Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen: Embracing Terroir in Washington’s Skagit Valley
Chuckanut Brewery’s brand-new facility, which opened in September 2016 and is called the South Nut, is in an unlikely spot. About an hour south of Bellingham, Wash., home of Chuckanut’s longtime brewery and kitchen, the bright-red building stands alone, rising out of a flat, featureless plain.
But the Port of Skagit lured Chuckanut’s award-winning brewmaster, Will Kemper, out here for a very good reason: Burlington, Wash., is in the heart of the fertile Skagit Valley.
The South Nut is around the corner from a groundbreaking local malt facility, Skagit Valley Malting, and down the street from The Bread Lab, a Washington State University research facility that studies thousands of lines of wheat, barley, buckwheat, and other small grains to benefit both farmers and end users (that is to say, brewers and bakers).
So rather than being in the middle of nowhere, the South Nut is within walking distance of some of the best grain—and grain research—in the country. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, which, knowing Will Kemper, makes perfect sense.
Kemper is a pioneering Northwestern brewer who has served as an inspiration and a mentor to a generation of Western beer makers. He was one of the first craft brewers on the West Coast when he and his wife, Mari, started Thomas Kemper Brewery with Andy Thomas and his wife, Laura, in 1984.
After a change in management, the Kempers left the brewery in 1989. From then until 2008, Will worked as consultant, helping craft breweries all over the world install and run their systems. The couple opened Chuckanut’s North Nut in 2008, quickly and quietly racking up awards, including, most recently, six at the North American Beer Awards in June. The Kempers opened the South Nut just on the cusp of the company’s 10th anniversary in 2018.
Much in Demand
You might ask why Kemper, of all the early craft brewers, has been in such demand to set up breweries everywhere from Istanbul to Brazil? Because his systems are energy-efficient and meticulous, and, unlike most small craft brewing systems, are set up to produce both ales and his favorite malt-forward lagers.
That’s why the Port of Skagit’s 50-year land lease, complete with all land-related construction (drains, electric, water, and gas), was such an enticement. “This building is easily twice the size [of the Bellingham location],” says Will Kemper as he opens the door from the South Nut’s sunny taproom into the production facility. “We made it entirely to our specifications. There are a lot of options for growth.”
The fermentation floor has room for two more rows of tanks (a more than 200 percent increase in volume), in addition to the 10 existing fermentors. Known for its Pilsner, Vienna Lager, and Dunkel Lager, that extra space is important when you note that crisp, clean lagers need an extra two to three weeks in the tank to allow the yeasts and proteins to precipitate out of the beer.
Making acclaimed lager beers is a delicate and precise affair, which is arguably one of the reasons that many small craft brewers have chosen to leave the style’s production to larger companies like, say, Budweiser. But Kemper holds a bachelor of science in chemical engineering from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and he delights in precision and order. While many small craft brewers still plot out their equipment rotations and brewing schedules on whiteboards, Kemper’s equipment is almost entirely computerized.
Standing in what could be referred to as “the control room,” Kemper points to a computer monitor, where a graphic represents each separate fermentation tank, along with its set temperature. Through this system, each tank’s temperature can be converted into graphs, with which Kemper can track the tank’s temperature changes that indicate the beer’s entire fermentation history and cold conditioning process.
“We can control the reduction for the fermentation temperature by one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit per hour,” he says, noting the same level of temperature consistency can be achieved while beer ages in tanks. “We can see when we’re 0.2, 0.3 degrees off. That’s huge.”
Today, Kemper runs the brewery with Chuckanut’s head of operations, Michael Toomes. And he continues to share his knowledge with eager brewers. Sometimes students from Skagit Valley College come to work at the South Nut; Kemper has also taught many classes with the American Brewers Guild in Vermont and at the Craft Brewers Conference.
Kemper’s influence is also evident in the computerized or ergonomically engineered brewing systems of his mentees, like the successful and influential second-gen craft brewers Kevin Davey of Wayfinder Beer in Portland, Ore., and Bryan Cardwell and Josh pFriem of pFriem Family Brewers in Hood River, Ore.
“Taking a technical approach to brewing a recipe has had a huge impact on how I brew today,” says Davey, who worked at Chuckanut from 2010–2012. “[Will Kemper] takes big brewery techniques and applies them to small breweries, and he does it really well.”
Soon, that influence will extend to the use of local grains, grown and malted specifically for beer. Kemper is working on developing a seasonal line of ales with Skagit Valley Malts. “This is a unique opportunity to use these pioneering new malts for our beers,” says Kemper, “and create beers that express the terroir of our region.”
10 40-barrel fermentors
12 20-barrel fermentors
4 10-barrel fermentors
Pilsner Lager: Chuckanut’s fresh and snappy version is in a league of its own. With a crisp body and fluffy white head, it has medaled twice at the Great American Beer Fest. 5.0% ABV
Kölsch German Ale: Top fermented and brewed with Pilsner malt in the tradition of Cologne, Germany, Chuckanut’s Kölsch is one of its most popular beers. Its many accolades include three GABF medals. 4.5% ABV
Vienna Lager: A grain bill made up of half Vienna malts gives this delicate and crisp lager its light bronze color and toasty, toffee flavors. A subtle hop bitterness provides balance. 5.5% ABV
Dunkel Lager: Deep, dark mahogany brown in color with sweet coffee, chocolate, and licorice notes, the Dunkel Lager is one of Chuckanut’s most popular and most recognized beers—it’s won seven medals since 2009. 4.7% ABV
Export Stout: Somewhere in between an Irish Stout and an Imperial Stout in strength, Chuckanut’s Export Stout has notes of molasses and dried fruit with a rounded malt finish. 6.6% ABV ■