As one of the foremost fans (or at least, users) of Seattle’s burgeoning brewery scene, I’ve come to savor the role of Seattle as a destination brewery city. We are a hotbed for the best IPAs in the nation; I don’t know how many places in the country you would enter a bar and be surprised to see less than three IPAs.
The trick is the hops. Seattle brewing has benefited through its proximity to the world’s top hop powerhouse: the Cascades. As Napa is to grapes, the Cascades are to hops. Take our hop advantage, mix in six months of 16 hour nights, add tech wealth to taste… what you get is a fertile cauldron of brewers pushing the envelope of microbrewery (and nanobrewery) culture.
The explosion of more than 55 brewery taprooms in Seattle is a blessing and a curse. The good news is that you can get turnt in no time flat, regardless of your starting neighborhood. The bad news is that not all breweries are created equal, and Yelp is a blunt tool when it comes to maximizing drinking satisfaction.
Enter my beer squadron. Every
Janbrewary January for the last couple years, my beer-loving friends and I have made it a point to visit every good or new brewery in Seattle. This leads to at least 30 brewery visits in January alone, and another 100-150 over the rest of the year. Duty is not to be shunned. Beers are discussed, opinions are rendered, and the end result is a fully-researched guide to Seattle breweries.
In designating the “best” breweries, the guiding question was: is this a place I would recommend to a good friend visiting from out of town? To my mind, the answer to that question boils down to:
- 75% Deliciousness of beer
- 15% Ambiance (people and environment)
- 10% Amenities (food, water, bathrooms)
The results below are grouped by neighborhood, with each neighborhood possessing a “best brewery” and a runner-up. In rendering the opinions below, I’ve personally visited every brewery at least thrice, but often 10+ times. The breweries featured below are taken from Washington Beer’s Master List of Tasting Rooms. Want to jump ahead to your neighborhood? OK:
- Best of Ballard
- Best of Downtown
- Best of Capitol Hill
- Best of Sodo/Georgetown
- Best of Greenwood/North Seattle
- Best of Fremont/Interbay
- Best of University District
- Best of South/West Seattle
And without further ado, let’s talk about some damn amazing beers…
Best 2018 Newcomer: Burke Gilman Brewing
Burke Gilman Brewing brings together great beer, location, and ambiance, to earn our “Best New Brewery” first-place clipart:
Burke Gilman seems in many ways the spiritual successor to Cloudburst. Both included founders from Seattle’s top-ranked breweries (Georgetown and Elysian, respectively). They both offer IPAs that more than hold their own vs. the city’s other top breweries. They both inhabit interesting, wood-rich spaces.
But whereas Crowdburst is often closed or overcrowded, Burke Gilman has long hours and keeps the crowds reasonable sized (at least in Janbrewary). The 111 Mile IPA was the hook that sucked me in first. It’s a sub-6% IPA with all ingredients sourced within 111 miles of Seattle. It reminds me of the Dawn Patrol from Aslan Brewing in that it packs abundant proto-IPA flavor into a lighter beer that you can drink for hours without wasted. They have no kitchen as of press time, but they keep menus for nearby restaurants. They also have an ample outdoor area that will probably be lovely (and packed?) in the non-winter months.
Best of Ballard: Stoup
If Seattle is the mecca of beer lovers, then Ballard is the Masjid al-Haram. Ballard’s industrial district has all the essential ingredients to foment the brewing spirit: big, cheap buildings. Big, cheap buildings are to breweries as ponds are to mosquitos.
Ballard has seized upon the opportunity its location affords. Within 30 minutes of walking, you can reach almost 10 different breweries, including sentimental favorite (also Ballard’s oldest living brewery), Hale’s.
To stand apart from such stiff competition, Stoup’s strategy boils down to: make tastier beer. They started in 2013 as the founding team (Brad Benson and Lara Zahaba) adopted a Cicerone (Robyn Schumacher) and started building out their trophy case.
I visit Stoup almost every week (it’s my basketball warmup routine) so I feel pretty confident declaring that this team doesn’t brew misses . Their Northwest IPA is great, their Northwest Red is just as good (bonus: less than 6% ABV), their Porter is exceptional, and those are just three of the 15ish beers they usually have on tap. The composition of their choices is standard-issue Seattle: half IPAs, one of every other style (Pils, ESB, Stout, usually a saison and CDA). It’s a winning composition.
While Stoup’s beer quality is enough by itself to earn them the “Best of Ballard” trophy, their amenities up the ante. They’ve got a huge outdoor sitting area that I can’t help but take a picture of any time I visit around sunset (right sidebar).
