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Oakes Weekly - February 3, 2005

Make a Run for the Border
Oakes Weekly February 3, 2005      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

One of the big problems with beer is that governments love to involve themselves in the business. They’ve been doing it since the dawn of time and Lord knows they’re not going to stop anytime soon. This has a tendency to suck for beer lovers. Sin taxes, complex distribution webs, prohibitions and other effluvia of the legislator’s mind have consistently conspired against the adventurous drinker.

It has led, however, to at least one fun tradition – the border run. Beer drinkers can often find a whole new world of malted beverages just the other side of the nearest border. Lucky folks in places like New Jersey have many borders close by, so as to benefit from a multitude of possible border runs. Here in Vancouver, we have one.

Geographically, there isn’t much to choose between British Columbia and Washington. We’ve got mountains, they’ve got mountains. We’ve got ocean, they’ve got ocean. Island, check. Rain, check. Fresh air, check. Lots of trees, check. But when it comes to beer, things are definitely a little different.

I honestly don’t have any major issue with BC brewers at all, but it’s a tough comparison they are up against because Washington is one of the greatest beer regions on the planet. There’s nothing wrong with Dutch beer either, but they’re next to Belgium. It’s all relative. (And don’t forget, two of my absolute favourites last year were from BC.)

So since I’ve been back, I’ve made a couple of border runs. The first took myself, BeerPrince and Joe McPhee down to Bellingham, the first city south of the border. Our first stop was the venerable Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro. Boundary Bay has been around for about a decade now and has in that time accumulated a pile of awards – several GABF medals and two cases of other medals as well hang on the wall. They had 11 beers on tap, which is something I always enjoy when I visit a brewpub. Selection is a good thing. There was a good mix of malty beers and hoppy beers. The brewer saw us taking notes and dropped by to say hi. I’ll have to sit down and talk to him sometime when I have more time to try and unlock the secret about all those medals.

The best of them was the Imperial IPA, which has just enough malt to make the ridiculous hop levels work. When I say ridiculous, I mean it, too – 50lbs of hops for 20 kegs of beer, not including dry hops. Another favourite was the Imperial Oatmeal Stout. This was not at all what I expected. Intuitively I thought that oatmeal would be pointless in an Imperial Stout. But that beer would be called “Oatmeal Imperial”, not “Imperial Oatmeal”. Indeed, the beer is like an oversized version of an oatmeal stout, sweet and creamy rather than roasty and fruity. Very cool stuff.

After Boundary Bay, we checked out a new bottle shop that’s opened up called, surprisingly, The Bottle Shoppe. This was always a lament for visiting Canadian beer lovers, and I suspect some locals as well. There was no really great place to stock up on bottles in Bellingham. Bottle runs meant going to Seattle. At least for the serious aficionado. The selection at an average Chevron station in Washington State would be worthy of the Places database if it were located in Kentucky.

Bottle Shoppe only opened a couple of months ago and they’ve got what looks to be about 75-100 beers right now, most of it of the “killer” variety. An ambitious series of tastings and events at the small store have been announced and with any luck I’ll get down for one or two of these.

From there it was to the Bellingham institution, the Archer Ale House. This is one of my favourite pubs, with plush carpet, plenty of wood, darts and a distinct lack of cathode or neon tubes. The sixty-odd bottles have some interesting stuff, and the taps are frequently rotated amongst local brews. I took down a Lagunitas Hairy Eyeball and a Mort Subite Gueuze Fond, met up with Archer regular Crit, and headed out to the North Fork Brewery.

This is just outside a one-horse town called Deming, which is on the way to Mount Baker. Skiers had packed the place when we arrived, so it wasn’t really the time to talk shop with the proprietors and explore the “Shrine to Beer”. The beers, of course, were pretty good, but I’ll want to go back and give them more attention on a quieter day.

A couple of weeks later I made my way south again, this time bound for Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula for the Strange Brewfest at the Water Street Brewing and Aleworks. The drive south is mostly suburban until you cross the border, where it immediately turns rural. Past Bellingham, you get into some hills and then you come out into a flat expanse of farmland wedged in between the ocean and the mountains to the east. On this stretch, there are three breweries – Skagit River in Mount Vernon and eponymous breweries in LaConner and Anacortes. I decided on this day to stop in LaConner.

The town is small and touristy with some nice buildings, a tiny waterfront and of course a brewpub. The brewery shot to fame with the IPA they did for Seattle’s Bottleworks. Much hand-wringing was conducted when their famed brewmaster departed for Rogue’s Eugene brewhouse. The new guy wasn’t in when I arrived, but I can report that the beer was generally quite good. The ESB in particular caught my eye. I don’t have any particular fondness for Premium Bitter as a style, but the deft balance found in many of the brews at LaConner was particularly in evidence with this ESB.

From there I headed south onto Whidbey Island. The area coming to and from the island is a spectacular stretch of dense, old growth rainforest and the bridge offers amazing views of jade-coloured ocean and rocky shoreline. Some thirty miles later the scenery turns Nova Scotian with an impressive stretch of flat, windswept shoreline near the ferry to Port Townsend. It really is an amazing corner of the world out here.

Port Townsend is an attractive town and draws a lot of visitors to take in its sights. They have two breweries – Port Townsend and Water Street. The latter played host to the Strange Brewfest, which gathered around twenty-odd beers from a dozen or so area micros.

The beer was in general brewed to a very high standard. Washington breweries don’t generally go for major hop bombs and barrel-aging. They go for style and subtlety. Yes, the IPAs are big, fat, hoppy bastards, but they are well-balanced. The beers are universally aromatic and beautiful to look at as well. Better still, while the climate of the region favours hoppy beers, that doesn’t mean that the brewers don’t do other things. Anacortes makes a specialty out of lager-making. Silver City represented with a GABF-decorated Scotch Ale. Elysian brought a tasty Bock. Snoqualmie’s Belgian-style Spring Fever was another winner.

Water Street’s brewer Skip provided some entertainment. He’s a goalie and festivalgoers got the chance to try to win free beer by scoring on him in a little street hockey. I did it just for fun. He wasn’t ready for my mad skillz at first, and I scored easily. The second shot was just as good – five hole. After planting my third shot in his logo, it was all downhill. He put his game face on and stoned me five more times. I seriously need to get back on the ice.

<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/PICT0060.JPG>
Water Street’s brewer stonewalls another would-be sniper

I devoted much time to getting to know the beers, and a few of the people. Nina from Water Street, Jeannie from Northwest Brewing News and Kevin from Anacortes were especially nice folks. I’m a bit of a blow-in out here – nobody knows me like they do in Toronto – so it’s nice to have people to help me out. Extra special thanks to all the above individuals.

I’m going back down south in a couple of weeks, and a couple more weeks after that as well. The beer is just too good not to make a run for the border.



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start quote The selection at an average Chevron station in Washington State would be worthy of the Places database if it were located in Kentucky. end quote