By Wendy K. Leigh
Unpush the panic button, Seattle – craft beer is still craft beer even when it’s produced in larger batches with sleek stainless-steel machinery and automated production lines. Fremont Brewing Company, which still operates its beloved hometown tasting room and urban beer garden facing Lake Union in Fremont, has only spread its hop-ster arms a bit wider to include an 80,000-square-foot state-of-the-art production facility in Ballard.
Give them a break, beer purists; it’s the same recipes you know, love and sip in your wildest dreams. It just means there can be more beer in more places, and more good will to spread through the impressive social impact projects this family-owned brewery quietly facilitates throughout the year. The dark barley and gentle hops of Bonfire Ale still define late autumn in Seattle, as it always has; the B-bomb is still bourbon barrel-aged; and the Ancient One Bourbon Dark Star is just as extremely limited as ever.
In addition to more output capacity, the new production facility also means that Fremont Brewing can cut down on water and energy use; lower its carbon footprint more precisely; and better facilitate its commitment to zero waste – all things that are important to Sara Nelson and Matt Lincecum, the hands-on, husband-and-wife owners of FBC since its inception.
“Our new 80-barrel system lets us work in multiples of 80 instead of multiples of 30,” explains Sara. “We can operate more efficiently because of the automation, and bigger engines help us get the beer from one vessel to another more quickly.”
And that’s only the beginning. They replaced more 600 fluorescent bulbs in the new facility with LED lighting; heat the water in their hot liquor tank with on-site generated steam instead of natural gas to reduce contribution to climate change; and the heat produced during the brewing process is captured and redirected into the system. They’ve signed the Brewery Climate Declaration, are a “Greener” member of Seattle Public Utilities Green Business Program, and have taken the Clean Water Pledge (since beer is 95% water, that one’s a no-brainer).
She also emphasizes that just because they have the capacity to expand output doesn’t mean they’re overproducing. The plan is to grow slowly, keeping production in step with sales, and adding more infrastructure as they go. They are also not throwing the baby out with the bathwater: the Fremont space is still doing its magic with small batches and experiments, such as recent research into wild fermentation.
Never ones to just work with whatever they’re given, Sara and Matt epitomize the concept of activism. With organic hops in short supply because of the cost factor for farmers, they contracted with Ron Britt, an agricultural researcher and hop expert outside of Yakima who wanted to devote a specific four-acre plot of land to growing hops organically. They committed to the venture back in 2009 and still load up the organic hop cones at the end of the harvest season every year, trucking them over Snoqualmie Pass and down into Seattle. Within 24 hours from field to kettle, the hops are in the mash and being turned into the much-awaited Cowiche Canyon Organic Fresh Hop Ale.
Proceeds from the small-batch organic beer go to the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy, but the underlying mission for Fremont Brewing is to promote organic growing by testing new varieties and methodologies in Washington State. They’re also working to revive the once-thriving sustainable grains economy here on the western side of the state. As founding members of the Cascadia Grains Conference, they partner with universities, farmers, brewers, malters, distillers and investors to foster research and promote the latest science in local grain cultivation.
“Most people don’t realize that, before prohibition, the Kent Valley here in the Puget Sound area was devoted to growing barley,” notes Sara. “It has the same climate as some of the European places where barley flourishes.”
The local Skagit Valley Malting company in Western Washington malts specialty heirloom barley strains, and the Alba strain is used in the Skagit Valley Farmhouse Ale by Fremont Brewing. While stressing that it has a deep respect for malting history, Skagit Valley Malting also incorporates new science and technology that allows them to adjust the process to the grain, from handling and growing to cleaning, steeping, germinating and kilning. This lets them cultivate new flavors and coax out long-forgotten ones, which adds a new level to the craft of brewing and distilling. They prefer to think of it as “reinventing tradition” with cutting-edge malting technology.
In between the harvest and the final bottling (or canning), the techno wizards at Fremont Brewing have their own job to do. The new production facility in Ballard has a science lab that overlooks the production line, where workers test the beer for things like color, bitterness, yeast pitching, diacetyl and potential contamination. Sara stresses that consistency is just as important as high-quality ingredients.
“Even though it’s craft beer, customers fall in love with a specific taste, and they want to know they’re going to continue getting it, time and time again.”
Between a former environmental activist and lawyer (Matt) and a one-time political advisor with a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology (Sara), it’s sometimes head-scratching to imagine a couple ditching some serious careers and throwing their hats in the craft brewing ring – but there’s a whole lot of people in the Pacific Northwest who are glad they did. Their motto says it all in three words: Because Beer Matters.