They’ve got three (count em, three!) bathrooms available in the Summer, self-serve water, usually fast service (two separate bars in Summer) and liberal policies for pets & kids. This is a brewery, run by scientists (their drinking glasses are modified beakers), with a corresponding attention to detail.
 A “miss” is the terminology our group uses to describe a beer that shouldn’t have made it to the tap
Ballard runner-up: Rueben’s
And Rueben’s is no worse than Stoup! Stoup and Rueben’s are Ballard’s Lennon and McCartney. The thing is, “McCartney” often struggles with slow service and a lack of places to sit. Thanks in part to McCartney’s insistence on making the tables out of his initials (classic McCartney), space is not optimally allocated. Rueben’s tap list is second to none, though — always diverse, and with misses arriving only slightly more frequently than Haley’s Comet.
Both Stoup and Ruben’s usually have good food trucks.
Bless Ballard’s heart, they got themselves all teh beer: Lucky Envelope, Peddler, Populuxe, Northwest Peaks, Maritime, Lagunitas and Hale’s all hail from these environs. Lucky Envelope and Hales must be visited if you’re still upright after imbibing Stoup & Ruebens’ delights.
Best of Downtown: Cloudburst (aka Crowdburst)
Three years ago, downtown Seattle was a brewery “dead zone” — surrounded by fertile waters yet sorely lacking in non-sentimental (e.g., Pike) options. A few years later, it has sprung a bonanza (yes, “bonanza” like the best ebay alternative) of beer, including Pike, Pyramid, Old Stove, Cloudburst, Gordon Biersch, Rock Bottom, and Mollusk.
And yet. The beer lover’s choice is unanimous among this bunch. Crowdburst, er, Cloudburst, opened in 2015 by former Elysian brewer Steve Luke, takes Seattle’s strength — IPAs — and extends the possibilities to their logical conclusion. On my last visit to Crowdburst, more than half their list was IPAs, and I couldn’t find a not-great option in three tries.
All of them were hits.
If Crowdburst has an achilles heel, it is its own success. Being in Pike Place market means their available quarters are tight, and their clientele arrives thirsty. I rarely walk into Crowdburst and get a table within 10 minutes. Even trying to arrive during “off hours,” I’ve often entered to standing-room only tourists, hipsters, and beer lovers. Set your expectations accordingly.
Also note that they’re closed Monday and Tuesday, and wonder why, along with me.
Downtown runner-up: Old Stove
If Cloudburst is too crowded, but also if it isn’t, you owe it to yourself to amble two blocks south to Old Stove. Like Downtown’s winner, Old Stove opened recently, but they’ve quickly found a niche in my regular drinking rotation for their ample seating, solid beers, and convenient-to-everything downtown location. Biggest regrets with Old Stove are the 1x single person bathroom, and no self-serve water. I am not a peasant. Giveth thine ample hydration.
Further choices in downtown include Pike, Pyramid, Gordon Biersch, Rock Bottom, and Mollusk. Among this bunch, highest marks go to Gordon Biersch. Because if you’re going to drink beer from a national company, why not do it on the top floor of Seattle’s trendiest mall? As with Elysian, I would posit the reason Biersch has grown so large is because they have a solid, quality product.
Best of Capitol Hill: Elysian
Wherein it is revealed that the author is actually a mindless schill for Anheuser Busch. Who is still anxiously waiting for Elysian to start serving Bud Light. Not yet, but surely soon.
Or maybe the reason that Elysian got their ransom was because they’ve been brewing some of the best beer in Seattle, consistently, for 20 years now.
I’m buying the latter. Elysian is Seattle’s original Fortress of No Misses. I’ve been visiting regularly since I turned 21, and I struggle to remember drinking a bad beer at Elysian. Maybe the Hawaiian Sunburn (their stab at a sour), a couple years ago? Even that was pretty good. This is why you can now find an Elysian in almost every Seattle neighborhood, and they their Capitol Hill location easily fends off some stiff competition in the form of Optimism and Outer Planet (Capitol Hill also features McMenamins and Standard, if you’re into that kind of thing).
Elysian has poured countless Seattle classics over the years: Space Dust IPA, Dayglow IPA, Night Owl Pumpkin Ale, Immortal IPA, Men’s Room Red, Loser… and my mouth is watering like a Labrador as I think back over my history with these crafted wonders. In the “not even an Elysian classic”-bracket, is my favorite IPA of theirs, the Avatar. Their Capitol Hill restaurant also features some pretty bitchin’ nachos, though they have fallen from #1 to #2 ranked since Elliott Bay’s arrival.
