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Friday, September 21, 2012

Craft Beer Sword Swings on the Palouse

Nothing like a road trip to the other side of the beer world to give you some perspective on what we have in Portland. By "other side of the beer world," l'm talking about eastern Washington...which is where I grew up and went to college. The Inland Empire, as it were.

A fortuitous discovery in Pullman
As I may have documented in past posts, I was raised on a steady diet of shitty macro. Not really a unique story, I know. I readily admit Lucky Lager was our most popular beer choice in high school...it was cheap and easy to get. Coors and Budweiser were delicacies.

Things weren't much better during my college and grad school years in Pullman, the great tundra...or Palouse Country, if you prefer. By the mid-to-late 1980s, you could find Bert Grant's beers and the occasional Hale's Ale around town. The craft beer movement was taking off in Seattle and Portland, but change was slow in the hinterlands.

The Coug decor, such as it is
One of the last places I would ever expect to find good beer is The Coug, WSU's on-campus watering hole since 1932. Some might describe it as a dump...and maybe it is, but at least it's our dump. For years, The Coug served up a menu of tepid beers, often at bargain prices. Natty Light remains a big seller here for students wanting to get buzzed on the cheap.

Like taverns around the Northwest, craft beers have become a force at The Coug. They now offer more craft beers than crappy macro beers. They've got beers from Elysian, Widmer, Flying Bike and others. I was interested Swashbuckler Ale, a beer that celebrates the hopes of the current football season.

A few of The Coug's tap handles
Swashbuckler is a reference to Mike Leach, WSU's first-year head football coach, and his book Swing Your Sword. Leach has leaned on the pirate motif in some of his quotable comments over the years and the label has stuck. Now the beer.

Harmon Brewing in Tacoma, owned by third generation Cougar, Patrick Nagel, brews Swashbuckler Ale. Nagel apparently hoped to ride the wave of enthusiasm surrounding the hiring of Leach by brewing and marketing this beer. (He beat several other breweries to the punch, by the way.) The more complete story behind the beer is here. Interesting stuff.

The Coug...serving WSU for 80 years
Swashbuckler, the beer, is damn good. I think it's closer to a red than a pale. It features a nice balance of hop aroma, flavor and backbone. You'll only find it in draft form at a short list of places in Pullman and on the westside. Harmon hopes to bottle it someday, but don't hold your breath. If you see this beer on tap somewhere, I recommend giving it a try.

Returning to my original thought at the top, the eastern Washington brewing scene is changing. I've visited several places on this trip and have several more to go. The area is still years behind what's happening in Portland, but what's happening here is positive. I'll discuss some of the specifics over the next few posts. Meanwhile, the research continues...

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post.

    It set my mind to wandering.
    My college experience was in the mid-1960s in West Texas; Lubbock. Neo-prohibition ruled via local option. Liquor stores were clustered on 'The Strip', on the highway, ~10 miles from campus. I recall 3 quarts of Bud, Schlitz, or Coors cost $1.05. Lone Star and Pearl were regional beers; Falstaff and Jax may still have existed.

    Fast forward to today. I am retired in Boulder, Colo. The 18th fount of craft beer brewed in the county opened last night. By years end, there should be 23.

    I am inspired to check out a local near-campus burger/beer-institution [restaurant] called 'The Sink'. It has existed since 1949. The website indicates 16 tap beers; I will check it out soon.


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