Early Friday evening at Fremont Brewing’s taproom—which offers no discounts and only pretzels and apples as food—the tables are full and the line long and the conversational tone as effervescent as a good pint. Drift over to Reuben’s in Ballard or Cloudburst in Belltown and you see variations on a theme: amenity-light industrial spaces flooded with people.
In 2009, Fremont Brewing owner Matt Lincecum strapped bleacher boards to kegs for seating and opened the taproom, the first of its kind in Seattle, in an unheated garage. He’d been inspired by the BBQ joints of his Texas youth to create a community gathering space: “They just provided the meat. We just provide the beer.” Taprooms are more relaxed than even brewpubs. You can bring food, board games, kids, pets. Spill? Brewery floors are eminently hoseable. And the spaces are well lit and the music comfortably in the background, so the mood tends toward convivial.
In the last decade the number of national breweries has exploded—hell, we have about 60 in this city alone—and the taproom model has boomed with it. Nearly every Seattle brewery that’s opened in that decade has eschewed the brewpub route (food menu, table service), and a recent study commissioned by MillerCoors found that in 2017 local bars lost 22 percent of their traffic to breweries. If that sounds like a death knell, it really just evinces the increasing specificity of U.S. drinking culture. Bars—loud, lowly lit, lurid—aren’t going anywhere, but the shift is clear: Fremont’s taproom, which closes at 9pm, won Lyft’s local award for Most Visited Bar last year.
For Steve Luke, who left Elysian and its wood-lined brewpubs to found Cloudburst in a garage so barren it feels stripped to essence, the taproom’s draw was obvious. You avoid a restaurant’s drama and cost. You sell pints for $6 versus a keg (124 pints) to a bar for $180. You control how your beer is served. And you interact directly with customers: “There’s a very strong personal and emotional connection, so people look past drinking in a garage.”
Sacrifice comfort for a pour at the source and that beer’s quality feels earned, realer in hand, water straight from the spring. Look past, yes, but sometimes the garage is the draw.