Gig Harbor’s First Beer Festival: Beer at its Local Best
Gig Harbor, Washington, just northwest of Seattle, sounds like a place where a bank robber might go to hideout from the law after a heist gone wrong.
As I left Portland, Oregon for the bayside city bordering Puget Sound, I felt not unlike a criminal fleeing the scene of a crime as the brewing drama of Portland gave way to a quiet city I was unfamiliar with. Gig Harbor was the perfect place to hide out, and I can imagine a sitcom starring a character actor from The Sopranos starring in it. It turns out there is a lot more brewing here than meets the eye in this quiet city of 7,126.
The bayside location of Gig Harbor is a tourist mecca, with grand views of the Sound and shopping and restaurants. There are enough things in Gig Harbor for a mobster to dip his beak into, for sure, but it’s also just quiet enough that one feels the need to stir up some trouble and excitement. Our hotel, the Inn at Gig Harbor, is a quiet and decadent place just off of the highway, conveniently located right next to the 7 Seas Brewery (Gig Harbor’s only brewery) tasting room, and its former brewing space. Just when I planned a little late night drinking, though, we discovered the tasting room closed at the astoundingly early hour of 9 p.m. In the area surrounding us were strip malls filled with chain restaurants and a local sports bar. None of these places made a likely hideout for a traveling beer writer with a a yen for some good beer.
We drove around trying to find the new location of the 7 Seas Brewery. While, the tasting room was right next to the hotel, the brewery is in the midst of an expansion and had recently relocated and. We finally found it nestled into a small shopping center a few blocks up from the hot waterfront strip. With the telltale sign of a grain silo, we located the new production brewery (the building was once the home to a QFC grocery store). Owners Mike Runion and Head Brewer Travis Guterson greeted and invited us to see the impressive new three vessel, 25 BBL brewhouse. I was surprised to see these guys were doing so well in such a quiet town. I shouldn’t have been.
“While there are fewer ‘beer geeks’ per capita compared to say, Seattle, the locals here have great palates and appreciate a well-crafted pint,” says 7 Seas’ young owner, Mike Runion. “They are also very supportive of local businesses.”
Local Brews, Local Support
It’s not surprising the exuberant Gig Harbor community has embraced 7 Seas when you find the owners to have such a down-to-earth, unpretentious approach to craft brewing. From the playful names to beers like Rude Parrot and Ballz Deep and to drunken pirate/sailor imagery, they have fun with what they are doing.
7 Seas Brewing may also be ahead of its time as one of the first Washington brewers to begin canning their beers. With a tiny staff and just two brewers, the brewery is ramping up production and is managing to package pallets of cans on a tiny filler. Still, these two didn’t seem daunted at all by the challenges of dialing in a big new brewery and a large new tasting room.
While the new 7 Seas is in a small (and quiet) strip mall, the current tasting room and old brewery is out in a wooded area just off the highway. The location has a certain charm that reminds me of drinking around a campfire. The tasting room space itself is tiny, but follow the walkway into the wooded acres alongside the building and you find yourself in a campground-like space full of regulars smoking, drinking, playing horseshoes, wrestling with their dogs, and playing with a ginormous jenga set. It’s a serene location you would never guess is yards from the modern day bustle of industrial civilization and soccer moms. Sigh…it’s a pity this tasting room is not long for this world, and that it closes at 9 p.m. even on a hot weekend evening like tonight.
Waking on Saturday morning, we didn’t have long to prepare for the main event — the first ever Gig HarborBeer Festival. The previous night, I’d met John Fosberg, the founder of this new startup fest, at the Blazing Onion, a chain restaurant in the neighboring strip mall that was one of the festival’s primary sponsors. It was also the location of the new festival A graphic designer by trade, Fosberg was ispired to start the Gig Harbor fest by other beer festivals like the one held in neighboring Tacoma and the huge Oregon Brewers Festival.
“Some friends and I were enjoying some of the beer at the second annual Tacoma Craft Beer Festival a couple of years ago, “ Fosberg told us. “We got to talking and I said, ‘Gig Harbor could use a beer festival like this’.”
