The Growler guide to Tacoma’s beer scene

The tap list at 7 Seas Brewing. Michael Kissinger photo

The tap list at 7 Seas Brewing. Michael Kissinger photo

 

Beer makes people do strange and unexpected things. Things like spend a few soggy days and nights in Tacoma, Wash.

The enjoyably gritty port town on south Puget Sound doesn’t attract the same volume of IBU-addicted tourists as Portland or Seattle, but the former stomping grounds of Neko Case, Gary Larson AND Bing Crosby holds its own as a craft beer destination.

In fact, there are so many breweries, brewpubs, taphouses and mead halls – I may have made that last one up – that the city’s barley ambassadors have devised a “South Sound Craft Crawl” to guide adventurous imbibers on their vision quests.

And that is exactly what this ruggedly handsome dude and his special lady friend did on a recent fact-finding mission.

 
Lay of the land

First things first. Where to stay? The peeps at Tourism Tacoma put us up at Hotel Murano, which is a pretty spiffy boutique hotel in the middle of downtown but with rates considerably lower than you’d find in Seattle or Portland.

There other places to stay, of course, but this one seems the most happening. Plus it’s decorated with heaps of glass art… if you’re into that kind of thing. Because you should know: besides beer, Tacoma loves its blown glass.

This is likely because the town is also the birthplace of internationally renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose work can be found in the permanent collections of Tacoma Art Museum, the Museum of Glass, the University of Washington Tacoma campus, the courthouse and numerous public art displays. I wouldn’t even be surprised if there was a Taco Bell in Tacoma with an original Chihuly. He’s that beloved.

It should also be said that Tacoma is a hilly city, but it’s definitely walkable. Taxis and Uber are also options. But the handiest form of transportation for craft beer tourists and local lushes to get around is the Tacoma Link Light Rail transit line, which connects the city’s Theater District and Tacoma Dome Station, with six stops and breweries-aplenty in between. And it’s free, which leaves you more money to spend on delicious beer. So it’s a win-win.

 

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Bluebeard Coffee on Sixth Avenue. – Bluebeard / Facebook photo

 

Fuel for thought

As I’ve learned after many years of dedication and self-sacrifice, a day of beer-related research needs a solid foundation, so we headed over to Bluebeard Coffee in the beard-friendly enclave of Sixth Avenue to fuel up on caffeine and carbs. Nearby record stores, comic book shops, a doughnut maker, artisanal ice cream parlour, a bar that serves gourmet hotdogs and a greasy diner that proudly proclaims its support for LGBTQ rights indicates that this is one American neighbourhood that probably didn’t vote for Trump.

 
Cruising for a brewing

We begin our Tacoma craft beer journey at the beginning – Harmon Brewing Company.

Taking its name from the old furniture factory building it inhabits, Tacoma’s flagship brewer launched in 1997 and now operates a number of facilities around town, including the Tap Room, the Harmon Restaurant and the family-friendly, bike-themed eatery Hub.

Owner Pat Nagle acknowledges his hometown sometimes has a bit of a self-confidence problem, but it’s turning around.

“For years, we were thought of as a joke,” he told us. “You know, ‘the aroma of Tacoma’ and all that. But it’s gotten a lot better.”

And he’s right. Beer does make things better. And helping the Harmon cause is head brewer Jeff Carlson, an affable guy who likes scooters and, inexplicably, Quebec’s Unibroue, makers of La Fin Du Monde and Maudite.

He also makes some damn fine beers, including the crisp and light-bodied Mt. Takhoma blonde, which nicely balances German Pilsner malt with a touch of white wheat and Liberty hops. Then there’s his mind- and taste bud-boggling 11th St. IPA, a once-a-year brew that celebrates Tacoma’s 104-year-old-and-counting 11th Street Bridge with 15 varieties of hops and 115 IBUs of bitchin’ bitterness.

Around the corner and up the hill from Harmon Restaurant, you’ll find 7 Seas Brewing. Puget Sound natives Travis Guterson and Mike Runion first set up shop in nearby Gig Harbor in 2009 and this summer took the wraps off 7 Seas’ downtown Tacoma outpost, inside an 80,000-sq. ft. building that originally housed the legendary Heidelberg Brewery.

The gleaming taproom – featuring custom wood tables and bars, a view of the brewing operations and two areas for independent vendors selling food and coffee – sports 48 taps pouring such delights as the unfortunately named Ballz Deep Double IPA, Red Rye Lager and pucker-worthy and personal fave Water Chopper Gose. The room really is a sight to behold, with a playful selection of beers to match.

Back down the hill and a block from the Tacoma Dome station, Wingman Brewers is an outlier in every sense of the word. Its modest digs resemble a quirky uncle’s workshop garage, similar to Vancouver’s Storm Brewing, with a regular clientele who hunker down at the bar for a post-work pint or three. Although the customers might appear to be no-nonsense, Wingman’s lineup of beers isn’t afraid to veer off the beaten path, whether it’s the Miss-B-Haven Tripel, Peanut Butter Cup P-51 Porter or Kewl Hand Cuke cucumber saison.

After Wingman, we hopped back on the free transit line and hightailed it to Odd Otter Brewing, based on name alone. The taproom has a neighbourhood pub feel and operates like one, hosting everything from live music and karaoke to trivia and yoga. When we paid a visit, a veterans’ group was having a meetup to discuss post-service employment. Beer-wise, the offerings were just as wide-ranging: Glitter Bitter Grapefruit IPA, Poppa Otter’s Bacon Porter, Ottermelon Hefeweizen.

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The Rhein Haus is a massive Bavarian-themed beer hall with indoor bocce courts. – Rhein Haus / Facebook photo

Karaoke and otter-themed puns not your bag? Within staggering distance you’ll also find Pacific Brewing and Malting Co., Tacoma Brewing Company, Dystopian State Brewing Co. and Dunagan Brewing Company.

Not surprisingly, food is a second thought for most of the breweries. So we ended our day of craft beer cruising at the newly opened Rhein Haus. This massive Bavarian-themed beer hall with indoor bocce courts, which has a location in Seattle, isn’t a craft brewery, but it does boast an extensive beer menu, featuring ample local content including the 7 Seas Gose, which we gladly reacquainted ourselves with.

Most importantly, it serves a feast of booze-absorbing, hangover-preventing grub such as currywurst, schnitzel, bratwurst, frankfurters, pretzels, flammkuchen (German pizza) and about a dozen other things that sent my paleo diet back to the stone ages. Don’t judge me.

 

For those about to roca

Of course there’s more to Tacoma than brewery hopping. In addition to the aforementioned Museum of Glass and Tacoma Art Museum, Lemay – America’s Car Museum is worth a visit. As a former Toyota Corolla station wagon owner, I was a little reticent about perusing more than 300 vehicles of all shapes, sizes, ages and cultural significance, but damned if I didn’t enjoy the two hours of car ogling.

That could also have been because I was jacked to the gills on sugar from the nearby Almond Roca factory and adjoining kiosk, which sells factory seconds at a considerable discount. Who knew Almond Roca was made in Tacoma? Not me.

Then again, I didn’t know there was a thriving craft beer scene, either.