|A FAR-OUT LAND OF BEER, BEAUTY AND THE BIZARRE
Let's get this out of the way: Seattle is a city fueled by beer. Lots of it. Everywhere. Wander anywhere and a brewpub, alehouse or drinking establishment will beckon you. It's with this thought that I boarded a train in San Francisco last spring for a pilgrimage to the Promise Land of malt and hops... the epicenter of brewing and beer connoisseurs... an endless sea of tap handles.
Seasoned travelers say it's best to travel with a theme, and beer was going to be mine. But a second theme would eventually emerge which, in addition to my mission of finding the perfect beer, would guide my journey. Yes, I began daily searches for heaping helpings of the bizarre, all hidden behind the facade of normality.
I learned, between sips, that behind Seattle's veiled attempt to appear normal, was an underbelly of weird at work. Yeah, there's the natural beauty of the surrounding Olympia and Cascade Mountains, the fantastic views of Puget Sound. But forget all that. Remember this: despite what they tell you, Seattle is surreal -- and best washed down with a beer.
You Say You Want A Revolution?
Seattle has liquid aplenty (think coffee, rain and Puget Sound). But it's beer that started a war whose dust is only beginning to settle. As the western front of the "microbrew revolution" (yes, people do call it that), Seattle is considered by most to be the place where it all began.
Although Seattle's first brewery opened in the early 1860s, it wasn't until the 1980s that the town earned its brewing reputation. It all started when Burt Grant, a feisty, outspoken brewer who entered the industry in the 1940s, opened America's first brewpub, the Yakima Brewing & Malting Company, just south of Seattle and started producing his pungent Scottish Ale. At the same time, Redhook Ale Brewery converted an abandoned firehouse into a brewery and churned forth fruity, Belgian style ales. Other competitors followed, seriously upping the ante and creating a craft brew craze that in time would spread across the nation.
Pike Place Market: Flying Fish and Men With Hammers
Pike Place Market is Seattle's pulse and a one-of-a-kind world unto itself. Described as the Marrakech of the Northwest, the market was launched in 1907 and has been running continuously since. Today it's a kinetic profusion of people, energy and individual enterprise. Flowers for sale, pottery, pastries, flying salmon, cigars, teacups and t-shirts. A ragtag band plays Jimmy Buffet from ancient instruments. Shoppers jockey with traffic along the two-and-a-half-mile stretch of Pike Place. As many as 40,000 people visit the market daily.
The place you want to be is Pike Pub & Brewery, located just off the Pike Market. It's a mind-blowing panoply of all things beer-related. Having no idea what to expect, I was immediately impressed by the number of beers on tap. House beers like Pike Pale, Pike Street XXXXX Stout (as much flavor as any human can handle) and Pike I.P.A. It also boasts many hard-to-find imports, including Belgian fruit lambics, which flow freely from the taps.
The menu at Pike Pub is unlike any other. A trailblazing array of beer-infused cuisine fills the beer lover's menu. Pike Place XXXXX Stout Oyster and Sirloin Pie, Pike Weisse Four Cheese Tortellini, pizza crusts made with spent grain (brewing refuse) and Stout Brownie a la Mode are among the choices. After eating, you can step into their humidor and cigar room for a fine selection of stoggies and smokes.
Pioneer Square: Raging Fires, Opium Dens and Exploding Toilets
With its ornate red-brick buildings and old-fashioned streetlights, this district is reminiscent of the Old West. But don't let the quaint exterior fool you. This is where Seattle's weird underbelly is literally underground.
Seattle's first settlers came to the area in the mid 1800s. Surrounded by lumber, Seattle built itself from wood. Rapidly felled trees were slid down a hill to a lumber yard; hence it was coined "Skid Road." The great Seattle Fire of 1889 leveled Downtown Seattle in a day. The city immediately rebuilt itself with a street level about 12 feet higher than before, thus improving drainage. The result was a maze-like world of elevated streets -- which required ladders for crossing -- and a surreal underground world that served as a shopping mall, opium den and a center for organized crime.
Then there was the plumbing. Seattle's founding fathers didn't grasp a basic principle -- toilets at low elevations, plus sewage collecting on higher ground, equaled a toilet fiasco of exploding proportions.
One of Seattle's best brewery tours is at the ever-enterprising Pyramid Brewery. Located in the shadow of the Kingdome just south of Pioneer Square, the facility is a marriage of the Thomas Kemper Brewery and the Kalama-based Pyramid, both owned by Pyramid Breweries. The tour provides a peek into this growing enterprise and is more dynamic than most brew tours. Plan your visit to avoid Kingdome events, and you'll find the atmosphere and parking to be more relaxed and pleasant. Food served in the Pyramid Alehouse includes standard pub favorites along with salads and pizzas. The tour is free, and for $2 visitors may keep their souvenir tasting glass.
