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Tacoma is a beer boomtown once again

Craft-beer renaissance is strong in T-town

In addition to a large selection of brews on tap, Beer Star on Sixth Ave. offers hundreds of bottled and canned options in rows of coolers. (Credit: John Ferri)

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Recent arrivals to the Tacoma area may not realize that they have landed in a beer-thirsty, beer-crazy town. The number of local breweries, brewpubs, taprooms and bottle shops attests to this bonanza of great beer.

Of course, Tacoma and its surrounding communities are just part of the larger craft-beer boom that has been going strong in the Pacific Northwest for a while now. Seattle and Portland are recognized beer meccas, and Tacoma's suds resurgence is actually a repeat of the city's early history.

Historic Recycle

Starting in the early 1880s, Tacoma brewers used the region's clean, pure water and easily available hops and grain to produce the first commercially successful beers from T-town. Access to rail and ship connections through Tacoma's bustling port meant local beers soon gained a wider reputation.

It's been a longtime coming since those early days, but Tacoma is back on the beer map. As an example of recent regional growth, in 2011 there were 136 craft breweries in Washington state. By 2016, that number had jumped to 334.

Many of those breweries set up shop in Tacoma. In a competitive market, there are always closures and transitions to go along with all the new places. Olympia's popular Fish Brewing made it only a year with a new venture at Point Ruston, and stalwart local brewery the Harmon recently closed its taproom and its Hub location in the Stadium District.

Tacoma's Current Suds Scene

Closures are par for the course in the hospitality industry, but things are still moving forward for Tacoma beer. Many longtime operators are growing and expanding, some of them opening locations in the newly developed Brewery District downtown.

There are simply too many breweries in town for a breakdown of them in this space, but if you are new to the local beer culture, the following list of notable local beer makers is a good starting point. Check out: 7 Seas Brewing, Pacific Brewing & Malting Co., Dunagan Brewing Co., Dystopian State, Engine House No. 9, Gig Harbor Brewing, Harmon Restaurant, Narrows Brewing Company, North 47 Brewing Company, Odd Otter Brewing, Sluggo Brewing Tap and Kitchen, Tacoma Brewing, and Wingman Brewers.

One great way to get an overview of local and regional beer is to attend one of Tacoma's numerous annual events devoted to all things hoppy. Tacoma Beer Week events took place Aug. 11-18 in the fifth annual rendition, but it's never too early to set your sights on next year's fest. Similarly, the 4th annual South Sound Craft Beer Festival will feature 40 Washington breweries pouring more than 150 craft beers when it takes over the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall Nov. 9.

Or, if you want to do your own thing at your own pace, enjoy participating in the South Sound Craft Crawl, an on-going self-guided tour of 15 artisanal breweries between Tacoma and Olympia. The annual Taste of Tacoma each summer at Point Defiance Park features craft beer tasting, as well.

Bottle Shops and Tap Rooms

Another great way to cut through the beer clutter is by visiting your local bottle shop. They offer beers from a vast variety of brewers, providing a great way to find out what suits your taste. Each shop offers a different vibe and a long list of draft beers to enjoy on-tap or to-go in growlers, as well as beer coolers full of bottles and cans with which to stock your home fridge.

The Edison City Alehouse (5602 S. Lawrence St.) is located in the heart of the Edison historic district of 56th Street in Tacoma. The neighborhood taproom and bottle shop specializes in a highly curated, continuously rotating selection of independent craft beer and cider on draft and in bottles.

Meanwhile, Pint Defiance (2049 Mildred St. W.) serves Fircrest beer fans from a quaint, modest storefront on Mildred Street near Tacoma Community College.

In the Proctor District, Peaks and Pints describes itself as "a craft-beer taproom where beer nerds can wave their geek flags." In addition to no-judgement ambiance, Peaks and Pints (3816 N. 26th St.) provides a full-service experience, offering a food menu along with its voluminous selection of specialty beers.

What it lacks in local cred and atmosphere, chain bottle shop Beer Star (4328 Sixth Ave.) makes up for in sheer volume. Its 50 taps and walls full of coolers with bottled and canned brews makes for unlimited selection. There are snacks for sale, and a food truck serves patrons just off the small patio area.

Brew Education

For those that are new to having so many beer choices, sometimes the lexicon of brew terms can be confusing. 

If you're serious about suds, the University of Washington Tacoma now offers craft beer certificate programs through the KeyBank Professional Development Center at its downtown campus. Two courses are Mastering Beer Styles and the Business of Craft Beer. Beer education is also available nationally and online through the Cicerone Certification Program.

If all you need is just a quick primer, the following is a basic glossary of beer terms:

Lager: Light, crisp beer style that is brewed and fermented at colder temperatures for a longer conditioning period, usually with a lager-specific yeast strain.

Ale: Heavier, bolder beer style that is fermented for shorter periods at warmer temperatures, typically with ale-specific yeast strains.

Amber: Ale style that is brewed with a malt-forward profile, creating a sweeter, darker beer in which hops are used more sparingly, just enough to offset the sweetness of the grain.

Pale ale: A comparatively hoppy beer in which malt and hops are in closer balance, but with a notedly tart note of hops.

IPA: India Pale Ale is a bolder pale ale, offering more acidity and hop tartness and bite due to specific hop choices and brewing methods.

Sour: A sour beer is intentionally brewed to be tart, acidic and sour tasting, a sought-after trait in renowned international styles such as Belgian Lambic ales, gueze and Flanders red ale. Yeast strains are the primary driver of these in-your-face tastes, and domestic craft brewers have adapted the style.

Hazy: Both pale ales and IPAs are made in this style, which is unfiltered, so micro-particulates provide a hazy, cloudy appearance and add flavor. These beers also are often double-hopped, with an addition of double the amount of hops added at a later stage in brewing, which also adds to the beer's look and fruity character.

Dry hopped: In this process, brewers add additional hops at different times of the brew process to obtain more hop aroma.

Fresh hopped: Brewers annually get the freshest hops possible at harvest time and brew with them right away, imparting a more intense hop aroma and taste than dried hops, which are in most beers.

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