Without any experience, but with a passion for the community that craft beer has created, Fosberg got to work trying to find a location. After numerous failed attempts to locate a covered festival location, Fosberg says he “started talking with the folks at the Gig Harbor Uptown area about an empty retail space, and they suggested having it outdoors at the Uptown Pavilion.”
The suggestion worked out and paid huge dividends by providing an outdoor space with tons of parking that was available free of charge. While a large shopping center may not seem to be great location for a beer festival, it did make a logical and pleasant choice in a mostly empty, well-designed space that even provided a pond for festival goers to dip their feet into to cool off while enjoying a local brew.
The fest also lucked out with a beautiful weekend of weather in the middle of May. The 77 degree weather brought out the crowds, and the 10 breweries pouring were mostly South Soundbrewers. These are brewers I don’t normally hear of or get to try. One thing you gather while talking to everyone in Gig Harbor is they are all about community here.
“I thought giving the festival more of a ‘local’ brewery feel would be a great way to attract the brewers I really wanted to be here, and local beer lovers,” said Fosberg.
I was pleasantly surprised to not find the usual Seattle Washington stalwarts brewery like Elysian Brewing, Georgetown, or Fremont Brewing.
“Signing up brewers turned out to be the easiest–and one of the more pleasurable–tasks of all,” Fosberg said. “They all are truly good, honest, hard-working people. Almost all our brewer spots were filled instantly by brewers from the South Puget Sound area.”
I was happy to see South Sound Brewing, which I tried once before and enjoyed, and did not disappoint again with its terrific takes on Belgian-style classics. I got to revisit award winning ‘American Brewing’ and try beers from a couple of new guys I had never heard of, like the funnily named ‘Der Blokken Brewery’, as well as Hood Canal and Harmon Brewing.
There were many interesting offerings, but the hometown boys proved most popular with 7 Seas Brewing holding down the middle of the festival grounds with a nice sized line and stylish jockey box. My only complaint was the amount of big beers like stouts and oddly Wee Heavy/Scotch Ales, both styles I enjoy, but they seemed oddly in abundance here and these heavier libations were not as welcome on a 77 degree day.
The Festival attendance almost doubled what was expected and the fest actually ran out of beer. Luckily when kegs started kicking it was in the final stretch of the festival and, not surprisingly, it was the lighter beers disappearing first.
The Start of Something Big
John Fosberg thinks this could be the start of something much bigger for Gig Harbor, with a community becoming more and more interested in craft beers and realizing the economic boost it can provide. For instance, much of the local businesses reported summer July sales numbers during the festival weekend. Fosberg gives a lot of credit to the festival’s success to 7 Seas Brewing and the way the brewery has opened locals’ eyes to craft beer.
“The Harbor’s craft beer mentality took a huge leap when 7 Seas opened their doors,” he says. “The boys at 7 Seas really did it right from the get-go, and the people of Gig Harbor love it when one of their own is successful…there are a lot of people out here that really love beer. I mean LOVE beer. Not just drinking it, but learning about how it’s made, what changes the taste of it, the color of it — and the smell of it.”
Gig Harbor is known more for its quaint shops, shopping, restaurants, and views of the Sound rather than for craft breweries. While there’s currently only one brewery, the historic Tides Tavern features an impressive lineup of craft beer taps highlighting beers from Oregon like Ninkasi and from California with Stone Brewing. Judging from the hours long waiting list to get into the Tides on a nice day, it seems like Gig Harbor is ripe for a new brewpub.
“There’s always room for more, and I’m surprised there isn’t at least one other start-up brewer in the immediate area,” says Fosberg. “The Harbor can handle it. The Executive Director of the Washington State Beer Commission says that all the local breweries are producing at full capacity. Let me know if you know of anybody that wants to start a brewery — I’ve got some ideas. It’s a beautiful time for Washington beer.” – story by Ezra Johnson-Greenough, photos by Ritch Marvin
Gig Harbor www.gigharborguide.com/
Gig Harbor Beer Festival www.gigharborbeerfestival.com/
Seven Seas Brewing 7seasbrewing.com/
Inn at Gig Harbor www.innatgigharbor.com/
Tides Tavern www.tidestavern.com/