A Fueled by Beer Field Trip: Bellingham, Wa

Since Mr Fueled by Beer started exploring the Puget Sound region’s brewery scene he’s lost count of the number of times he’s heard people rave about two of Washington State’s most highly regarded breweries. Trouble is they’re not in Seattle; they’re both located in Bellingham. A field trip was in order…

Travel north along I-5 from Seattle to Vancouver and the last town of any consequence before you reach the US/Canadian border will be Bellingham. This small college town (home to Western Washington University) is situated roughly 90 miles north of Seattle, just 20 miles from the Canadian border.

Bellingham is where you will find Rocket, a doughnut shop that blows away Seattle’s Top Pot and Portland’s Voodoo. And it’s also the home of Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen, Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro and, as I’ve only recently discovered, Kulshan Brewing Co.

This post is actually the result of two separate trips taken a few days apart. First, Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer along with The Daughter, cheated and drove up to Bellingham last Saturday, where they met The Navy Son and a couple of his buddies. Second, because Mr Fueled by Beer wasn’t completely satisfied with the Saturday tasting experiences, he decided to return to Bellingham on Thursday; a true Fueled by Beer trip – a transit trip to end all transit trips.

With the goal of getting to Bellingham as closely as possible to opening time at the breweries (11:00 am), and not staying too late in the afternoon, this is how it worked for me…

First I had to get to Everett Station before 8:30 am: from there I was able to connect to Skagit Transit which operates two express bus services (Mon-Fri only) between Everett and Mt Vernon (90X) and between Mt Vernon and Bellingham (80X). I should point out that the transit trip described here is only feasible on a weekday but other options are available using the Amtrak Cascades rail service.

I made the roughly 90 mile trip via three buses in a little over 3 hours, which included a 1 hour breakfast layover in Mt Vernon (Calico Cupboard Café – highly recommended). Each connection went smoothly and after I arrived at Bellingham transit center I continued on foot to explore the breweries (see map).

Incidentally the 90X and 80X services use comfortable modern air-conditioned buses equipped with high-backed reclining seats. The ride quality compared favorably with the newest buses in Sound Transit’s fleet. It’s a shame there wasn’t any interlining of the 80X/90X schedules to provide a one seat ride through Mt Vernon but frankly it’s a minor issue.

Many people may think it’s not worth spending 6 hours riding on transit buses to get 3 ½ hours of beer tasting. Call him crazy but Mr Fueled by Beer enjoys riding on buses and he obviously thinks it’s worth it: the three Bellingham breweries are definitely worthwhile.

Besides it’s inexpensive: just $7 each way. Any round trip exceeding 180 miles for just $14 is a hell of a deal. Just compare the round trip fare on the Amtrak Cascades service between Seattle and Bellingham (roughly $50), and then consider the sad fact that the train will often take longer (even with bus transfers). This is because on-time performance of the Cascades train still struggles to reach 70% (even with recent track & signaling improvements). Another arguably more significant issue with Cascades is that Bellingham’s Amtrak station is not downtown but located 3 miles away in the Fairhaven neighborhood – a local WTA bus is needed to get from the train to downtown.

So, how about that Bellingham beer…?

Kulshan Brewing Co.

Kulshan is new: they opened in April 2012; however the owners/brewers themselves are not, having practiced their craft at some of Washington’s most highly regarded breweries. Their pedigree comes through in Kulshan beer.

Each of my samples was solid: a tasty Wheat, an excellent IPA, a Double IPA, a Porter, and the standout, a Cascadian Dark or CDA – probably my favorite example so far from any brewery of this up and coming style. No new frontiers here: just good solid brews and a very nice laid back neighborhood tasting room. The generous daily opening hours and scheduled food truck service makes Kulshan an essential stop on any tour of Bellingham’s brewery scene.

Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen

Mr Fueled by Beer doesn’t seem to have much luck here, and going to the source still hasn’t resolved his desire to do justice to this most unusual of Washington breweries: one that specializes in German-style beers. The backstory is fascinating.

Ever since first seeing Chuckanut at the 2011 Washington Brewers Festival Mr Fueled by Beer has been wanting to check out their renowned light and dark lagers. However at the 2011 fest, and again at the 2012 fest, their kegs ran dry before we arrived. Now he knows the backstory he has a better understanding why.

During Mr Fueled by Beer’s two visits to the brewery this week, Pilsner and Kolsch were the only German styles available. Both were very good brews. And although they may look similar in the photo, their taste was not – they were 100% true to their respective styles – and both good. This left him wanting more – like a Dunkel, a Vienna, etc. Ironically, on the day the summer seasonals on tap at Boundary Bay, the Pilsner and Maibock, were preferred. Of course this is only an opinion – not an objective judgement.

Of Chuckanut’s six taps, the remaining four were pouring British-style ales. No offence, while they were perfectly respectable brews, nothing about the Chuckanut ales possessed anything to separate them from the herd. Apparently maxed out fermentation capacity is forcing the brewery to switch from lager to ale to meet demand. Like all good breweries, they’re victims of their own success. Additional capacity is in the works so we look forward to an all-lager taplist, and another trip in the future. In the meantime it looks like the Leavenworth brand from Fish Brewing and the Icicle beers from Leavenworth are Washington’s only expansive line of German-style brews.

The food at Chuckanut however is good. Menu choices are perhaps not as broad as Boundary Bay’s and Chuckanut prices seem to be a little higher. Nevertheless I believe anyone visiting Chuckanut to enjoy a well crafted beer in any style, as well as good food in a kid-friendly setting will not be disappointed. I will return as often as I can.

Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro

It’s fair to say that right now Boundary Bay rules in their small town. They are to the Bellingham brewery scene what Elysian and Elliott Bay are to Seattle. The breadth of their ale and lager styles, and consistently high quality, is what sets Boundary Bay apart.

The Bistro is very spacious, kid-friendly, and the menu has everything from simple appetizers like Bavarian pretzels – the ideal accompaniment for a beer tasting tray – to all the fixings of a three course meal including appetizer, entree and dessert. Based on our experience everything that came out of the kitchen was good, service was very good, and prices are competitive.

We sampled all of the brews on tap at Boundary Bay on the day we visited were. The two German-style seasonals: Pilsner and Maibock were superb. The standout among the ales was the Imperial IPA, simply kick-butt good. If you have time for only one brewery visit in Bellingham, and until Chuckanut can put six lagers on tap at one time, Boundary Bay is the place to go. Of course this view of Boundary Bay is only an opinion – not a definitive or objective judgement.

Some photos from our trips…

Conclusion: if you have a weekday to burn, this transit trip to Bellingham’s brewery scene is a very worthy way to spend it. And if you don’t have a weekday to burn, driving up there on a weekend is equally worthwhile – except for the designated driver. 😉


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