THIS IS GOING to sound corny, but Jeff Smiley is, in fact, smiley. He’s also ruddy-cheeked, with blond hair and light blue eyes—a casting director’s dream for the part of “German beer brewer.” Smiley is the owner of the Pillagers Pub (pillagerspub.com), a retail-level drinkery in a condo building kitty-corner to the Greenwood Safeway, as well as Baron Brewing, a German-style microbrewery. Booming hellos to his guests on a rainy February afternoon, Smiley filled the barroom with his baritone chuckle, a bellow of audible punctuation that followed every one of his sentences.
Near the knotty wood table where Smiley and I sat chatting hung a wooden oar with the words “Pirates Only” painted on the paddle. A mural of ships tossing about in choppy water festooned a back wall, and a blackboard near the bar boasted lewdly named liquor shooters. Smiley has seven Baron Beers on tap at the pub—including a few bocks, the strong German lagers associated with late winter and early spring—and there are five ales from his new label, Three Skulls.
Smiley poured from a bottle of his Helles bock, a copper-colored, sweet and malty brew that is surprisingly guzzle-able considering its 6.4 percent alcohol by volume. Tapping his finger against a illustration of a goat’s silhouette on the label, Smiley explained that Germans associate bocks with the Capricorn zodiac sign, since they are made in late December and early January. Because of their higher alcohol content (6.3 to 7.2 percent abv) bocks need to sit around for a while so their flavors can smooth out, and so traditionally they are consumed from February through May (thus the name maibock, a bock popular among American craft brewers).
In Germany, spring bocks are greeted with the enthusiasm that accompanies all signs of that season. But in this country, the beers have suffered from a rumor that they come, quite literally, from the bottom of the barrel. No one knows the exact origins of this falsehood, but Smiley has a theory: Around Seattle, Rainier ales have endured similar notoriety and he attributes the reputation, in both cases, to the beers’ strength. “People have this impression that the strong stuff has to come from the bottom—completely untrue, of course.” He paused briefly, and then, as though he had just delivered the punch line to a deeply hilarious joke, Jeff Smiley exploded with another of his amazing chuckles.