A closer look at the fast changing US beer scene...

One of the most enlightening things that can happen when travelling to another country is to have your preconceptions challenged.

On a recent trip to Seattle in the American North West  I had set my sights on visiting not the breweries of the area ( some of the most innovative in the US) but the best bottle beer shops the state had to offer. Equipped with a list of the top shops to visit, by the end of my trip I felt myself at odds with the established ratings, and a new order emerging!

What struck me at first was the sheer number of independents available. But, before moving onto the individual retailers I was curious to see what their supermarkets and grocery outlets held, to get a feel of the overall market, and I was pleasantly surprised.

A basic Safeway branch for example ( a name that has long since disappeared from our shores!) had a fairly impressive range of perhaps twenty Independent brands, mainly in the large 22 fluid oz bottles, and keenly priced. Notably there were few listings of more than one brand from a given brewer, which gave a greater sense of breadth of choice. Six bottle packs from some nationals, but predominantly independents were clearly popular, taking up much more chiller space alongside.

A visit to one of the Whole Food Grocery chains was equally rewarding, in the realms of forty plus bottles, interestingly selected, with plenty of style variation. A good range of imported brews also and some rarely seen in the UK, such as Tracquair to the rarer  Lees Harvest Ales aged in wood.

This then bode well for further investigation and I was keen to get the individual retailers views on the US bottled beer scene.

In all I visited five of the most highly recommended Independent beer shops during my visit, and my impressions as to which were the best is as follows:

                                                    THE BEER JUNCTION 

                       4707 42nd Avenue Southwest, Seattle (206) 938-2337 

This excellent shop had a range in the region of 1000 bottles, but more importantly the selection seemed well chosen  and the layout was original and functional in comparison to other stores. Instead of the shelves being filled by a brewers range it was done by 'type' grouping Brown Ales, IPA's, Porters and Stouts into given areas. With such a large range this made the shop easier to navigate.   

The imported section was also marginally different and more diverse to the other retailers, sourcing from a different wholesaler for some of the lines.

Morgan was the gentleman who greeted me in-store and his advice was sound and knowledgeable, and he gave me a good overview of the craft brewing scene in the North West.

It was interesting to hear how brewers such as Sierra Nevada, no longer in the realms of micro having long since expanded in size, still maintained their 'craft' brewing credentials, and continues to be rated and respected by enthusiasts. Staggeringly he also informed me that on average 1-2 new craft breweries are established every month in the State of Washington! 


                                             THE BIG STAR BEER MARKET

                                1117 N Northgate Way, Seattle (206) 729-0797 

This large spacious store had an impressive selection of home grown ales matched by the biggest selection of imports in comparison to the others. At least two full rows were devoted to interesting imported brews and was unusually strong on Eastern European beers with countries such as Armenia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania well represented.

Myle the owner was informative telling me how US customer interest in different beer styles moved in phases, with the current being the Flemish 'Sour Beer' style typified by Duchess de Burgoyne, a style that many brewers in the North West are currently tackling and getting to grips with.

Unlike in the UK no beer stores in the state are permitted to sell spirits, and there are strict controls in place, making them only available through government controlled 'liquor stores', which perhaps gives beer store owners a greater opportunity to focus on the core product and specialise.

There was a relaxed ambience about the shop, with a wide aisle layout, which gave you a sense of being able to browse with ease.



                            1710 North 45th Street #3, Seattle (206) 633-2437

A different configuration to the other beer stores Bottleworks contained a bar to sample their wares on draught at the far end, flanked by two rows of chill cabinets on the left and right of the store.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             



                                 The Beer Authority, one of several good beer stores.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    


The selection of ales from home county producers was again well chosen and articulate, but the imported beers considerably less so, with dimmed lighting within the cabinets (good for storage, but poor on purchasing visability) making it difficult to brows comfortably.

You sensed the store was popular with the local ale drinking fraternity, and that the shop was trying to strike a balance with an on and off trade approach. 

Laura Fletcher at the shop filled me in on the local Seattle beer scene highlighting who she considered to be the up and coming new brewers in the region, Fremont, Oak Harbor and Roslyn.

Interestingly when I mentioned that in the UK brewers such as Brooklyn, Samuel Adams, and Flying Dog were fairly well distributed, she was surprised, as they were unable to purchase any of these themselves, and were restricted to buying from three states.    

I was grateful for her information on the wider brewing culture of Seattle which proved indispensable.

The American craft brewing scene is currently producing some of the most original and diverse brewing styles in the world, by reinterpreting established styles, pushing outside the European barriers on convention, and conjuring up a bold exciting approach with limitless imagination. Whilst not everything might work, much of it does.

What is clear is that there was a real sense of vitality about the bottled beer scene in Seattle, and that for the enthusiast they are well rewarded, with an array of Independent retailers that far outstrips what is available in London by comparison.

After years of mediocrity up until the late 1970's it is clear that the US is taking their frontier spirit to the world of beer.   

And is so doing you sense there are no boundaries - just limitless scope!  


With special thanks to Asya and Zhana Alendar.


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