Tacoma By Transit Revisited: Wingman Brewers

Last fall, when I concluded my three-part series on Tacoma By Transit, I really wasn’t done. There was one notable absentee, a fact I had alluded to in Part 1. Nevertheless I kept them on my radar and their progress has been nothing short of impressive. Now, six months later, they are definitely ready for primetime…

Much has been written already about Wingman Brewers: how a group of college buddies with a penchant for homebrew decided the best way to avoid the employment plight of so many of their degree-educated peers was to create their own jobs. And how, after a whirlwind first year of growth, the young company found themselves needing to expand to larger premises to meet demand.

Since it would be redundant of me to rehash information that may be gained from a simple Google search, in this post I’m going to talk about my recent visit to Wingman Brewers and present some observations about factors that I believe may make their growth in year two and beyond just as meteoric as their first.

As readers of this blog know, I am of the opinion that Washington’s brewing scene is far from reaching a saturation point. Even in the densely populated Seattle brewing community there is seemingly unlimited room for new players; they all appear to be prospering to one degree or another, and I am yet to see one fail.

Tacoma has nowhere near the density of breweries that Seattle does so I don’t see how prospects for a relative newcomer like Wingman Brewers can be anything but bright – especially if they are creative about their product, obsessive about quality, and imaginative about how they reach their market – in other words always innovating.

Innovation….  this area more than any other is what always impresses me when I visit one of the new wave nanobreweries; companies started mainly by 20-somethings on a shoestring budget. Their innovations fall into two key areas: first their recipes step outside the box of the conventional ho-hum brews that all too often remain the mainstay of so many of the PNW brewing community’s senior citizens; second is their openness to new avenues of distribution.

In my book these factors provide real differentiation in today’s seemingly limitless market, and I believe such differentiation could prove vital if and when a market saturation point is ever reached. So, how does Wingman Brewers stand according to these criteria? In my opinion they are very well positioned…

When I visited the Tacoma area brewers last year I was aware that Wingman was already shipping as much as they could produce to their bar and restaurant accounts. However, when compared to the full-blown brewpub operations at Harmon & E9, I felt it would be unfair to judge Wingman until they could at least present a broader lineup of beers and have a place to showcase them. That’s what I was waiting for these last several months, and I’m pleased to find that’s exactly where they are today.

 

Taplist

On April 21st, 2012, exactly one year from their initial release party, Wingman opened their new brewery in the Dome District (check website for taproom hours). And ever since I learned this, I have been itching to make a transit trip down to Tacoma to check them out (Map).

As is typical for their generation, the guys at Wingman are Internet-savvy, harnessing the power of social networking to full advantage. Through Facebook and Twitter I watched Wingman’s beer lineup evolve and grow each week until last week they posted this…

That did it! At my very first opportunity – actually the very next day, so eager was I to taste – I was on the Sound Transit Express 594 bus zipping down the I-5 HOV lane from Seattle. I walked in to the Wingman Brewery about ten minutes after the taproom opened to find folks already at the bar – a good sign. Co-owners Ken Thoburn and Jason Sabol were on hand to talk shop and without further ado the tasting commenced.

L-R: Ace IPA; P-51 Porter, Pom-Weizen, Tripel, Strat, Hef w/Raspberries

Tasting Samples

For the photo I arranged my six tasting glasses to match the order on the chalkboard: from left to right, Ace IPA; P-51 Porter; Pomegranate Weizen, Miss-B-Haven Tripel, Stratofortress, and the Randallized Raspberry Hef. The Belgian Session Ale was not available.

 


Right off the bat I can see why Wingman grew so quickly on the strength of their initial release P-51 and Ace brews. Both are quality beers, each with some unusual characteristics.

As my photo shows, the first beer, Ace, is unusually dark for an IPA due to its use of Belgian-style malt. However the hop character and fermentation is classic NW IPA, making Ace a creative example of a hybrid beer.


I personally found the P-51 to be less remarkable than the Ace, but then I am very picky with Porters. I measure them all against my three favorites: from Harmon, Flyers and Snoqualmie.

Still, with its silky smooth mouthfeel, complex flavors, and 8% ABV I don’t believe the P-51 will ever disappoint.


Now to the part where I was really impressed: the exquisite balancing act that Wingman demonstrated between their two oh-so-delicate fruit-infused Weizens and their two BIG Belgians.

Although I’m a layman in the art of brewing I believe I have tasted a broad enough spectrum of beer to recognize the touch of a truly skilful brewer. The weizens were some of the best I have tasted and the two Belgians – wow!

Co-owner Jason Sabol with Wingman cans and raspberry filled Randall

Co-owner Jason Sabol with Wingman cans and raspberry filled Randall used to infuse the Hefeweizen

Wingman’s Tripel is without question one of the most unusual I have ever come across. While the underlying flavor and 9% ABV are typical, have you ever seen a tripel this dark? Certainly not a Belgian one.

I do understand American Tripels allow more leeway with the style and for this brew bitter Curacao orange peel was added to the boil – I guess that explains the color. I really enjoyed this one – but not as much as Wingman’s pièce de résistance.


Stratofortress, at 11.4% ABV, has to be one of the strongest Belgian style beers I have ever tasted – matching the strongest I encountered at Belgianfest 2012. If I recall correctly that was another strong Belgian dark from Wingman, their barrel aged Black Widow.

I suspect the base recipe for Stratofortress may be the same as Black Widow but in this case the brew is aged on cedar soaked with dark rum. All in all an amazing beer – when it came time to decide which Wingman brew would come home with me in my growler, it was a no brainer. I will concede however that Stratofortress may be too intense for some palates.


So, to summarize Wingman Brewers beers: Mmmmmmmmmmmm!!!

Now to the other aspect of innovation I mentioned above: new avenues of distribution.

Wingman recently seized the opportunity to branch off into direct retail distribution by starting to can their Ace IPA and P-51 Porter in 16oz tallboys. And they are going about it in a different way. Instead of investing in expensive canning equipment and having to purchase an ungodly quantity of empty cans to fill, Wingman has partnered with Northwest Canning, the region’s first mobile beverage canning service. I was so intrigued by this and, as Jason Sabol explained, it makes such a lot of sense. Wingman’s only upfront investment is labels for the cans. Just watch this video…

So, there you have it. Wingman Brewers is producing some kick-ass beer and giving Harmon and E9 some serious competition in Tacoma. And whereas Harmon and E9 seem content to stay close to home, I predict the Wingman name is going to grow across the region as their cans pop up in more and more places where better beer is sold. I for one look forward to seeing Wingman cans on the shelf at my local Bellevue Whole Foods. 🙂

As usual, this transit trip made use of Sound Transit’s trip planner. If your visit coincides with Wingman’s weekday taproom hours, you can ride the 594 Express bus from Seattle to Tacoma, then return on the Sounder train (4:25 and 5:00 pm departures). On Saturdays the Sounder doesn’t run so it’s the 594 bus both ways.

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