Steve Luke is pouring stouts in a colorful, industrial tasting room just a couple of block’s north of the iconic Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington. He’s sporting a warm beanie over his long blonde hair and a zip-up hoodie with a rainbow patch sewn on to it. Luke is the kind of guy who marches to his own beat, which—if not apparent from his funky brewery space and eclectic attire—becomes obvious when you get to know the beer at his Belltown neighborhood brewery, Cloudburst Brewing.
“This is the Dumpster Fire smoked oatmeal stout,” he proclaims. “We use two different types of smoked malt for this beer, cherry wood–smoked and a little bit of peated malt. It’s pretty mild, and it finishes fairly fruity. We didn’t want to overpower with smoke.”
Smoked beers don’t really sell well, Luke says, but he thought it would be fun to brew the style anyway. “It’s one of those labors of love,” he says.
Another one of those love labors is Cloudburst’s Pilsner, Happy Little Clouds. “We always reserve a fermentation tank for our horribly inefficient Pilsner that takes anywhere from eight to nine weeks from brew to package,” Luke says. “This beer is our bastardized German Pilsner.” “Bastardized” because it is brewed with Mosaic and other American hops in addition to a touch of noble hops, Luke explains. “We use Magnum, Saaz, Mandarina, Loral, and Mosaic—so some old German, some new German, and then a twist of New American hops. We definitely keep the Mosaic in check. We want to give the aroma a slightly fruity and tropical twist but not overwhelm the style.” In addition to going easy on the Mosaic, they also adjust the water slightly to give a touch more minerality and snap to the beer.
In case you were wondering, the name Happy Little Clouds is indeed a reference to Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting show that ran on PBS from 1983 through 1994. “I grew up watching it, which usually resulted in screaming frustration as I could never master and replicate what Bob Ross made seem so easy,” Luke jokes. “And that perceived ease yet high degree of difficulty carries over to Pilsners—the best ones taste so effortless, but as brewers we know how difficult that style is to master.”
Happy Little Clouds is the only beer that Cloudburst tries to keep on tap year-round. “Both Brewer Zach Kornfeld and I have come from production brewing backgrounds [both most recently at Elysian Brewing]. Even though I think experimental brewing and recipe development are the most fun parts about brewing, there’s still a part of us that remembers the feeling and pride of repetition and perfecting recipes like a production brewery does,” he says. “We always get to revisit this Pilsner, to tweak it, figure out how to make it better.”
Next, Luke pours Batch #9 of the Market Fresh series, a saison brewed with plums and green cardamom. The beer is aromatically spicy with juicy sweetness. Every couple of months, Luke and Kornfeld shop at Seattle’s Pike Place Market for ingredients for their next Market Fresh Series. “We just go down to the market and grab some ingredients. We try not to think about it until the day-of.”
The Market Fresh Series, and most of Cloudburst’s beers for that matter, don’t last long in the tasting room. Luke and Kornfeld brew them on their 10-barrel system, often taking risks on process and ingredients. “That risk is minimized because we brew such small batches,” Luke says.
They might not always be available, but the Cloudburst beers are remembered for their bold names and the causes they support. For example, 10 percent of the revenue generated from the Rhythm Method IPA was donated to Planned Parenthood. The Alternative Facts IPA was purportedly brewed with 1.5 million pounds of Centennial, Citra, Amarillo, 522, and Mandarina Bavaria hops.
Another unforgettable Cloudburst beer is the Swedish Prison Orgy, a Triple IPA hopped with six different hops. “This is not a country-club beer, and it’s not going to apologize,” says this beer’s description. Arguably, that’s a statement that applies to all of Cloudburst’s beers.
“It always cracks me up when people are shocked at our beer names [and descriptions] or at our causes because we all look like hippies,” Luke jokes. “That’s one of the side perks to owning your own business—we get to play around with beer names. And we get to donate to whoever the hell we like.”
They get to brew whatever the hell they like, too. “We don’t really distribute outside of Seattle, either, so we can brew what we like with a longer leash for playing around with new techniques, or hops, or other ingredients,” says Luke. “We don’t really have a shtick when it comes to beer styles.”
They might not have a shtick, but Cloudburst has a lot of soul. “Our building is 120 years old. We tried to source used equipment. It’s not the prettiest, and it’s not the warmest space as far as the lawn furniture goes, but it feels good to be in an old building and making something new in it.”
The brewhouse at Cloudburst came from Silver City Brewing in Bremerton, Washington. There’s also a fermentor from Fremont Brewing, a couple of grundy tanks from some other Seattle breweries, a walk-in cooler found on Craigslist from a northern Washington distributor, a hot liquor tank that used to be an old dairy tank from Wisconsin that Luke says he found on a sketchy auction website.
With all these finds, Cloudburst opened for less than $700,000. “My grandfather was a fisherman in New England, so I like grit,” Luke says. “I’m skeptical of new and flashy and polished things. But maybe that’s just the New England chip on my shoulder. My philosophy is to start at the bottom, work your way up, learn everything you can, move on somewhere else, rinse, and repeat until you think you have enough to go out on your own.”
Luke’s Northeastern background also explains his appreciation for haze. Cloudburst’s IPAs tend to be hazy from the hops polyphenols due to large rates of dry-hopping. “While we don’t filter our beer, we do cold condition it before packaging and stabilize the haze with a fining agent. Those finings bind to yeast and large proteins and then precipitate them out.”
The IPAs at Cloudburst can’t really be qualified under one subcategory of IPA, Luke continues. “They’re more bitter and less muddled than [New England–style] IPAs but not as resiny or harsh as traditional West Coast–style IPAs nor as malty as traditional Northwest IPAs,” he says. “We tend to gravitate toward bright, fruit-forward hops flavors, a present but in-check bitterness, and a dry, crisp finish.”
Most of the beers at Cloudburst are flavor-forward and aggressive, Luke says, which is why he likes the brewery’s name so much. “The meaning of the word resonated with me—‘a sudden, unexpected onslaught of rain,’ ” he says. “That carries over to flavors in beer.”
PHOTOS: COURTESY CLOUDBURST BREWING