SEATTLE: Big Time Brewery and Alehouse

A guest blog post by Bill Fishburn. You can follow Bill on Twitter @rwfishbu1.

This month my feature is Seattle’€™s Big Time Brewery and Alehouse. I’m going to review their award-winning Coal Creek Porter, while sharing some great details provided by head brewer, Drew Cluley.

The Brewery

Big Time is near and dear to my heart. As a University of Washington alumnus, this was the first craft brewery where I first (legally) enjoyed craftbeer. Located in the heart of the U-district, right on University Avenue (“The Ave” to the locals), Big Time provided—and still provides—convenient access to some of the tastiest beers around. Since I was at The U near the beginning of the craft beer revolution, the choices weren’t as varied as they are now, and Big Time was our local gem.

Founded in 1988, it was still a fairly nascent brewery when I achieved drinking age.  Its doors opened on December 7 that year, and it’s remained open since, through a long string of some notable Seattle craftbeer pioneers. Opened by Reid Martin—fresh on the heels of opening Triple Rock Brewery in Berkeley, California, in partnership with his brother John—it has become a U-district fixture.

Housed in a “narrow space 100’ long by 8’ wide that runs the length of the building directly behind the bar”, Drew describes the 1400bbl brewery as having to be the “strangest-shaped  brewery in the land”.  With their five fermenters, 20 seven-barrel serving tanks, and 60 kegs, they sell about 80% of their beer in-house and self-distribute the remaining 20% to local bars and restaurants in the Seattle area.

The Brewer: Drew Cluley

I’m very grateful to Drew for the time and energy he put into this interview. I managed to catch him at the brewery when I stopped by to purchase my growler of Coal Creek.  Between tending his batches, meeting with some other patrons, and before heading out to a New Year Day dinner, he found time to have a quick pint with my wife and me.

Drew is Big Time’s fifth Head Brewer in 23 years and the fourth to come from Seattle’s Pike Place Brewery. Like many of today’s professional craft brewers, Drew’s background is founded in homebrewing, but I won’t spoil that. You can read about Drew’s history in his own words.

Q: What first got you interested in brewing beer? 

My sister sent me Dave Miller’s Home Brewing Guide as a birthday gift in 1990.  I was living in Syracuse, NY at the time, and I went to the library and got Charlie Papazian’s  The Complete Joy of Home Brewing.  Armed with these two books, I procured supplies from area homebrew shops (by area I mean 40 miles away in Ithaca, and 80 miles away in Rochester) and began making extract amber pale ales.  When I moved to Seattle in 1993 I met future brother-in-law Bill Jenkins – (yes same sister).  He was brewing at Pike Place Brewing Co, and we all got a house together, and Bill and I started brewing all-grain batches on a 10-gallon system.  In 1994 we brewed a touch under 500 gallons in our basement.  At a Thanksgiving dinner party in 1994 I met Rande Reed (Snoqualmie Falls Brewing Co), and he was impressed with some of my homebrew that I brought and suggested I apply for a job at the newly-opening Pyramid Brewery in Seattle.  I entered the brewing profession when I was hired as a cellerman by Rande in January 1995.  I have brewed for Pyramid, Oh La Ho (a brewpub I helped open in Tobu, Japan ), Pike Brewing, and The Big Time.

Q: What is your favorite brewing memory?

There are so many great brewing memories.  One that stands out was the night we released my Pike’s Monks Uncle Belgian style triple.  This was the second Belgian style beer that I professionally developed and released, the other being Pyramid Saison that was a summer seasonal in 1996.  The release of a new beer is always special; I really enjoy seeing the pleasure that something that I created gives to people.  That night, November 29th, 2006, while we were inside Brouwers café in Fremont, it began to snow heavily.  Someone came into the café and yelled, “It’s snowing”!  We all filed out and began a wonderful 30 minute snowball fight, fueled by many glasses of our 9% Belgian ale.

Q: What is your favorite style to brew and why? To drink?

I enjoy all styles of beer; however you’ll most likely find me drinking an India Pale Ale.  I love the aroma of the brewhouse when we add copious amounts of finishing hops.  At the Big Time we have brewed 24 different, distinct IPAs in our 24 years in existence, the latest IPA was batch #2300 and we decided to make a 9.2% triple IPA called, “Whiny the Complainer.”  It will release the first week of February, 2012.  I am also a huge fan of Belgian Ales.

Q: What is the single-most important variable to you in your brewery/process?

The only thing I allow to be variable is music.  Music must be on and loud, what gets played is variable with a strong nod to Phish in the rotation.  The goal to successfully brewing consistent beer is to minimize variables and keep the process the same each and every time.  That and using the correct and best available ingredients for the style you are brewing lead to successful batches.

Q: Do you have any tips (process, OG, FG, special ingredients) for homebrewers wanting to clone Coal Creek Porter?

Not really tips.  It is just a straight forward porter that starts about 1.056 and goes terminal around 1.018 (it’s about 5% abv).  There is a good bit of Munich and C[rystal]-75 for body, as well as Roast and Chocolate malts in equal amounts, and a wee bit of Black malt too.  It is lightly bittered with Chinook hops and then there is just one more addition of hops, this time a good dose of Centennial hops for the last 2 minutes of boil.

