A couple weeks ago we took a family vacation to Lake Whatcom outside of Bellingham, Washington. Beautiful quiet setting, clean water, and easy access to a cute little burg that the Urban Beer Hiker refers to as "Little Portland". (Click that link, by the way, it will do you good.)
I've always liked Bellingham, and Boundary Bay Brewery has always been there as a reliable place for a good beer. My lifestyle has become so sedentary that I hadn't visited the town since before the widely-acclaimed lager-centric Chuckanut Brewery opened there 6 years ago. So I knew I'd get some beer tourism done during our week at the lake.
What I didn't expect was to find that the two established breweries have recently been joined by some very talented upstarts. In fact, the beer was much more exciting at the new places than the old ones. Once-beloved Boundary Bay now seems overcrowded and overpriced, with indifferent beers -- I had a cask Pale Ale that was so tired it made everyone at the table yawn. A quick stop at Chuckanut found them with only 3 of their beers on tap: German Pils, Czech Pils, and IPA. They were decent enough, but as a tourist I was hoping for some special hometown magic. Maybe it's one of the hazards of focusing on long-gestation lagers.
Enough grousing, let's talk about what was exciting in Bellingham. Top pick: Kulshan Brewing, which opened in 2012. Very solid lineup, and they do an especially nice job with lower-alcohol ales: Full 90 Session Ale and Dude Man Wheat had tons of flavor and clocked in below 5%. Good Ol' Boy Pale and Transporter were good choices below 5.5%. If you want something stronger, their flagship Bastard Kat IPA is right on the money for a West Coast IPA. The one blemish on our visit was the Double IPA (forgot the name), which tasted too solventy to me, though my wife didn't mind it.
Kulshan doesn't serve food, but they have a very spacious tasting room and patio, with a food cart parked out front, or you can bring your own food (the barbecue cart was pretty lame, in our opinion, and we were really hungry that day). Minors are allowed (in fact, they're allowed at all the pubs and tasting rooms in this post).
Another surprising find was Wander Brewing, whose decor and repertoire reminded me a lot of Portland's Base Camp (a place I like more and more with each visit, by the way). Heck, even their chalkboard reminded me of Base Camp. I really enjoyed a couple of their rye beers -- a roggenbier and a rye IPA. And when the vacation ended and it was time to select a souvenir beer to fill my growler with, I didn't hesitate to fill up with Wander's Coffee Baltic Porter. Definitely a nice touch of java in there, but it's the thick, rich, stouty goodness that keeps you sipping on it.
Wander just opened this year, and they're located in what looks like an old shipbuilding warehouse with really high ceilings. The tasting room blends right into the brewery, with lots of hip reclaimed wood used in the furnishings. The tables have some weird sloping surfaces, so careful where you set that glass. There's a food cart outside one of the garage doors -- a different cart every day (cool idea).
Another Bellingham brewery that just opened in 2014 is Aslan Brewing. Hold onto your hats, this one is an actual brewpub serving food from their own kitchen, including a passable waffle-fry poutine. The beer was all right here -- not as inspiring as Kulshan or Wander, but I would rate Aslan's beer, food, and atomsphere higher than Boundary Bay's based on our single visit to each this summer. One very cool offering: DNA -- Don's Non-Alcoholic Beer. I have always hoped to see some microbrewers to try their hands at N/A beers, so big ups to Aslan for actually taking the plunge. It was a dark, rich brew -- you can see it in the tall schooner behind the taster tray in the top photo -- that had that malt-o-meal flavor you get from Malta drinks, but not as intense. It wasn't so wonderful that I would drink it every day, but I might have one occasionally.
Finally, there is a fairly new brewery (2013? 2012?) called Menace Brewing, just outside of Bellingham in Ferndale. We didn't make it out there, but they have a pub in Bellingham called The Local which serves a few Menace brews and others from around the area. We popped in to The Local (love the name) on a Saturday afternoon, and got some of the weirdest service ever. I hope it was just a bad day, but the icing on the cake was when we were leaving, trying to say a goodbye to our waitress, who steadfastly refused to look up from some small task like napkin sorting to meet our eyes. After standing there awkwardly for a few seconds, a grumpy bartender nearby finally gave a wordless wave and a grunt -- but it was kind of a back of the hand wave, more like "shoo" than "see ya".
Anyway, let's hope that was a fluke. The couple Menace beers we tried -- a stout and an IPA -- were all right, nothing wrong with them. The food at The Local had highs and lows -- we had a wonderful mixed-green salad, and the grown-up mac-and-cheese was decadent and fantastic. But the breakfast dishes were very lame -- flat bland waffles, flavorless home-fries, and something else I can't even remember.