Not All Breweries Are Created Equal. Trash Beer in Cap Hill
As an avid drinker and lover of all beer, it is hard for me to be publically critical of beer that I just don't think is great. It is my stance that rating beers is pointless. Instead I focus on rating the experience of a brewery, and that includes, as one of its many facets, beer quality. If you read my Google Reviews (btw, I'm a pretty serious contributor to google maps so maybe check it out!) or pay much attention to my ranking system, you might have noticed that the worst rating I ever give a brewery is 3 stars. If you are paying attention, then you know a 3 star rating means that I am not very satisfied with a place, but only going so far sorta waters down my message – that there are good breweries on good bike routes, and there are bad breweries on bad routes. Every time I do a route, I finish it tipsy and well exercised, basically always in a great mood. In that sense, there really is no such thing as a bad bike and brew route. Except that there is, and if I don't get real with the tough love, there isn't really much that I can offer you as a critic. So with this truth in mind, I present you with a trash route that simply isn't worth your time.
Central District and Capitol Hill
Total Distance: 2.5 Miles
Route Type: City
Elevation: 154 ft Up, 75 ft Down
Before I go any further, it is worth mentioning that what I am about to say shouldn't keep you from trying this route or any of the breweries on it. If you never had any intention to ride to Ballard or Woodinville to try some of the good routes, perhaps because you live right in Central District and this is the route nearest you, then you should definitely still try this route out. If you are a completionist trying to do every single route in Seattle, you still should try this one. I'm also not saying that all the beer on the journey is bad or that the ride itself is bad. The climbs and descents of Cap Hill have their own charm, and some of the beer here is worth seeking out. All I am saying is that taken as a whole and compared to other routes, this route is a 1 star out of 5. All this to say, I am sorry, Standard Brewing. Your place where the beer is perfectly good, the taproom is nice, and your people are great, is a place worth visiting. It's just so god damned out of the way, there is no good route to bring people there. I'm also sorry to Kevin, who excitedly rode this route with me for the first time and is possibly quite sad to hear it's on the bottom of my list.
We start at Standard Brewing. It's a huge pain to get to, being situated right on the edge of the International District. A few miles of city riding are going to separate you from wherever you are and your start point, which is not fun in anyone's book. The bike lanes on Second Ave will take you south if that helps, but for the most part, you are on your own as you go up and down the hills of southeast Seattle and under the freeway. You start at Standard, which is admittedly in a neat neighborhood. It had the vibe of being right on the edge of getting gentrified, that is to say it's lost a bit of its rough edges, but not all of its charms. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some new breweries open up there soon. The other reason we start at Standard is that they have the best beer by a long shot of the three breweries we'll be visiting today. A few good beers will take the edge off of some of crummier beers you'll be having soon. Then we try to ride around the hill to get to Optimism Brewing, then up a bit to cap off Cap Hill at Outer Planet. I wouldn’t judge you for trying a couple detours to explore a bit more of this great neighborhood hood while you are there. It's Cap Hill so it's gonna be a bit hilly, but it's nothing you can't handle. Unfortunately, the part of Cap Hill you are riding on is on a grid that is offset from the slope of the hill in such a way that there is no route that can go around the hill without some wasteful elevation changes. Despite that, this route is direct, and takes the fewest possible needless hills that an hour of poking around a topographical map can find. You can modify the route to be simpler with fewer turns if you want, but you do so at the expense of the least hilly possible route. The hardest part here are a few missing bike lanes. You'll be riding in the road the whole time, though it's some of the easier city riding with a handful a well-marked lanes.
This place is newly expanded and you can tell. It clearly has some growing to do to fit into its new space. Throw some stickers up there, scuff it up around the edges. Chip some glassware. Ok don't do that last thing, but maybe you get my point. The old place used to be a grungy garage just barely big enough for people to stand around and drink. You pulled right up to the brewer standing behind a bar to order. Now it's not like that. It has a fancy new taproom with fresh paint you can almost still smell, and empty shelves just begging to be cluttered up with something. The patio is fantastic. Plenty of seating, picnic tables, and umbrellas. They even had the water fan blowing to keep it cool when I was there in the prime heat of August. There beer was solidly average and the menu was solidly standard. Remember what I mean when I say average – most breweries brew average beer. Standard's beer is fully enjoyable.
Overall, I'd say that this place has huge potential for charm. It's still a bit too fresh for my liking, but there is not a doubt in my mind that in a few months, this place might single handedly transform its corner of Central District. It might be able to leverage its biggest handicap, that it is so isolated being the only brewery in the area, into an advantage and become a destination brewery. Good Luck, Standard. Let's ride on.