Capitol Hill runner-up: Optimism
If Optimism were stationed in most other neighborhoods, they wouldn’t have to settle for “runner-up.” Their beer and taproom have several quirks worth exploring. For starters, beer doesn’t get labeled as “IPA,” “Lager,” etc, on behalf of leading drinkers to expand their horizons. There’s also no cash, no tips, unisex restrooms, an LCD TV dedicated to describing each beer. It’s a unique place, and, thankfully, a cavernous enough space to rarely be overcrowded. Good selections up and down the list here, hard to pick a single stand out.
Other available Capitol Hill breweries include Red Hook Brewlab, Outer Planet Craft Brewing, and Standard Brewing. Outer Planet has one of my favorite indoor spaces to lounge at on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Their beer is usually solid, but not quite reliable enough to earn a top-2 spot. Red Hook Brewlab is an interesting, artistic concept in a historic building, but their beer quality rates as neutral.
Best of Sodo/Georgetown: Two Beers
In a city of exceptional breweries, the quality of Two Beers stands apart. Joel VandenBrink started Two Beers in 2007, and has only managed to create one of the three best breweries in Seattle in his 10 years since (Elysian, Stoup, maybe Fremont being the other contenders, imho).
Two Beers first got my attention during Janbrewary 2016, when I found their Pilchuck Pilsner to be the finest pils in all Seattle. A few months later, their Fresh Hop IPA started showing up in grocery stores, and while it’s nigh impossible to judge a “Best Seattle IPA,” the Fresh Hop makes as compelling a case as any (never mind the murk). The beer is a hopped beyond compare.
It’s a fitting reflection of Two Beers quality that my favorite beers aren’t even the flagships. The flagships would be: Wonderland Trail IPA, Evo IPA, Day Hike Session, and Immersion Amber. Picking any as a favorite feels like a betrayal to the other contenders.
As if the beer quality weren’t enough, the Two Beers taphouse also happens to be one of the most comfortable places to drink in Seattle, once you complete the trek to industrial Sodo. It comes fully equipped with everything from shuffle board to pool, abundant restrooms, and two helpings of woodsy charm.
Sodo/Georgetown runner-up: Seapine
Two Beers is a hard act to follow, but Seapine has more than its share of merits. Their flagship beer is the eponymous Seapine IPA, which has been cracking the rotation of taps at a growing number of Seattle bars. The full set of taps at Seapine is somewhat difficult to judge since they don’t offer flights (boooo). However, in several trips to their HQ, I’ve been consistently impressed with the quality of their IPAs; I also appreciate that there is almost always fast service and available seating.
Best of Greenwood/North Seattle: Hellbent
All hail the land of 1,000 sports TVs and many dogs. Which is to say, as a space, Hellbent leaves something to be desired. You’ll struggle to find a seat that isn’t pointed toward a sports TV. Making it hard to find a good spot inside. And the dogs — they like dogs here a lot. Not all those dogs get along. So it can be hard to find a good spot outside.
Now where was I? Oh yes, the best brewery in Greenwood/North Seattle! It’s Hellbent. Because, in spite of their space, their tap list is a top list of IPAs. Their “house” IPA is a top 3 IPA for me in the entire city. The “Dang Citra IPA” and “Big Island Coconut Stout” are choice. The help is as friendly as you could hope for, and they succeed in bathrooms, water, and outdoor availability. Ignore my first paragraph and go here.
Runner up: Elliott Bay Brewing
There are no shortage of intriguing choices for Seattle north-siders. Naked City has one of the coolest outdoor spaces among all Seattle breweries. Flying Bike has a novel “community powered” angle to their business. Lantern Brewing has an impassioned Head Brewer who is highly personable, and not afraid to experiment with unconventional flavors.
But one of “North Seattle’s finest” is a brewery that got its start (and name) in West Seattle. When Elliott Bay Brewing decided to expand into Lake City, it did so with panache, opening a 10,000+ square foot space that they consistently fill with hundreds of thirsty locals.
Elliott Bay ascribes to the “kitchen sink” brewing method, whereupon you will have 30+ taps to choose from on any given trip. In the abstract, more options sounds pretty great; it’s only as you start stepping through the choices that you discover this beer list is a tap minefield. One wrong step, and you’ll find yourself nursing a wounded soldier. Fortunately for you, the bomb sniffing rats have forged a path to your safety. That path includes a collection of scrumptious choices: the Demolition Ale is a delight, as are Red Von Boorian, Hop Von Boorian, No Doubt Stout, Pinetop Red, and the Porter. Tread lightly around the lighter beers. The darker ones are usually safer bets.
