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Oakes Weekly - April 13, 2006

Getting off the Interstate in WA
Oakes Weekly April 13, 2006      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

I don’t actually have that many beer goals any more. I guess I feel that goals are a nice place to start but that after a while you’ve proven to yourself that yes, you’re a good beer hunter and you move on with enjoying beer. In my case, the hunt is certainly a favourite part. Right now I’m slowly working towards being a Washington State completionist. According to my personal database and subsequent calculations, I’m probably within six months of Washington overtaking BC as the place from which I’ve had the most beers. Not bad.

There are two tricky parts when it comes to visiting all the Washington State breweries, or even rating beers from them. The first trick is that the Seattle area is totally stacked with breweries, including most of the outlying suburbs. Combined with the fact that many of those suburban locations are chain brewpubs, it’s kind of tough to get motivated to dip into that hunt too much.

But for now, that’s not even a worry as there are still independent brewpubs yet to be visited in that area. Outside Seattle is even crazier. Brewpubs are in every little town in every little corner. It is a heck of a long way out of the way to visit a place like Skye Book & Brew in Dayton, a strange little town that looks largely unchanged since the 50’s, sitting in a dusty, onion-filled corner of the state. Vancouver, WA is right on the Interstate but seems equally remote, being that it’s across the river from Portland and the lures of that city usually trumps whatever might be on the north shore of the Columbia.

Spokane doesn’t have much of a beer scene for a PNW city of its size, and is a long drive for me, so that’s going to be a tough one, and quite frankly Friday Harbor will be tough to justify so long as Washington State Ferries is charging outrageous sums to get to San Juan Island.

I did get to some really out of the way brewpubs this past weekend though. Travelling south from the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale in Penticton, BC, I entered the desert wine country of the south Okanagan. It may never rain in Oliver, Osoyoos and the surrounding area but it is well irrigated from the nearby mountains. The BC wine industry used to be strictly about plonk. When Free Trade promised to flood the Canadian market with Californian wines that were both better and cheaper, protests were held, vineyards uprooted and the whole shebang. It was the biggest favour anyone could have done wine in this country. Those who wanted to stay in business were forced to commit themselves to making good wines. Everything is fine now, and the area is a major tourist draw, a Sonoma of the north as it were. The towns might be ugly as hell (except Oliver, which has thus far avoided becoming strip mall hell) but the countryside is stunning, as I discovered on my visit to the Raven Ridge Cidery on the outskirts of Kelowna, amid endless orchards on a series of rugged foothills.

Osoyoos is pretty much the border town, and soon I was being searched by customs. They had me pegged for a search the first time they laid eyes on me. The thing I hate about customs agents is you are highly advised to tell them the truth but half the time when you do they don’t believe you. If I said I was crossing the border because having sex with livestock is legal in Washington State and I wanted to indulge in a little sheepshagging, that wouldn’t have got me a second glance. But say you want to visit some breweries and it’s search time.

Anyway, I eventually got in and headed into the wild unknown of the Okanogan, as it’s known on the American side. Immediately all signs of the bustling tourist trade and wine business disappeared and I was in the ass end of nowhere. There’s a brewery here. Alpine, located in downtown Oroville, makes German style beers. They have closed their pub these days so are just a production brewery and their stuff is easier to find in Seattle than Oroville (same goes with another famous local product, Sally Jackson Cheese, which I couldn’t even find in its home town). Alpine’s pale Weizen-Bock is great stuff, by the way.

With no pub to visit I continued south past ranches and sage bushes. The valley is significantly less compelling physically than on the Canadian side, so I was pretty happy to head into the mountains. On the road between Omak and Twisp the sign tells me that they average nearly a deer kill a day. It’s only thirty miles. I guess driving that road at night is not such a good plan.

I descended into the Methow Valley, which is a rather small valley tucked into the Cascade range. There are two breweries here. The first is the Methow Valley Brewing Co in Twisp, an otherwise uneventful small town. The brewpub is big, fairly stylish (they even had a reggae band playing that night) and with a wide range of beers. They have just recently begun hand bottling so their stuff might actually make it out of Twisp one day (I do have a bottle but it’s not expected to last long). They also make very scrumpyish organic pear and apple ciders, both grey and cloudy with a very simple, refreshing fresh fruit character. I found the schwarzbier and Winter Ale to be the highlights of my extended visit, and enjoyed my pork sandwich. This would be a good place to visit in the summer, with its big deck next to the Twisp River.

Fifteen minutes down the road is Winthrop, which looks unchanged since the 1890’s. It’s a wooden Wild West town. Naturally it’s been restored and tarted up a bit for the tourists. It’s not as big as Barkerville, a similar place in BC, but it does have a brewery. I’ve had quite a few beers of theirs, as they sell in Seattle and make the rounds of area festivals, but they were closed for spring cleaning when I arrived. D’oh! From the outside, it looks like a clean, wooden sort of pub that beer drinkers would really appreciate and they had quite a lot of taps.

At this point, I wasn’t sure what to do. Had I researched this properly, I could have avoided such troubles. The deal is this. Winthrop isn’t that far from home, maybe three hours. Except that the road over the pass still hasn’t reopened for the summer. So it’s more like six hours, give or take. Oh joy. Rather than returning the way I came I decided to head south and find some more breweries.

This took me to the mid-sized town of Wenatchee. This is the largest freestanding town in Washington State without its own brewery and apparently they’ve turned town offers from prospective craft brewers to set up shop there. Thankfully, nearby Cashmere has a brewery. As a relatively new operation waaaaaay off the Interstate, Cashmere Brewing Co. doesn’t have a lot of information available but they swear they’re getting a website soon.

I quite like the place. In a 100-year-old apple packing shed, it’s a peanuts on the floor type of place with pool tables, jukebox and a big couch for watching the game. It’s a very friendly, relaxed place where everybody knows everybody else. The beer is pretty good (the porter is really good) and I spent more time there than I’d anticipated I would. I waffled about getting some burritos delivered. There are so many burrito places in the US, especially in the agricultural areas, but I can’t tell which ones are any good and which ones aren’t so I end up wimping out a lot of the time. I mean, I know it’s Mexicans making the food but every Chinese restaurant in small town USA has Chinese people making the food and that doesn’t guarantee edibility.

From there it was over the pass again and into Monroe, where the local brewpub closes at 10pm on Saturdays. Go figure. I was tired anyway. But they have a lot of handles. If I thought I had any chance of coming down that far I might have done some homework. There’s nothing fun about staring with my face pressed up against the glass of a closed brewpub twice in the same day. But on the plus side, I became the first rater for two very out-of-the-way brewpubs and am thus two closer to a very difficult goal.


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