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Craft beer in Kitsap: Is it the water?
Two weeks ago Ryan Hafley had his first freshly brewed beer, and not coincidentally, his last supermarket domestic beer.
“I have refused to drink Bud Light in a bottle ever since,” he said.
Hafley, 24, of Bremerton, is not the first in working class Central Kitsap to see the light through the pint glass. The brewing business in Kitsap is booming and making believers by the barrel.
Bill Sproules sells brewing supplies in Bremerton and said it’s a simple law of economics.
“When the economy’s good, people drink beer,” Sproules said. “When the economy’s bad, people drink more beer.”
With the recent bubbling of business upstarts and expansions, Kitsap County residents now have more places to down a crafted after-work pint.
Silverdale’s Silver City Restaurant and Brewery is expanding its seating and bar areas, moving the brewing operation out of its location next to Kitsap Mall and into an 8,700 square foot facility in Bremerton. The brewery’s brewmaster, Don Spencer, said he expects an increase in distribution from less than 3,000 barrels a year to about 10,000.
Meanwhile, Mike Hale of the Seattle-based brewery Hale’s Ales is constructing a West Sound restaurant-only version of its brewpub in Fremont. The restaurant, which will feature its English-style beer, is set to open this summer in the Kitsap Mall.
And, Silverdale isn’t the only place seeing the froth.
Bremerton taps are flowing with the new brew on the block, Der Blokken brewery, in the Manette neighborhood. It’s owners say it gives Bremerton residents a reason to stay in their own city.
Across the Manette bridge in downtown Bremerton, Hale is considering a new establishment with an experimental style of cooking near the waterfront, saying that he has an “affinity” for the city and would like to be part of its revival.
With barstools aplenty, beer culture in Kitsap is gaining momentum and long-time brewers aren’t surprised.
Silver City’s co-owner, Scott Houmes, has been waiting for the culture to catch on beyond homebrew hobbyists.
“I’m a little surprised it hasn’t happened sooner,” he said.
Kitsap breweries are also seeing some interest from the Seattle market, said Don Wyatt, owner of Hood Canal Brewery in Kingston. “Then, we have some locals that are trying their hand at brewing some beer. Compared to what was going on before, there’s going to be more variety in the next year or two.”
It’s all part of a process fusing education, appreciation and experimentation.
“I think the reason why it’s getting noticed is because it’s part of a long-term trend,” said Spencer.
A local brewing guru, Spencer is himself a product of Kitsap, having grown up on a farm in Poulsbo. He was introduced to brewing at a young age by his father. Before brewing professionally at the Silver City, he worked for the Thomas Kemper brewery in Poulsbo before it was purchased by the company that would later be absorbed into ale powerhouse Pyramid Breweries, Inc.
Spencer said the appreciation for craft beers, important for its success in the general market, starts with brewing at home.
Spencer was the first president and one of the original founders of Kitsap’s own homebrew club, West Sound Brewers. Since its humble beginnings in the early 1990s, the club has grown in numbers of members and many, like Spencer, have gone on to turn their hobby into a profession.
Whether for resale or not, brewing beer has been a stable business despite the slumped economy.
Sproules has sold brewing supplies and ingredients out of his store on Wheaton Way for 16 years and business has never been better, he said.
He seldom advertises his business, Olympic Brewing Supplies, but sees more people coming in than ever before.
“We haven’t had a real downturn,” he said.
While other local owner-operated business struggle to stay out of the red, Spencer said he is not surprised local breweries are choosing now to set up shop around the county.
“Kitsap County has the advantage of having some pretty sophisticated beer drinkers,” he said, noting a likely Navy influence. “People get more educated, realize there is more to life than mass market beer.”
He said more beer consumers have come to appreciate the difference.
“There are people out there who when they think of beer, it isn’t even on their radar that it should be yellow, bland and flavorless,” he said.
The owners of Der Blokken, which opened March 19, say it’s actually a great time for them to start up a new business. They already run FRITZ European Fry House in downtown Bremerton.
Owner Jessica Husted and husband Andy waited years to open a brewery, she said, deciding at last to invest during a slow economy.
The steady flow of business and even the potential for growth has helped build a locally-produced brew culture that many beer aficionados say will last.
“The thing about beers is, it’s not a fad,” said Hale.
It wasn’t until a trip to Europe in the 1980s that Hale took an interest in beer. Exposure is vital for the culture to grow, he said, and that is what he hopes to do on the Kitsap peninsula.
“It’s an unserved reservoir — these people haven’t been exposed yet,” Hale said.
Spencer said the scene has yet to reach its full potential and there’s room to grow.
“We still have a long way to go. There’s plenty of room for people to come in, plenty of room for people to be creative and make beer,” he said.
Creativity often stems from the locale, and brewing beer is no exception.
Whether it’s Silver City’s famed Ridgetop Red or Hood Canal Brewery’s Agate Pass Amber, some had said the taste and style of local craft beers can be traced to the water. With a natural acidity, local water is perfect for brewing beer, said Sproules.
He said it’s a natural boon for local brewers who would otherwise have to alter acidic levels manually. He said the water is also clean, meaning less frequent filtering.
And, even the weather — the rain for which the region is known for — may play a part in local beer culture.
“The rainy days are really good for sitting and having a pint,” Spencer said.