Seattle’s new wave of breweries has certain definitive characteristics—kids roaming, dogs lounging, the requisite food truck parked outside. Cloudburst Brewing has none of these things, aside from the occasional canine—just some masterful IPAs, a surprisingly nuanced saison, and an imperial stout called Darkenfloxx that’s like inhaling into a bag of freshly roasted hazelnuts and coming away with a really good buzz.
The 11 oft-changing taps reflect whatever ingredient or style owner Steve Luke wanted to play around with on his secondhand brewing system. “We really are selfish when we make our beer,” he admits. But for Luke (who, in his previous gig as Elysian’s experimental brewer, created hits like Space Dust IPA and Split Shot espresso milk stout), simply chasing his interests yields beers with major charisma. And tasting notes to match, punctuated with references to everyone from Bob Ross to George Saunders, plus a few F-bombs.
It’s rare that a brewer from Seattle’s elder guard of beermakers strikes out on his own (lately the city’s seen more home brewers turning their pursuit into a business). Luke launched his own place to a thunderstorm of buzz and expectations among members of his own industry; even working on a shoestring startup budget, it’s clear he’s the sharpest new beer talent in town. Now beer geeks fill the narrow tap room—which doubles as the loading zone in Cloudburst’s tight quarters a few blocks from Pike Place Market. And they’re undeniably here for the beer, since the crowds and the need for Luke to brew enough to sate them precludes niceties like tasting flights or elaborate decor.
Across town and at the other end of the drinking spectrum you’ll find tasting flights aplenty at Optimism Brewing, a beer hall for people who always have the latest phone. The vintage auto showroom at Broadway and Union pairs soaring columns of old timber with a perimeter of paned-glass windows; the 20-barrel brewing system doubles as gleaming centerpiece.
One side is full of handsome benches, strollers, and beer-sipping parents (their progeny are over in the play area). The other end, where child-free drinkers congregate, is all high-top seats and adult vibes—two different worlds, equally packed on weekends. Optimism hosts study groups, dog meetups, even toddler birthday parties.
It’s easy to look at this grand setting, the shiny screens displaying the beer menu, and Optimism’s decision to describe its brews via allusive names and some flavor notes (Zest, for example, is “clementine, grapefruit, grass”) and wonder if this place is kind of pretentious. But after careers in software, owners Troy Hakala (he’s also the brewer) and his wife, Gay Gilmore, applied that industry’s facility with data, and major emphasis on user interface, to their favorite beverage.
“Being software people, we have to make things clear and not jargony,” says Hakala, who points out that the casual beer drinker is more likely to try an imperial stout if it’s labeled simply “espresso, dried figs, and dark chocolate,” and if you slap the traditional names on the tap list, “everybody’s just going to order the IPA.” He’s probably right.
Hakala is working his way up to 20 taps, using sales data to guide which of his breadth of classic styles will become permanent. When shifting from home brewing to a business with customers who aren’t already your buddies, “You can’t just say, ‘You’ll drink what I like.’ ”
Although that’s pretty much what Steve Luke is saying over at Cloudburst. If these two newcomers were restaurants, Cloudburst would be the place where you walk in and submit to the brilliant machinations of the chef’s brain. Optimism would make your steak exactly how you like it. And a city whose beer culture has spilled over from niche to normative needs them both.