Chad Kuehl has beer in his blood. He grew up in Iowa, where his grandfather, a German immigrant, owned Kuehl’s Tavern. “When I was young, my brother and I used to run around behind the bar in the tavern,” Kuehl remembers. “We were very comfortable being around crowds of people in that setting, being around beer. The whole pub, beer, tavern thing was ingrained in me from a very young age.”
Kuehl met his wife and business partner, Colleen, at the University of Iowa. Engineering and nonprofit jobs would relocate them on the West Coast where they established semi-permanent residence at their “third place” at Rogue Ale House and served Anchor Steam at their wedding.
They dreamed of making their own rendition of the California Common style when they eventually opened their own brewery, but they had to wander around the globe a bit more before that would become a reality.
“We saved up for a couple of years and then took off with our backpacks,” Chad says. “We traveled through Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India, and South America. We spent thirteen months staying in hostels, sleeping in train stations, and writing the business plan for the brewery, which at the time was called Kuehl Brewing because we hadn’t landed on Wander yet.”
The name Wander was a natural fit for the backpacking couple, and it nodded more broadly to the curiosities the Kuehls intended to explore with their beers. “The name Wander suggests that we don’t put limitations on beer styles,” Chad says. “You’re not going to walk into Wander and see just a blonde ale, a pale, a stout, an amber. You are going to see Belgian styles; you’re going to see a rauchbier, or a fruited kettle sour, or a barrel-aged saison. And, of course, you’ll see some IPAs and a DIPA.”
While Chad and crew do regularly brew some staples such as the Wanderale Belgian blonde, brewed with Belgian abbey yeast, and the Shoe Toss Rye IPA that’s dry-hopped with whole cone Ahtanum hops, the fourteen-tap beer list in Wander’s tasting room is ever-evolving. “We are constantly pushing ourselves to try new styles,” Chad says. “Whether it be something simplistic and traditional, such as smoked beer, or more exotic and technical, such as the kriek we just released.”
The Addo Kriek fermented in one of Wander’s oak foeders, inoculated with a mix of yeast and bacteria and aged on Montmormency cherries. Addo Kriek is one of many beers that have come out of the Wander Barrel Project and one of the many sours that Wander brews—from kettle sours such as the Raspberry Millie, to barrel-aged, mixed-fermentation beers such as Addo, to now spontaneously fermented coolship projects.
Wander was one of the first, if not the first, brewery in Washington State to use a production-sized coolship. They were also one of the first breweries in the state to use large-scale foeders. Wander’s wood cellar holds 100 barrels of varying origins and formats, including two 620-gallon American oak foeders.
“We did some small-scale coolship yeast capturing, and the yeasts and bacteria we got were definitely funky and Brett-y, kind of cider-like,” says Chad. “They attenuated out highly to yield this dry, cider-forward Brett-y-ness, so we said, “Okay, now we’ll go and build a 20-barrel coolship and see if anything happens.”
Wander’s first coolship beers are currently maturing in barrels, and could be for a couple years. “We’re just being patient,” Chad says.
Patience is a big part of Wander’s business model, Colleen says. “We’re taking risks on beers that might not pay off financially but make us creatively happy. Our biggest focus isn’t making money or growing as large as possible—it’s beer. We’re focused on the beer styles.”
Not to mention Wander is tapped out at just over 2,000 barrels in annual production, Chad jokes. “And we are as big as we want to be right now. For us, growth looks like growing up with our community, strengthening our relationships with employees, and constantly improving our quality. Sometimes I see the massive growth in the craft-beer industry, and I wonder how breweries can focus on growth outside of volume because they keep expanding and moving. We just built this space out 3 years ago. We’re happy where we are.”
Wander’s building (above) is truly enchanting—a historic ship-building warehouse with lots of natural light, tall ceilings, and bright turquoise walls. On clear days, the doors are open to a comfortable outside patio, and fresh smells of earth and salt waft into the tasting room. “You can smell the ocean around here,” says Chad. “You can smell the mountains; you can smell the trees.”
During the springtime, the temperature and climate in Bellingham are perfect for cooling wort in the coolship, Chad says. “This is a very outdoorsy town, and people here have a strong sense of place and the environment. I want to make beer that tastes like Bellingham.”
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PHOTO AT TOP: RAELEE MARIE/COURTESY WANDER BREWING