Belltown: Boogie Nights and Space Needles
"Back when you were in school, if you wanted attention you raised your hand. That's what the Space Needle will do for the [1962 World's] Fair and Seattle," said Joe Gandy, used car salesman and Space Needle enthusiast. He was not alone it that thought. And in just over three decades, the Space Needle has become the supreme symbol of Seattle -- the equivalent to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. If it seems absurd at first, don't worry. This strange 600-foot-tall flying-saucer-on-a-tripod that anchors the Belltown district will grow on you.
Belltown is a traditionally bohemian neighborhood experiencing gentrification. A brightly painted garbage can near First Avenue and Virginia Street says it all: "Move to Belltown. See the artists. Buy a condo. Kick the artists out." By day, office workers share the sidewalks with panhandlers, homeless and low-income residents; by night, the city turns into a bustling mecca for patrons flocking to the city's hottest clubs, bars and restaurants.
Hungry? Avoid the expensive circulating restaurant atop the Needle and go to the Belltown Pub. With its refined pub fare and healthy selection of Washington and Oregon microbrews, the decor tempts you to linger in one of its spacious booths and survey the crowd. Also worth checking out is McMenamin's Pub & Brewery, with its roots in Portland, the recently opened brewpub serves up several house brews, including Terminator Stout and Roy Street Special Bitter.
If you're up for some quintessential Seattle weirdness, you might want to check out Crocodile Cafe -- a great place to catch live music and bizarre atmosphere over a beer. Kitschey art crams every corner and literally drops off the ceiling and walls. Another funky stop is the Cyclops. Cluttered with detritus and walls that glow purple and yellow, there's an endless drone of bizarre music coming from the sound system.
North of Downtown: Microbrew Mania and Car-Eating Trolls
The districts north of downtown contain the majority of Seattle's brewpubs. Back in the late '80s, before everyone was spouting the glories of craft brewing, Big Time Brewery was quietly putting out some of the best ales in the Northwest. Located in Seattle's University District, the pub is loud, open and spacious. Basic pub fare here. Thanks to an abundance of stained woods -- complete with faux-antique beer ads -- the interior smacks of the collegiate experience. Try the Rainfest E.S.B. and Bhagwan's Best I.P.A.
Fremont has been called "The Center of The Universe," home to many coffee shops, bookstores and restaurants. It's also home to the car-eating troll, a large VW grabbing monster beneath the George Washington Memorial Bridge (a.k.a. "Suicide Bridge") and one of many examples of unusual street art throughout the neighborhood. Look for a neon Rapunzel gracing the window in the Fremont Bridge tower and the "Waiting For The Interurban," a statuary crowd awaiting a bus at 34th and Fremont.
While you're there, visit the Redhook Ale Brewery, which calls itself the Northwest's "largest microbrewery" (that's an oxymoron, isn't it?). The highly automated facility is a testament to brewing technology. Take the tour, which addresses Redhook's new alliance with Anheiser Busch (disdainfully dubbed "Budhook" by micro loyalists), and eat basic bar fare in its Trolleyman Pub.
Ballard sports a couple of spots for the thirsty. Hale's Brewery & Pub, really more a taproom than a pub, features nothing but Hale's ales: Pale Ale, Special Bitter, Celebration Porter, Honey Wheat, Moss Bay Amber, Moss Bay Extra, Moss Bay Stout and two seasonal inventions, such as winter's Southbound Porter and Wee Heavy or summertime pale and dark wheat ales. The pizzas here are popular, and the crostini with tapenade is delectable.
Just down the way is Maritime Pacific Brewing Company, which offers a line of handcrafted ales and a selection of seasonal brews. The regular lineup includes Flagship Red Ale, Nitewatch Dark Ale, Islander Pale Ale, Clipper Golden Wheat and Salmon Bay Bitter. Both regular and seasonal brews (as well as T-shirts, caps and trinkets) are available at the brewery store. Tours are offered Saturdays on the hour from 1 pm to 4 pm.
Many Seattle attractions are easily accessed by foot or by bus from any downtown hotel. Most of the city and the suburbs are laced with bicycle routes. For more information, contact the Seattle Visitor's Bureau, 520 Pike Street, Suite 1300, Seattle, Washington 98101: 206/461-5800. Visitor information: 206/461-5400. Visitor hotline for lodging information: 800/535-7071.