When I first stepped foot in this place I just about had a mental breakdown. It was that amazing. A brewery right in the center of Cap Hill, a complete beer void until now, and it is the coolest brewery I have ever seen to boot. Scores of long beer hall tables all in a semi-ring around the massive, sleek brewing system. Cat walks near the ceiling where brewers work away. Modern, community-style bathrooms which are cooler than they sound. No tipping allowed – their credit card only machines don't even present you with the option. Grab a board game and chill out. Hit the food trucks. The space is massive. You probably couldn't design a place that hit more of my mental boxes for what makes a great drinking space, and that is what makes me so sad. The praise stops there.
Ever felt overwhelmed by the lingo of the beer world? No idea what an Amber tastes like, or a Stout, or a Blonde? What about Belgian Saisons? All that too confusing for you? Not to fear, Optimism has foregone confusing beer style names and replaced them with their own because their beers transcend traditional beer styles. They free you to discover what you like by writing their tasting notes and letting you "explore." Give me a fucking break. Optimism has the most pretentious beer menu I have ever seen. Try "Before the Dawn" it's dark black, strong, has roasty notes and a hint of chocolate and coffee. My teetotalling uncle knows you just described a Stout. Just write that on the menu and save me the brain power. Tasting notes are fine and certainly helpful for many, but while you are struggling to describe a Belgian Saison without saying "Belgian Saison" and in terms that sound like gibberish to anyone who hasn’t read "How to Taste Beer", the people just there for an IPA are trying to figure out what the hell they want. Even the beer nerds are sitting there trying to parse out what styles your descriptions align with, because you know that they do. You aren't better than beer styles. You aren't inventing a new type of beer with every brew. If/when my homebrew comes out tasting like crap, I can call it a chocolate-banana-cardboard float beer and declare it to be a new style, but everyone knows I'm wrong. God, even your water is on the menu with the name "Clear" and it costs a dollar. Kill me.
All this would be fine if your beer were good. If it were even average, your tongue and cheek inclusion of water on your tap menu would be funny. You could sell me a Pilsner, call it a "Bright", I'd forgo doing the mental switch in my head, drink it and enjoy. Instead I drink it, try to figure out what you meant to make, why the description seems wrong, then I have to decide if I never really liked pilsners to begin with and whether or not my choice was wrong. The whole process is infuriating. This place lends credence to a term I heard recently, "Severance Package Brewery" which refers to the breweries opened up by ex tech workers, where it turns out that a bit of money is really all you need to open a brewery and "talent" is optional. Turns out this place is owned by a couple of ex Microsofties. Triggered.
I have a little less to say about Outer Planet. It's a place that makes me sad. In some ways it is the opposite of Optimism. Same neighborhood but completely opposite in size. It's tiny. The tasting room is probably in the top 5 of smallest I have ever seen, maxing out at maybe 30 people comfortably. This does add to its charm. The owner and head brewer does it all. You order at the bar that is directly next to their fermenter. You can actually see the whole place. You get the tour just by standing there next to a couple barrels, kettles, and hoses. I love it. "The Smell" abounds. Their menu is diverse enough and that beers all have pun names about the solar system. They even adhere to beer styles just like ALMOST every other brewery (it's ok I'm calm now). It's great. The only problem is, their beer sucks. You know I don't make a statement like that lightly. I want to love this place. One of their bartenders, Leah, gave me a fantastic tour and the royal treatment. This place has everything. Except good beer. I first came here a few years ago when it first opened, it was actually the week after their soft open. I stood in the back with one of the (or is it the only?) brewers and got some great advice on homebrewing. We talked about how they just got these new big fermenters and were trying to get some beer out to have ready for their opening. I know just enough about making beer that when it turned out the beer I was drinking was sub-par, that it was probably going to be a few months before they things dialed in. Big batches take a long time to drink, but sooner or later this place was going to grow into its new brew system. I returned again a few years later (not months, I know, but years. It's hard to bother with Cap Hill when they only have a few breweries) to give them another shot. There beer was still shoddy. You could taste the cardboard in some of them, a common flaw that I struggle with in my own homebrew, but a professional brewer ought to have quashed early on. This place should have turned itself around by now, but it hadn't. It was then I learned that the head brewer and owner was selling the brewery but was still going to stay on as head brewer. This was going to give him time to focus on what he really wanted to do: brew beer, and not spend all his time running a business. Solid plan. I expect to see some big changes in this place soon. Who knows what new ownership and a freshly committed head brewer will do. For now though, it's still the last stop on a bike and brew ride littered with trash.
The route is fine. Riding around Cap Hill is a pleasure in and of itself. Standard Brewing is worth a journey to go see. Optimism and Outer Planet aren't quite… yet. We know how craft breweries are. They are run by passionate people who just want to make good beer. Bad beer can be fixed. Hopefully these places can get their beer in line. As I wrap all of this up, I want to apologize for any hurt feelings. If you love these places, then by all means ignore me. If you are like me and want to love these places but just can't yet, THEN SMASH THAT LIKE BUTTON, BOYEEE!! Thanks for reading.
Creative Commons artwork was used to make the photo on this page: Trash by AliWijaya from the Noun Project