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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Chuckanut Is All That

In four sessions of the GABF, I ventured to the Pacific Northwest section only once. Why sample beer that's readily available at my corner pub? One trip was necessary, though: despite the fact that they're located just a few hours up I-5, I've never had a chance to try the lagers of Chuckanut. This is a great tragedy, for as I age, I pine more and more for the subtle, spare flavors they offer--all while living in one of the most heavily ale-centric regions of the country. So Chuckanut--two-time winner of the GABF's best small brewery in its four years of existence--tantalizes me from across the Columbia River.

One always wonders, though: is a brewery that weighted with heavy medals really that good? Chuckanut makes (or has made) upwards of two dozen styles (including 13 lagers and a kolsch), and I only got to try four. The old researcher in me wants to acknowledge the sample bias, but based on my admittedly non-comprehensive sampling, the answer is yes.

Will Kemper is one of the pioneers of craft brewing, having founded another lager brewery in Washington, Thomas Kemper, in 1985. Since then, he's been involved in start-ups literally all over the globe (US East Coast, Mexico, Turkey) before finally bringing his experience full circle with another small lager brewery in Washington State.

The lagers he's brewing are brewed faithfully to contemporary standards--no amping up the hops or alcohol content to appeal to local audiences. There are no curveballs, just familiar styles brewed flawlessly. His Vienna Lager won a hat trick by taking gold three years running (it failed to medal this year), but the two beers that wowed me were the Helles and Pilsner. The pils was described as "German," but I swear the tangy, spicy hopping was Saaz. It was a delightfully crisp and clear--balanced by a lightly sweet, grainy malt base. (12.5 P, 5% ABV, 38 IBUs)

The Helles was, if anything more impressive. Pilsners are regarded as the crowning accomplishment of German brewing because they require such attention and have such a tiny sweet spot for success. I sometimes feel the Helles style is even more so. Chuckanut's is in perfect balance, again with lightly sweet grainy malt, softer than the pilsner, gentle spicy hopping, and a finish that was just a degree smoother and rounder than the pils. (12 P, 5% ABV, 20 IBUs)

The only complaint I have is an obvious one: why can't Chuckanut send a few kegs to the Beaver State?

PHOTO: Will and Mari Kemper and the Chuckanut crew accept the award for best small brewery at the 2011 GABF.


  1. This last spring I spent some time at Chuckanut, met everyone and loved the place. I talked to them about coming down for Portland Beer Week but they could not spare the beer but told me they would take me up on the offer next year.

  2. How does the Chuckanut Helles compare to Ninkasi Helles Belles?

  3. Pete, they're pretty close. I'd like to taste them blind.

  4. I've had their special bitter, dunkle, and amber ales. All were fantastic. I live an hour and a half south, and I can't even get their beer anywhere locally.

  5. I find the American craft lager market woefully underserved.

    Wherever I go, I look for craft pilsners at brewpubs and at retail. I seldom 'be spoilt for choice'.

    The semi-arid Rocky Mountain Front Range [eastern slope] is better than most. Albeit, I have not spent much time on the ground in Pennsylvania.

    Your Pils-Bro,

  6. I thought Helles Belles was excellent, first at the OBF and later at the Mighty Mites. Terrific style.

  7. How does our state's Heater Allen compare to Chuckanut?

  8. While we naming names, I have high regards for German pilsner biers from
    - Abita [New Orleans]
    - Bayern [Missoula]
    - Baron [Seattle]
    - Caldera [Ashland]
    - Tröegs [Harrisburg]
    - Victory [Downingtown]
    Brewing Co.s.

    And, there are excellent Czech style pilsners.

  9. I live in Bellingham and have been to Chuckanut often. I will say that the Pilsner, offered seasonally at Boundary Bay Brewing, also of Bellingham, is darned good as well. The folks at Chuckanut are great folks as are the folks at Boundary. Two great breweries in this town makes this a terrific place to live.