at euchre and we shared some snack options for later in the day including some weird Korean yogurt Kit Kats that you are supposed to put in a toaster oven (thanks, Bob). We’re feeling pretty good at this time, having crossed off 2 breweries, and were ready to roll onto the next one.
From there we biked around the corner to Reuben’s Brews, which seems to specialize in rye based beers. I’d had some of their lighter brews, including their Roggenbier, but that day they were featuring an Imperial Rye IPA… on nitro. As I waited in line, I knew it was probably not in the best interest of my biking skills to get it. But then I remembered Imperial IPAs on nitro are awesome so I ordered it anyway. It was a malt forward, spicy IPA with a healthy dose of hops, all smoothed out and creamy-like from the nitro treatment. Quite the potent potable, my friend Bradley simply said, “Sweet, alcoholy”. True.
I definitely will be looking forward to that one again when it gets cooler, but the winner of the day might have been the Reuben’s Kolsch. With the sun shining, everyone was looking for the light refreshing beers and the Kolsch was a perfect treatment. Light, crisp, and a bit hoppy it avoided the cloyingly sweet character that can sometimes come with a Kolsch. It was good enough that pretty much everyone who didn’t order one the first time through the line went back and ordered one. At this point food was back on the agenda so we shared some Sammy’s Sonoran dogs – hotdogs wrapped with bacon, with salsa, avocado, and beans. Mmmmm.
Fortified and feeling fine, we headed out to probably the most fitting local spot for the Brews Cruise, Peddler Brewing. This brewery has a bicycling themed interior complete with biking décor, merchandise, and even biking themed names for their beers. I had an On your Left IPA while others enjoyed the India Session Ale, Pedal Strike Pale, and a tangerine wheat. Things got real when we saw they too had cornhole, but their version was indoors. Although there clearly was not regulation distance between the boards, having anything indoors in Seattle is a plus when we know that, inevitably, the rains will return. The shorter distance mitigated Suzanne’s skill, allowing Matt and I to win the rubber match and thereby become the winners of the Universe. We’re thinking of having championship belts made. After the game, I sat in on a conversation between Bradley, Heather part deux, and Ingrid about what size shirt Bradley should wear. Suddenly, I realized that we were clearly a bit tipsy, but we seemed to be going strong and I thought we should make it.
From Peddler’s, we headed to NW Peaks which is the only spot we visited smaller than Populuxe. But what they lack in size, they make up for in good beer and awkward photo opportunities.
Challenger IPA is a favorite of mine, but Bradley and I took the opportunity to sample two versions of the same beer. I had the standard Redoubt Red Ale, while he got the whiskey barrel aged double Redoubt. I’ll grant you we were probably past the point of nuanced comparison, but we both appreciated what is by all measures a solid beer and then riffing on that formula.
Some of the group was flagging pretty hard at that point, so we threw out a lifeline to Ballard Pizza Company for needed sustenance. Upon the pizza’s arrival and with the temperature dropping a bit, we all perked up a little bit, most notably Matt. Here is a picture of him barking like a male Galapagos seal at my wife!
Food in belly, we got serious about a conversation of how we should do this every weekend and then a healthy debate about where to go next.
We ended up at Hilliard’s Brewing. This was by far the largest establishment we visited. Their beers aren’t going to blow you away, but it’s good and their tap room is super nice, with indoor and outdoor seating for a lot of folks.
We had a good time playing Head’s Up, which is a game that should really only be played while drinking, and then all swooned over the cutest little gray pitbull ever. Fun fact, Seattle has more dogs than children – maybe because it’s way more acceptable to bring your dog to the bar than your kid?
If you’re keeping track, that is 6 breweries! By this time, the sun had set, the hoodies were coming out, and the proposition of riding a bike was suspect at best. So we made the only logical decision. We went to get some motherf*&#ing tater tots. We rode to Zayda Buddy’s and ordered a large quantity of fried potatoes. Oh, and also some wings and cheese curds.
The final ride of the evening probably wasn’t the safest of our short trips. But Bob’s apartment is in Ballard and we pretty universally made the wise choice of using some of his apartment’s bike racks to just go ahead and stash the bikes for the night. It’s crucial to be realistic about your ability to operate your current mode of transportation, be it car, bike, or even you own two feet. Hey, there’s Uber. And we surely don’t want to miss the next Brews Cruise!
Not that you need a bike at all. The area we were in is totally walkable. So, if you visit Seattle and love craft beer, you pretty much have no excuse to miss out on one of the truly great beer neighborhoods.
Come on down!