Q: Brewer question of the month: What is the best accidental (home)brewing success you’ve had? (A recipe you thought was going to be really bad that turned out really good.)

This is a really hard question because I humbly confess that I can’t recall any accidents that turned out well.  I guess that I just don’t really allow accidents to occur.  I have only dumped 2 batches of beer in my 22 years of brewing, one was a homebrewed Barley Wine that got forgotten in the basement for too many months and the airlock dried out and the beasties attacked.  The other was a 125-barrel batch of Thomas Kemper Wit that I was told to sewer during my shift because the marketing /sales department at Pyramid didn’t think it would continue to sell into the autumn.   That was a tough one as the beer had just taken a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

Q: What was the brewery’s vision for Coal Creek Porter when you began developing the recipe?

Coal Creek Porter is a 23 year-old recipe.  Ed Tringali [Big Time’s first Head Brewer] created that recipe in 1988.  It has been slightly tweaked over the years by some of the previous Head Brewers, but basically it is true to its original form.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to change about Coal Creek Porter, or has the original vision been achieved?

I think that the Coal Creek Porter is fine the way it is.  If I wanted to do a major tweak on it I would just create another porter.  That is the beauty of working in a brewpub where you can brew 20 to 30 seasonals and one-offs every year to complement your regular lineup.  That was the major reason I left Pike Brewing Company last year.  I love the freedom that the Big Time brewery allows for myself and my assistant, Bradley Zimmerman, to explore the creative avenues of brewing.  I haven’t really brewed many lagers in my 22 years of brewing, but we plan to brew two this summer: An authentic Pilsner and a Marzen/Octoberfest.

Q: Where can readers find your beers in WA, OR, ID?

Our beer is sold in 22oz bottles only at the brewpub.  Of course we have half- and full-gallon growlers available, as well.  As far as accounts serving our draft beer they are mostly in King County here in Washington State.  We do occasionally do a festival outside of Washington. In recent years we’ve been at the Oregon Brewers Festival, and last year we attended the Great Canadian Beer Festival in Victoria British Columbia.  We also always attend the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver each autumn.  We have been awarded 23 medals at the GABF in the 23 years we’ve attended the fest which is something all the Head Brewers  that have been at the helm of Big Time are proud of…

The BJCP Style: Robust Porter

Aroma: Robust Porters have a roasty aroma that should noticeable and may be moderately strong. Some additional malt character may show in support, and hop aroma can be low to high using US andUK varieites. Fruity esters are moderate to none with no diacetyl.

Appearance:  The color is medium brown to very dark brown with ruby- or garnet-like highlight, and they can approach black in color. Clarity will be clear when these beers are not opaque. A full, tan-colored head with good retention is expected.

Flavor: A moderately strong malt flavor usually featuring a lightly burnt, black malt character (and sometimes chocolate and/or coffee flavors) with a bit of roasty dryness in the finish. Finish may be from dry to medium-sweet, and there may be a sharp character from dark roasted grains, but acridity, burnt and harsh flavors should not be overly present. Bitterness should be medium to high and hop flavor can be low to moderaly high to balance the roasted malt flavors. Diacety should be low to none and fruity esters should be moderate to none.

Mouthfeel:  Robust porters are medium to medium-full body and moderately low to moderately high carbonation. Stronger versions may have a slight alcohol warmth. There may be a slight astringency from the roasted grains, but it should not be a strong characteristic.

The Beer: Coal Creek Porter

Coal Creek Porter

Aroma: The aroma is dark and roasty with definite dark roast coffee overtones, like a French or Espresso Roast. The coffee aromas come more to the forefront as the beer warms, providing any good Seattleite with a familiar olfactory experience. The roasty aroma has an associated grain note that I find very pleasant, to the point of mouth-watering (your mileage may vary, but that’s what I get). A slight hint of caramel or toffee plays just ahead of a hop spiciness that cuts through the roasted aromas. I detected no diacetyl or significant fruity esters; just a clean roasted aroma.

Appearance: The beer pours a very dark brown to black, but, for a dark beer, it is quite clear when held to light. The ruby and garnet highlights brought out by backlighting are mesmerizing.  The head is tan and dissipates quickly to a nice lacy ring of bubbles.

Flavor: The first flavors to grab my palate’s attention are all distinctly and prominently coffee. Those are quickly followed by a darker sweet fruit that I don’t detect in the aroma, but that I would describe as possibly raisin and it’s combined with a mild caramel sweetness. Hop flavor plays next, with an earthy spiciness that is also notably “bright” or “clean”, likely indicative of a very fresh hop in the early boil. The roast grain bitterness ties with hop bitterness at the finish line of my palate, leaving a pleasant sensation at the back of my throat—and also leaving me wanting another swallow.

Mouthfeel:  The body is medium and carbonation is somewhat low, but that could be due to it being from the growler. It still has a nice tingly sensation on the tongue. This porter is not a dry porter, as it leaves the drinker with a subtle sensation of sweetness, probably a result of the Crystal Malt. There is a slight creamy feeling in the finish that is very pleasing for such a roasty beer

Overall Impression: If it weren’t for the alcohol inherent in beer, this porter would make a great waker-upper beverage. I love the coffee notes and the dark roastiness that play in the aroma and flavor. Let it warm a bit to get the full sensory benefits, but then have a second pint (or growler) before you hit The Ave to dodge the raindrops.

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