Arguably more impressive than the Elliott Bay tap list is their food menu. Never have I enjoyed more delightful sweet potato fries, and their nachos are a contender for “Best Nachos in Seattle,” though they can vary from visit to visit. Not unlike the beers.
The remainder of Greenwood/North Seattle contenders included Flying Bike Brewery (can be great, but lacking consistency), Naked City (bleh), Northgate Ram, and Blue Bird Ice Cream/Brewing (for those yearning for more ice cream flavors in their beer). Flying Bike in Greenwood is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Best of Fremont/Interbay: Holy Mountain
Disclaimer: I am biased toward beers that can pack happiness into <= 6% abv. Holy Mountain are Seattle’s reigning champions in the “6% and under” category, as their ever-rotating tap list focuses on farmhouse, saison-style, and barrel-aged offerings. This focus is refreshing unto itself in a city so taken with IPAs. But Holy Mountain isn’t just a novelty. It is a place I can bring my IPA-loving friends and have them admit that there’s more to life than high IBU 7% beers. As Seattle Magazine describes Holy Mountain:
Creating “barrel beers” involves fermenting and/or conditioning beer in oak barrels, often salvaged from wineries and distilleries, to add complexity and unexpected flavors to the beer.
If they have the Kiln & Cone on tap, start there. Of course, with the focus on brewing in barrels, part of the “fun” with Holy Mountain is that you can never predict what they’ll be pouring. Pack your sense of adventure and your faith will be richly rewarded.
Fremont/Interbay runner-up: Fremont Brewing
For Seattle locals, designating Fremont Brewing a “runner-up” in its neighborhood is borderline sacrilege. It has been one of Seattle’s best growth stories, having expanded from a small room in 2009 to a borderline-empire in 2017. There is good reason that Fremont has grown at breakneck pace – it pours beers from a delightful (as long as you don’t mind crowds) location alongside the Burke Gilman trail, and there are no shortage of classic Seattle beers, such as the Interurban IPA, Universale Pale Ale, and Fremont Summer Ale. They also recently released the Lush IPA, which is one of my favorite discoveries of the past few months.
In spite of the frequent crowding, running out of water, and other logistical imperfections, there’s no question that when it comes to beer, these brewers are in Seattle’s major leagues, alongside brands like Elysian and Georgetown.
Fremont/Interbay runner-up: Rooftop Brewing
Rooftop Brewing is something of a sentimental favorite for me. While they aren’t raking in beer awards like Fremont, they keep a small & expertly curated list of choices that are served from (you guessed it) a rooftop that makes for a delightful Summer destination. Usually not crowded, thanks to low foot traffic location.
Rounding out the eligible participants for Fremont/Interurban were Urban Family, Outlander Brewery & Pub, Bad Jimmy’s. Urban Family is definitely worth a visit if you enjoy sour beers – they have earned a reputation as one of Seattle’s finest purveyors of the style since changing ownership to a former New Belgian brewer in 2017.
Best of University District: Floating Bridge Brewery
Opened in July of 2016, Floating Bridge Brewing is a destination that has grown increasingly fond to me in the months that have followed. They operate from a cozy and convenient tap room on 45th street, with a proto-Seattle range of offerings focused on IPAs, but with all styles represented.
During Janbrewary 2018, they pulled off one of the highest single-visit ratings cards of any brewery I’ve visited, with four of their five beers scoring my highest rating (What the Helles, Eastbound, Paper Tiger, and Southbound). In addition to the quality of these ales, their aesthetic is on point as well, with all beer flights served in a stylish wooden bridge-themed beer holder. For their triumph of beer function & form, they earn an extra tall picture. Way to go, you stallions.
Best of South & West Seattle: Perihelion Brewing
In spite of a good collection of choices qualifying in our “South & West Seattle” region (Machine House, Lowercase, Tin Dog, West Seattle Brewing, Flying Lion, Elysian Taproom (almost always closed)), it has proven difficult to find an option in this area that inspires at the level of other Seattle neighborhoods.
Perihelion is a relative newcomer that’s been gathering early buzz for kooky offerings like the “Roasted Pepper IPA” and “Blackberry Belgian Blonde.” Novelty beer is not normally my thing, but Perihelion backs up the novelty with solid (if not always spectacular) flavor, and an inspired dining menu.