Once upon a time, the Pacific Northwest was a land of breweries. Rainier, Olympia, Lucky Lager and Henry Weinhard’s stood for our fertile lands, industrious nature and leisurely pursuits. The beers — robust in flavor but easy to drink — represented the type of beer American brewers brewed best before Prohibition.
But then there was Prohibition, which Washington embraced four years before the national ban. And then there was the corporate buy-out, which saw Olympia pass between the hands of Pabst, Stroh’s and, finally, Miller. First went the diversity of flavor, then the breweries themselves closed — cans labeled Rainier and Olympia are still on the supermarket shelf, but they’re filled with the same beer, brewed in Irwindale, Calif.
Which is where Bernie Duenwald and Graydon Brown, president and brewmaster, respectively, of Golden Hills Brewing Company, come in.
In their new brewery in Airway Heights, the men are trying to revive the mighty lager. In their own way.
“We don’t think there’s another beer like this in the market place,” says Duenwald. “Our beers don’t fit any category.”
Or, rather, they cross so many categories that no one contains them. Lizzie’s Lager, one of the three beers the men have begun marketing, is earthy and smoky with hints of tobacco. It strikes first as something close to ESB (extra special bitter) until its very end, when it disappears into what it truly is — a crisp lager.
Clem’s Gold, a premium gold lager, combines the flavors of a pilsner and an Oktoberfest, both styles of lagers. It starts malty, moves to the sides of the tongue with a tingle and finishes dry and sharp, lacking, thankfully, both bitter and sweet components. Imagine describing a Bud like that. Impossible.
The men also make Ben’s Brown, and next winter they hope to brew Wig’s Wheat, a filtered wheat lager, and XXL, a strong (13 to 15 percent alcohol) lager similar to a barley wine.
“Standard brewing philosophy is if you make a beer with a lot of body, it ends sweet,” says Brown. “And if you make a beer that’s crisp, you can’t get body. I came up with a process that allows me to get a rather large amount of body, equivalent to the body of an IPA, but with the finish of a light beer.”
The men met almost 20 years ago in the master brewers program at the Siebel Institute in Chicago. Over the years, they kept in contact while Duenwald continued working at the Great Western Malting Co. in Vancouver, Wash., and then the U.S. Grain Council in Washington, D.C. Brown labored at various breweries, including Anheuser-Busch and Anderson Valley Brewing Company.
After years of experiments in Duenwald’s garage and discussing recipes over the phone, Brown relocated to the area last May and Golden Hills was official.
By the end of their first year of operation, the brewery will have produced 900 barrels of beer. It’s a small amount, compared to the world’s largest brewery, Anheuser-Busch InBev, which creates 300 brands of beer and produces an estimated 9 billion gallons of beer a year.
Not that the men want to emulate the global behemoth of Anheuser-Busch — though they wouldn’t mind the profits. What they want is to mine the middle ground between the Everyman Budweiser drinkers and the select Full Sail quaff-ers.
The way Brown describes it, this middle ground is fertile. After the corporate breweries pushed out the region’s old beer makers, some locals reacted by crafting a beer so different than the big beers that no one would ever confuse the beers: Here is a domestic, here is a micro. The domestics got more lager-y (watery and lacking flavor) while the micros got craftier (filling with overpowering flavors). And never the twain shall meet.
The gulf between the two is wide, the men say, and Golden Hills is ready to fill it.
“We’re bringing beer to the market that ale drinkers will enjoy, because they’re going to be different and flavorful, and we’ll grab some of the mainstream drinkers. Take my son,” Duenwald says. “He’s in his 30s, living in Seattle. He’ll start the night out drinking a Mac & Jack’s or a Mirror Pond. He might even have two of them. But when they’re having one of their all-night fun sessions, they’ll switch to drinking Bud Light. We make a beer that has the flavor but you can drink it all night.”