NOTE: This is the second of a series about U.S. microbreweries relatively close to the Alberta or British Columbia borders.

Bellingham, Washington has long been a favourite day-trip destination for shoppers from B.C.’s lower mainland. It is now becoming a destination for people who enjoy really good craft beers. The Whatcom County city has two world-class, award-winning microbreweries: Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro and Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen. Between the two of them, they have won 23 medals in the Great American Beer Festival, one of the most prestigious competitions in the world.

Chuckanut is the new kid in town, having opened in July 2008. It’s guided by Will Kemper, who brings over a quarter of a century of experience to the brewing craft. He’s worked in Washington State, Colorado, California, and Massachusetts — centers of the microbrewing renaissance — as well as in Mexico and Istanbul.

When he and his partners opened Thomas Kemper Brewery on Bainbridge Island in 1984, the Pacific Northwest was in the early stage of its love affair with hoppy India Pale Ales. Now, they types of beer are everywhere. So, when Will decided to start a brewery in Bellingham, he chose to be different. He would create mainly lagers — not the indistinguishable, pale fizzy stuff churned out by the mega brewers — but a variety of subtle German lagers: dunkel,  helles, Vienna, schwarzbier, and pilsner.

“Good lagers are fragile and perishable,” Kemper expalined. So localness is the key. “We wanted to create beers that weren’t freshly available here. There were lots of good ales, so why not be unique.” This meant formulating an intent and then selecting ingredients and following a process that would get the finished beers as close to the intent as possible. “We play on the relationships between the hops and malts and we make sure we use the ingredients that will best achieve our goals for eacy style.”

Just how close Chuckanut brews have come to realizing what might be called Kemper’s platonic ideal are revealled, in part, by the awards they have garnered at the Great American Beer Festival. In 2009, his Vienna lager earned a gold, as did his dunkel, and his Schwarzbier. His German Pil took a silver. The next year, his Vienna again took a gold and the Pilsner bronze.

But this year, only the third in Chuckanut had entered the GABF competition, was the capper: two golds (for the helles and the kolsch), a silver for the dunkel, and a bronze for the alt  — all of them traditional German styles. And best of all — Chuckanut was named the small brewing company of the year and Kemper the small brewing company brewer of the year.

Chuckanut beers are available in Washington State from Lynden to Tacoma. But the best place to try them is at the brewery’s tap room and kitchen at 601 West Holly Street in Bellingham. And be sure to sample some of the kitchen’s wonderful food, all made from scratch and from as many local ingredients as possible.

If Chuckanut is noted for its German lagers, Boundary Bay, located just a few blocks to the east, is recognized for its ales, hoppy West Coast style pales and hearty, robust English beers. The difference between the two places becomes apparent in looking over the list of Great American Beer Festival medals — 13 in all — Boundary Bay has won since 1998. There are two lagers on the list: a boch and a pilsner. But the others include an Imperial oatmeal stout, a scotch ale, a barley wine, a winter warmer, and an ESB.

Aaron Jacob Smith, who has been head brewer since 1998, the year the GABF medals started arriving, was a home brewer who remembers drinking Black Label, then Labatts and Molsen before he discovered Rogue, Pyramid, and Grants ales. “I really appreciated all the different kinds of hops used in the beers.”

“When I first started work at Boundary Bay, our Scotch Ale was the flagship beer. And then we started to produce big and hoppy West Coast IPAs — 7 per cent ABV and 70 International Bitterness units and more. We were hoppy before the paradigm shift of a decade ago. We push what I like to call the lupulin threshhold. But we strive to make intelligent use of hops.”

The seven year-around beers include “Bellingham Blonde”, designed as a crossover or entry level beer; Best Bitter, which is hoppier and more carbonated than its English counterpart; Inside Passage Ale , an IPA that uses three hops; Amber Ale, which Smith notes is hoppier than most; a Dry Irish Stout and an Imperial Oaktmeal stout. The Scotch ale, which is sweet and strong (6 per cent ABV), is a favourite with students at near-by Western Washington University.

The complex, which includes a beer garden, a deck, a bistro (which allows children until 10 pm), and a tap room, is reported to largest brewpub in the United States, with a capacity of over 600 during good weather. It’s located at 1107 Railroad Avenue. But if you can’t make it there, several of the beers are available in 650 millilitre bottles in area grocery stores.

We don’t advise you turn your day-trip to Bellingham into a pub crawl. But, you might enjoy a progressive pub-lunch, starting with soup or salad and a couple of small taster glasses at one place and then heading to the other for your main course and a couple more tasters. That way you’ll experience some really good food and definitely the some of best lagers and ales produced in the Pacific Northwest.

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