Rock Bottom – A Progress Report

When a brewpub chain built on a culture of independent brewing finds itself marching to the drumbeat of a corporate master whose motives are primarily financial, I’m the first person to raise the alarm. But at the same time, I want to believe that the corporate bean counters recognize the best way to insure continuing success in their business is to advance the art of local craft brewing. It is for this reason that I want to give Rock Bottom’s new direction a fair test of time…

Since the CraftWorks corporate beer lineup was unveiled in April I have continued to regularly visit my local Rock Bottom Restaurants in Bellevue and Seattle. In both locations four taps are now pouring homogenized corporate brews; the four remaining taps continue to pour local brewmaster recipes.

Update March 2012: due to significant price increases, less choice and reduced quality over the past year or so we now rank Rock Bottom below The Ram and McMenamins. These chains both now deliver better value for money. Sadly, at least in the Seattle market, Rock Bottom now joins corporate sibling Gordon Biersch as just another brewpub chain not worth visiting.

My opinions of the new “RB” ales…

Kolsch: not being a lager fan, I didn’t mourn the loss of Bellevue’s Liquid Sun Pilsner – but compared with other Kolsch styles I have sampled (notably Hales Ales), this RB corporate brew is blahhh – thumbs down!

White: I’ve never been much of a Hef fan either so losing Bellevue’s Big Batch Wheat was no biggie. However if corporate wanted to feature a ‘Belgian’ then I’d rather it be a Belgian strong ale (like Brian’s recent seasonal Tripel). But as a replacement for its predecessor, my verdict on the Belgian style Wit – thumbs up!

IPA: by local standards this is nowhere near a NW IPA but it’s not so bad; for fans mourning the loss of Humpback Pale, this is your new brew. Thumbs up!

Red: this is not a worthy replacement for Lumberjack but my opinion has moderated somewhat. I first tried this in Seattle, where I was disappointed. It seemed weak bodied and lacking in flavor profile – on par with Pyramid or McMenemins – the bottom of Seattle’s microbrewing barrel in my opinion. But I’ve since tried several more in Bellevue. Fresh from the pour I still think it’s pretty poor (pun intended) but I did find with my last pint that if you leave it to flatten out and warm up a bit it’s not so bad after all. So I’ll say the jury’s out on Red at this time.

Local Brewmaster’s Rotating Taps…

Rotating Dark: right now it’s an oatmeal stout; pleasantly sweet caramel flavor profile with a hint of coffee and chocolate. Quite light as stouts go, and very nice. Thumbs up!

Helles Lager: current seasonal; tapped last week – haven’t tried it.

Eastside IPA: current seasonal; I have been drinking a lot of this and will miss it when it’s gone. I think I prefer it to Hop Bomb; not so in your face hoppiness, a more subtle profile. To put it in baseball terms, a home run. Two thumbs up!

Hop Bomb: flagship IPA for both Bellevue & Seattle. Currently out in Bellevue, fresh batch on the way, currently pouring in Seattle. It’s name says it all – two thumbs up!

On Cask…

Right now in Bellevue there is a cask-conditioned red ale – whether this was brewed from the Lumberjack recipe I’m not sure – but whatever it is, it’s really superb. Kudos Brian. Two thumbs up!

Overall verdict – I think another month or so is needed before passing final judgement but so far so good with the beers. However I do want to see something like the little beer booklets restored at the table. The “ask your server” line in the menu doesn’t cut it. Every brewpub in the Seattle area (Elysian, Elliott Bay, Pike, Pyramid, Ram, McMenamins, Naked City, Maritime, Big Time, Redhook, Rogue, Snoqualmie, Hales, need I go on) provides one.

Also, unlike many RB locations around the country, I’m not seeing an upcoming tapping schedule for Bellevue or Seattle. To maintain my faith that there will always be something besides the homogenous corporate brews on tap, I’d like to see one posted under the events tab at the respective websites, even better if also posted on Facebook.

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