Bellingham’s 14 local breweries put a vast amount of effort into their craft beer selections, showing locals that it’s more than just a drink that gives you a buzz. The city is perceived as a “beer drinker’s paradise,” with just a handful of wineries – but what makes these breweries appear more popular?
Justin Revelstoke, a member of Bellingham’s Homebrewers Guild and local beer enthusiast, said his relationship with beer developed early in his life after taking up the hobby of brewing at home. There are few things in life that integrate science, history, culture and flavor, but for him, beer is one of them.
He said he sees more innovation taking place within the brewing industry as compared to its winery counterpart.
“The industry of beer progresses a lot faster with new styles and new techniques and new science and research,” Revelstoke said. “Not a lot of varieties of wine pop up.”
Bellingham’s Pacific Northwest climate can also be taken into consideration. John Paul Gross, owner of Archer Ale House, said the barley used to make beer is easier to grow in the area than grapes used to make wine, which typically thrive in warmer climates.
Though there are only half as many wineries as breweries in Bellingham, several wineries and merchants still offer a varied selection of wines.
Seifert and Jones Wine Merchants is one such local wine shop, located in downtown Bellingham. Ted Seifert, co-owner of the business, has spent over 20 years getting to know wine, falling in love with its history of origin and culture.
“Beer is simple for the most part. But wine is a little more complicated; or, it has the impression of being complicated,” Seifert said. “We’re always constantly trying to break that barrier. We’re not snobs, we just like the beverage.”
Seifert and Jones Wine Merchants offer six different wine clubs with different price ranges and wines. Their most popular club is the World Tour Wine Club, wherein members receive and learn about two different wines from different regions of the world for $29 a month.
Seifert and Jones Wine Merchants compete against the large array of breweries in town for customers, especially younger patrons. Seifert noted that part of the reason beer is a go-to for younger folks could be differences in flavor palates.
“As your palate matures, you start to drink black coffee, or you can appreciate wine more,” Seifert said.
He added that when people turn 21, beer, cider and hard seltzers are more appealing because the drinks are a bit sweeter and they seem less intimidating than wine.
Other wine merchants and bars experience something similar. Leigh McMillan and Kristen Dorrity co-own Welcome Road Winery Bellingham, named after the road where their cabin is in Glacier, Washington. This is their second location; their first tasting room was created in West Seattle.
In an attempt to engage with a younger crowd, Welcome Road Winery has been experimenting with events like music and trivia.
“We are trying to bring some of the characteristics of going to a brewery to the tasting room experience,” McMillan said, adding that she aims to bring live music, performances and the atmosphere of taprooms to the wine community. “You think of beer as being the companion to those types of things more than you think of wine, but we think you should think of wine as well.”
Revelstoke said the traits he admires in breweries that he doesn’t observe in wineries are their ability to offer a laid-back, welcoming environment while being supportive and open to helping other breweries rather than engaging in competition. He believes beers are an optimal way for a homebrewer or brewery to showcase and express their style and personality.
McMillan is on a mission to break down the notion that you have to know what you’re doing to drink wine. Welcome Road Winery offers wine tastings and classes, but McMillan says they don’t dive too deep into the aromas and histories of the wines unless participants ask. She tries to keep it fun and easygoing.
Despite their efforts, wineries face strong competition from the ever-growing popularity of craft beer in Bellingham. Even with all the ales, lagers and IPAs available, brewery owners continually find ways to differentiate themselves and go beyond simply serving a pint to their customers.
Fairhaven’s Stones Throw Brewery offers an Airbnb at their location, where guests can cozy up in a room after last call, staying literally a stone’s throw away from the bar and beer garden.
“The Airbnb people, of course, think it's super fun to spend the night in a brewery. Like how many opportunities do you have to spend the night in a brewery?” said Stones Throw Beertender Tim Crandall.
Nadine van Niekerk, who owns Stones Throw alongside her husband, Tony Luciano, described the relationships between the breweries in the area as an incredible, tight-knit and supportive community. She attributed the popularity of beer in Bellingham to the diverse breweries in town.
“The more breweries you have in town, the more people are gonna come here to explore all of them because people want to go and taste,” van Niekerk said.
Van Niekerk said Luciano started brewing his own beer when he was enrolled at Western Washington University. He always knew he wanted to open a brewery in Bellingham.
“It’s been a dream of his since college days. He even had the name Stones Throw when he was at university,” van Niekerk said.
Although Revelstoke enjoys and frequents breweries in the Bellingham area, he believes there is room for quite a few more breweries to come to Bellingham.
The presence of ale houses and taphouses only continues to add more variety to the Bellingham beer scene. Gross says he keeps a rotating tap so visitors can always expect to try something new on their next visit.
“[Bellingham’s] beer-drinking community is eclectic,” Gross said. “It’s a town that has every type of beer drinker.”
Gross doesn’t see Bellingham as cliquey. Unlike a coffee shop where people may not be as likely to strike up a conversation, Gross says that beer serves as a social lubricant for strangers and can help take the edge off of social anxiety.
“That’s more the community than anything else,” Gross said.
Sophie Bechkowiak (she/her) is a city life reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a junior majoring in journalism with a minor in philosophy. In her free time, she enjoys creating art, watching bad reality TV and being outside. You can reach her at email@example.com
Janet Lopez (she/her) is a city life reporter for The Front. She is majoring in marketing with a concentration in public relations. Her work is focused on lifestyle, upcoming events and sharing fun little stories about Bellingham that you might not have known otherwise.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.