Appreciating the joys of Seattle’s nanobrew revolution.
Have you heard Mudhoney’s new single, “I Like It Small”? It’s an over-revved ode to understated existence. Mark Arm howls “Minimum production, low yield/Intimate settings, limited appeal/Dingy basements, short runs/low expectations, wait I’m not done!” And the chorus: “I like it! I like it! I like it smaaaaalll!”
Beyond catchy as hell, the song is prescient—it could be the anthem for Seattle’s upstart nanobrew movement.
Yes, nanobrew. Smaller than microbrew. It’s a thing. The term, relatively new to the wonky world of beer nomenclature, refers to commercial brewing operations that produce a handful of barrels per batch (one barrel equals two standard kegs, or 31 gallons). The specifics are vague; the important fact is that a slew of these diminutive facilities have opened recently, from Georgetown to Sodo to Fremont to Ballard, and more are on the way. Taken with the several pre-existing nanos and dozens of micros that anchor the city’s renowned craft brewing industry, they represent the greatest groundswell of local brewing since Seattle led the microbrew revolution in the early ’80s.
Normally I’d unload ponderous observations about the virtue of modesty, which would read true but maybe a little trite. Thank you, Mudhoney, for rendering it way cooler than I ever could. I like it small. Enough said.
Standard Brewing, for instance, is pretty much a shoebox, set behind a halal butcher shop at Jackson Street and 25th in the Central/Leschi overlap. It has eight stools inside, a handful of ales on tap and more seating outside in the parking lot. The guy pulling the taps is the guy who makes the beer. His name’s Justin. He built Standard himself.
Standard isn’t a bar, it’s a production facility that serves beer. Drinking here means drinking with Justin, who probably just finished his brewing duties and is happy to talk about them. The proximity of the beer-making space to the beer-drinking space is thrilling, even if you’re a casual beer fan. Small batches mean that new brews, including trendy favorites like rye IPA and Cascadian Dark Ale, are constantly on rotation. Or off, because small batches often run out.
Standard’s ales are good, but its secret weapon is Bee’s Wine, a low-alcohol nectar more akin to kombucha than beer. With flavors of ginger and citrus, it’s a centuries-old recipe for what’s basically two-percent ginger beer, crisp but sweet and radiantly golden. Justin believes he’s the only one making it in the Northwest. This will be your drink of choice all summer long.
With several new brew operations within walking distance, Ballard is now home to an unofficial nanocrawl. Peddler, Populuxe and NW Peaks are all located in the industrial zone off Leary Way on either side of 15th Ave NW (Ruben’s Brews is nearby, too). In terms of beer and ambiance, each offers a distinctly different product.
From the outside, NW Peaks looks like a single-car garage; inside, it’s a single-car garage, the car replaced by a pair of brew tanks. Yards of plastic hose, funnels and other mechanical items dangle precariously from plywood walls. With a handmade bar and seating for maybe a dozen, the place recalls a high school chemistry classroom turned clubhouse. My friends and I sampled 1-ounce pours of four different beers, including a deliciously toasty stout and a dunkelweiss that was strangely thin but flavorful.
Populuxe sports a formal wooden façade, like a tiny Greek temple or miniature museum, done up in electric blue. Inside it’s a cinderblock bunker where a smiling server behind a tiny bar pulled three different beers. Sipping pints of hearty Beer Snob Brown, we waited out the rain like WWII GIs evading mortar fire in a French farmhouse.
Of all the nanos sampled, Peddler is the most accomplished, both in atmosphere and quality of beer. The high-ceilinged warehouse it occupies is lined with big windows that face the gravel mounds across Leary. The long bar conceals the brewing operation in the back, as well as the staff’s bikes and a tattered couch. At 8 p.m. on a Saturday, it was packed with 50 or so people, a genuine neighborhood gathering place with a lively cornhole court. One-oz samplers ran a buck apiece and each of the seven beers on tap was balanced and delicious, especially the light and floral Kolsch and a dark warmer called Snow Beerd. Word is the founders are Boeing employees. Here’s to old industry encouraging new.
As we wandered the warehouse-lined streets between stops, my friends and I encountered many of the same nanohopping seekers. At each place we rubbed shoulders (literally—space constraints) with a salty, gregarious crowd, redolent of Old Ballard, as if the condo glut two blocks away was still decades off. Each fledgling nano-enterprise was a labor of love that exuded bootstrapped passion absent from the calculated, over-branded restaurants of Ballard Ave. Prices, too, were anachronistic: Last time we saw a $4 pint of beer made right there in the back, Mudhoney was Seattle’s best band. n
2504 S. Jackson St.
NW Peaks Brewery
4912 17th Ave. NW Ste. B
826B NW 49th St.
Peddler Brewing Company
1514 NW Leary Way
Pictured above: Standard Brewing. Photo by Nate Watters.