By: Tobias Coughlin-Bogue

 

Mt. Rainier looms large over Seattle. On a clear day, it is prominently visible from nearly any elevated poinelk head 2t in the city. Our city is famous for its bad traffic, but there are plenty of freeway off-ramps I’m happy to be stuck on, if only to enjoy the magnificent views of the mountain they afford.

This summer, the mountain has been “out” quite a bit, and with each glimpse of the majestic peak I’ve felt increasingly drawn to it. I finally made the trip out for a quick lake hike and overnight and I’m so glad I did. The drive to Mowich Lake, a great base of operations for day hiking the outskirts of the mountain, takes one through Wilkeson, a picturesque old mining town home to the now defunct Carbon Glacier Distillery. After my hiking trip, which was too short and sweet to stop for booze, I made a second venture to investigate the distillery.

When I arrived, it was closed. I ventured next door to ask around at the Wilkeson Saloon and discovered that Carbon Glacier had been sold off to a larger distilling company. After drowning my sorrow with a taste of the last remaining bottle of Carbon Glacier botanical gin and a great stout from super local MT Head Brewing, I managed to salvage the journey with the discovery of another gem of the foothills. One of the locals at the saloon told me to head over to Elk Head Brewing Co. in nearby Buckley.

What a great discovery! Elk Head is a very small family-run brewery in an equally small foothills town. Their brewery is named for the famous rock formation near the crest of Mt. Rainier that resembles an elk’s head, and the mountain theme permeates everything they do. They’re tucked into an otherwise nondescript industrial park. Their beer, however, is anything but nondescript.

The most important manifestation of the mountain isn’t the clever names—their chili beer is named Blast Zone and their pale is Glacier, for example. No, it’s in their use of locally foraged ingredients to make weird, offbeat beers. The beer that originally enticed me to visit was their Chantrale, an earthy, funky ale brewed with Washington’s iconic chantrelle mushrooms. I’ve had chantrelles in an insane variety of culinary preparations, but never in a beer.

elk head 5This type of esoteric brewing isn’t weirdness for weirdness’ sake—Rich Dirk, owner and brewmaster, is one of the most unpretentious people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting—it’s just a smart, interesting use of what’s locally available. Where does Dirk get his chantrelles? “We pick ‘em ourselves,” he says. And indeed, most of the stranger brews were not something he’d been plotting, but rather the delicious offspring of serendipity.

The Elk Dandee, which tastes like something between dandelion wine and barley wine, though it is technically neither, is brewed with dandelions that Dirk pays a neighbor girl to gather for him. It weighs in at 9%, though it’s so smooth you wouldn’t know it, with a complex midpalate of herbs and malt and an intense and strangely pleasant vegetal finish.

In the past, Dirk has brewed a nettle beer with nettles that he and a couple buddies spent “3 hours drinking and a half hour picking” to obtain. It’s called Sting Ya, for obvious reasons. He initially made it at the behest of an insistent customer on the condition that if it didn’t sell that customer would buy the entire batch. It was gone in two weeks.

He’s also done a huckleberry ale with berries picked off the slopes of Rainier, similarly originating with a persistent regular. He agreed to do the beer if the person clamoring for it made it easy on him and brought him a 5 gallon bucket of berries. In Seattle that might be a pretty tall order, but it being Buckley, he had his huckleberries straightaway.

Even their Glacier, the 100% glacier hop pale ale, is another happy accident of their “take what you can get”elk head 3 mindset. It came about thanks to a hop shortage and a lucky drop-in from a hop farmer with only one variety to sell: glacier. Not only did the hop’s name happen to be very thematically apt, it made a great, crisp pale ale. I took one of their “crowlers”—32oz cans popular as a step down from full growlers—as a souvenir of my visit, and enjoyed it outdoors on a hot summer night, when its brisk, gently hoppy bite could be put to its fullest use.

As refreshing as the beer is, it’s even more refreshing to see a brewery putting local ingredients to such good use. Obviously, Washington’s bounty of good hops is a big part of the massive craft beer scene here, but Elk Head proves that good hops are only the beginning.

 

To check this out further, call Elk Head Brewery at (360) 829-2739.