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July 15, 2014 at 10:58am

Joe Walts and Narrows Brewing celebrate first anniversary with Breakers Ball Saturday

Joe Walts is the head brewer at Narrows Brewing Company. Photo credit: Pappi Swarner

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This time last year Joe Walts was pinching himself. An ear-to-ear smile busted out as he gazed at the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound on a glorious summer morning in Tacoma. Behind him was the Narrows Brewing Company. His dream of being a head brew master came to fruition, accented in a locale surrounded by mountains, mild seasons and friendly peers. Saturday, he and Narrows Brewing celebrates their one-year anniversary with a bash featuring Stephanie Anne Johnson and the release of the Barrel Aged Black Saison.

Flash back 15 months, Walts has his broken leg propped up on his couch in Madison, Wis. He suffered an injury while on the job as quality manager at Ale Asylum Brewing. Besides the pain, he was contempt. The company just moved into a new facility. His lifestyle was good.

"However, I didn't get into the field to work on other people's recipes. I wanted to do my own thing," says Walts.

Walts had been searching for a head brewer job for eight years.

"I was tied to the Madison area," says Walts. "Anytime you tie yourself to a specific area you either get phenomenally lucky or take whatever you can get. So brewers have to move to advance."

He did turn down several jobs in less desirable areas. He and his wife, Rachel, felt lucky and fortunate in their current lifestyle. They came to the conclusion if they left for a head brewer job, it would have to be in paradise.

Enter the Evergreen State.

"The Narrows Brewing job popped up on ProBrewer(.com), and I thought, if I don't go after this it's not going to get any better."

Narrows Brewing, a team of 10 owners, made a smart move. They flew Joe and Rachel out to meet them and their nearly finished brewery. Rachel could see first hand that, indeed, it was the paradise they desired. It had the mountains and water, without the sweltering heat, mosquitos and frigid winters.

The scenery isn't the only beauty. Housed in a striking, 100-year-old building on pilings, walking into Narrows Brewing can knock you off your feet. It's huge. The sparkling clean 15-barrel brew house has large doors to receiving as well as the moorage house. The Narrows Bridge and surrounding waterway commands your attention in the high-ceiling tasting room, after you weave your way past three event rooms and 100 seats to get there. If you can veer from the gorgeous view, and not get lost in the contemporary wood beam architecture, six taps await. The tasting room feels pub-ish, large enough to host your after-work happy hour on a moment's notice. The taproom has a satisfying mix of regulars and new visitors since it opened last year.

Because of weight limits, Narrows Brewing can grow much larger, in terms of volume produced, other than the new 30-barrel fermentation tank on the way. Maybe they could squeak another in. The ownership sees the complex as more of a destination than a worldwide distributor. Wednesdays are open mic night from 6-9 p.m. MindTap Trivia is Thursdays at 7 p.m. Live music is common on the weekends. Food trucks such as Barrel 51 BBQ (before it was vandalized) are common Fridays beginning at 6 p.m., as is a high school reunion in one room and a bon voyage party across the hall in the neighboring room.

Did Walts change his brewing style to match his new surroundings?

"Not at all," he says. "And that's really surprising to people. Yes, this is hoppier country, but that doesn't mean the best IPAs here are better than the best ones in the Midwest. In fact, they are pretty much the same. Your geekier beer drinkers are going to be the same no matter where you go in the world. They'll be looking for crazy beers, or what they are really into, caring deeply about the brewing process. Then you go a couple notches below that, and you have people who don't really care about how the beer is made. They want to drink local, and drink a flavorful beer. Those people in the Midwest are drinking cream ales and amber lagers. Out here, that group of people is almost exclusively drinking IPAs. And the taps in both areas reflect the demand. Those making IPAs in the Midwest are crushing it. In fact, the brewery I came from makes a great IPA. They opened in 2006, and they're going to break 20,000 barrels this year, and they are leaning heavy on hoppy beer. I think variety is more important to Midwest brewers, even if they could make more money selling hoppier beers (laughs)."

Narrows Brewing's Giant Pacific Octopus IPA is the star beer at Narrows, in terms of volume sold.

Currently, Walts is in the lab making sour beers with two wine barrels. He also has six bourbon barrels from Kentucky and two from Gig Harbor's Heritage Distillery (in which he aged the anniversary beer) and as the barrels get stripped of flavor, he'll use them to make sour beers. Walts is a big fan of Engine House No 9's sours.

"Although, I don't want to see sour beers go the way of IPA and become a commodity," he says.

What he does want to see is everyone drinking his one-year anniversary beer, the Barrel Aged Black Saison, which he first brewed last autumn with 10.5 percent ABV.

"I took that beer and aged it in the Heritage barrels," Walts describes. "In those barrels that Saison yeast, which was insane to begin with, continued to ferment for four months so it's 10.9 now and has a really great wood flavor. We bottled it in 22s and got four or five cases worth out of those two barrels."

He's also got yeast on order for an Oktoberfest beer for a September release.

But, it's summer, and Narrows Brewing will host an outdoor one-year anniversary party Saturday titled "Breakers Ball," a continuation of its nautical motif. The brewery has unconstrained views of the Narrows Bridge and nearby waterways, in which to drink their Galloping Gertie Golden Ale, Siren's Call Hibiscus Saison and Post-Tension Porter, just to name a few. Stephanie Anne Johnson will perform before an outdoor dance party Saturday. Local food trucks and vendors will be on site.

Walts, of course, will be there, too. As the sun sets over the mountains he'll probably pinch himself, if he's not underneath the Marina checking the status of his barrels.

BREAKERS BALL, 6-11 p.m., Saturday, July 19, Narrows Brewing Company, 9007 S. 19th St., Tacoma, $10, 253.327.1400

Filed under: New Beer Column, Tacoma,
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Served, a blog by the Weekly Volcano, is the region’s feedbag of fresh chow daily, local restaurant news, New Beer Column, bar and restaurant openings and closings, breaking culinary news and breaking culinary ground - all brought to the table with a dollop of Internet frivolity on top.

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