Brewlab shot vjmv38

Image: Ben Jenkins

If you grew up listening to too many Clash records, and if you’re prone to reading metaphors everywhere, here's a ripe one: Many Seattle breweries are in old garages, mainly former auto shops. Most local craft brewers—take Adam Robbings at Reuben’s, or his new neighbors at Obec Brewing—started in the garage as home brewers, and when they make the leap to running a taproom, they tend to keep that DIY spirit. That garages also function as a cultural symbol for indie rock—and so for that eternal struggle between the cool kids and the man—is a sort of happy accident.

There are also pragmatic reasons for the garage-brewery connect: “It’s because it’s easy,” says Jim Graham of Graham Baba Architects, who designed Redhook’s new Brewlab in Pike Motorworks, the Hill's former BMW dealership. He notes that the open spaces, high ceilings, and garage doors make auto shops easy fits for brewers. Many even have electrical wiring and other infrastructure already in place. And many others—especially those in Ballard—are still zoned commercially, which means lower rents. “They’re cool buildings too,” says Graham. “There’s lots of embedded character that sends people in.”

It’s hardly surprising that Redhook, when looking to cast off its dad-jeans image, chose a garage. Redhook’s first space, after all, was an old transmission shop in Ballard, opened in 1981, and Brewlab is a sort of back-to-roots mission statement. Since 1994, though, Redhook has been partially owned by Anheuser-Busch, which has since become a part of Belgium-headquartered AB InBev. So it’s also hardly surprising (and so metaphorically satisfying!) that Brewlab’s garage credentials are literally a façade. The wall remains, but the building itself is a new mixed-use development with self-described “über-luxurious apartments and unrivaled amenities.”

Now, Brewlab doesn’t suck. The beer is more interesting and contemporary than Redhook’s standard lineup. But the project feels overwhelmingly #seattle #localbeer. You’ve got a mural by Sub Pop art director Sasha Barr on exposed brick. According to executive chef Adam Stevens, Brewlab’s “stone-hearth oven, the seasons, and local ingredients will dictate the menu.” From this oven issue Salumi-topped pizzas. In back is a vintage bar from the Bellingham Greyhound station. IPAs rule on the taps—eight of the 16 at one point, though the list changes constantly—but head brewer Nick Crandall also digresses into things like sours and porters and saisons. Vinyl records shall be played. (That Seattle doesn’t have any real claim to most of these attributes but still frequently claims them is also very Seattle.)

That is, Brewlab checks off items in some zeitgeist spreadsheet with such comprehensive glee that it feels like the brewery equivalent to Urban Outfitters, or the Starbucks Roastery just down the street. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. With that big beer money comes a glossy curated atmosphere most upstart breweries—even vast neighboring Optimism—can’t muster. Maybe only Pioneer Square’s Elysian Fields can compete in terms of sheer grandeur. Patios included, Brewlab seats 258. There are chandeliers inside and fire pits outback. And if you give a good brewer like Nick Crandall top notch facilities and carte blanche, the beer will probably be good, which it is.

Of course, no city can fit in a brewery-sized box. But for a manifestation of certain trends—of corporate savvy co-opting small-scale craft and local pride; of very shiny new things behind old façades; of a formerly funky neighborhood drifting into a sea of pricy mixed-use buildings, which transform that reputation into a selling point; of a knotted ball of contradictions concerning authenticity and originality and heritage and craftsmanship and economy; and of the often talented people who inhabit these contradictions daily—well, you needn’t look much further than Brewlab. Check a few more boxes on that zeitgeist spreadsheet. 

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