Bellingham has become a beer destination. Its 5 craft breweries attract nearly as many taste awards as thirsty customers. We talked with Aslan Brewing CEO, Jack Lamb, about the beer scene in town.
I read somewhere that you decided to open a brewery in Bellingham while drinking at a brewery in Bellingham. Talk me through that. Why here?
The three of us were talking over pints at the Greenfrog, and we realize there aren’t many places you can do this—drink quality craft beer in a beautiful setting.
We chose Bellingham because it’s the Bend, OR or Ashville, NC of Washington State. It’s a young, athletic, organic-minded population who cares about quality and what they put into their body. This is one of the least obese cities in Washington State.
For us the brewery came first and the restaurant later. The choice to brew organic was a no-brainer for us. We knew we could brew organic beer at basically the same price point as non-organic, so we figured: why not?
What was in this building before you guys moved in?
Signs Plus. It was two-story, carpeted office building with a warehouse in back. There was not nearly enough electricity or water. Every other vacant building in town had been vacant for at least a decade, but this one was on a corner and the location was working for an already successful business.
If you consider conventional wisdom of urban planning—beer halls go best at the edge of downtown and the edge of a neighborhood. And we’re 700 ft. from the bus stop, we’re on bike lines, we’re within walking distance of 6,000 people. It’s really a perfect spot.
You guys have made a big investment in cans. That’s unique. A lot of people do growlers, a lot of people do bottles. Why did you choose cans?
Cans are the future. I envision in 20 years that bottled beers will be a niche, collector’s item—a luxury good. It’s cool, but bottled beer has a lot of flaws—bottles let light in, the seal leaks, it’s heavy, it’s breakable.
Cans are an all-around superior beer container. They chill faster, they don’t let light in (so they preserve flavor better). They’ve got a bad reputation because 50 years ago when cans were straight aluminum they did leave a funny metallic taste in the beer. But can liners and new materials make that not true anymore. Plus, our cans are made right here in Olympia.
And you’re distributing. What stores are you in now?
Haggen. All the local beer bottle shops, Nelson’s Market, and even the 7-11 on Lakeway.
We’re in 3 stores in Seattle, but we’re only giving them a couple cases a week and they run out in just a couple days, which is cool.
But we’re expanding now too. We’re adding a couple 45 barrel fermenters in a couple days. Those are 3 times the size of any fermenter we have now, so that will allow us to triple our canning operation which should get us the chance to talk to people like Fred Meyer.
We’d like to be statewide in 2 years.
IPA has become the hipster beer of choice. Why is it so popular?
That’s true. We sell 120 pints a day of our IPA, and 40 pints of the next closest.
Hop forward beers are popular because of the Pacific Northwest. 70% of the nation’s hops come out of Yakima valley. We’re swimming in hops, so naturally we make very hoppy beers. For a while it was a race to see who could make the most bitter IPA. But now everyone is moving away from that. The IPA has evolved into an unfiltered, highly-aromatic beer with a resin texture. Those are all qualities that I enjoy. I’m proud that our IPA is hop forward without being over-the-top bitter.
But you’re right, it’s a phase. I think the next thing will be session beers or craft style American Lagers—excellent, light, highly-drinkable beers. That’s the future, I think.
I noticed the nod to a certain macro-brewer in your menu—Aslan Lite.
Like that, did you? Good. I’m glad you got it.
So, there’s a lot of brewers in Bellingham. What is the vibe like between you guys? Is it cut-throat or is it collaborative?
I had a meeting at Kulshan yesterday with all the owners of Bellingham breweries. We’re making a colab beer for Bellingham Beer Week, and that’s even a separate meeting with all of the head brewers. The owners are meeting. The brewers are meeting every month.
Boundary went first, and we all tip our hat to them. They created Bellingham beer.
Back when there were only 3 brewers in town, it was maybe a little more cold. But when we opened and Wander came to town everybody kinda relaxed a little because it demonstrated there was more room here. And in order for all of us to have continued success, we need to increase the market for craft beer in Bellingham.
I think we’re realizing that Bellingham is a becoming a beer destination. All of the Bellingham brewers won awards at the Washington beer awards. I’m on record already predicting that there will be 20 breweries in Bellingham by 2020. If you look at other towns with similar populations to ours, many of them have 20-30 breweries each. There are 22 in Bend, OR, and 27 in Asheville, NC.
When you guys get together, who brings the beer?
Oh, we all do. And that’s the best part—getting to try what everybody else is working on.
What is your favorite non-Aslan beer in Bellingham?
Really?! Not the Boundary Scotch?
No. That’s a good one too. They have been winning awards for a long time.
But the Chuckanut Pilsner is the best pilsner in the nation. It’s simple, it’s refreshing. I could drink it everyday and be happy. So that’s my favorite, but I’ll go around though.
At Wander: Baltic Porter. I’m jealous of their porter.
At Kulshan: Dude Man Wheat.
At Boundary it is the scotch.