October 16, 2020, was a hell of a day for Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Brewing Company. Within hours of each other, two of the country’s top beer competitions awarded gold medals to Burke-Gilman for double IPAs—the Alpha King Challenge gave its top honor to Fresh Hopotheosis while the Great American Beer Festival awarded gold to the hazy Hopsplainer.
Suddenly, Burke-Gilman became the most celebrated brewery you’ve never heard of.
“Even conversations in the Seattle media about who has the best IPA frequently leave us out,” says Kenneth Trease, cofounder and director of brewing operations. “But we’re right here. We just won Alpha King.”
Mostly, Trease and his team are fine with that. Their goal isn’t to be a hyped brewery or a jam-packed destination; they’d much rather fill their taproom and patio with stroller-pushing families with dogs than one-and-done beer tickers. “We want to be a cozy neighborhood joint at which you just happen to be able to get some of the best beer in Washington,” Trease says. “I think we’re there now.”
At three years old, the brewery—named for the Burke-Gilman Trail that runs behind its 2,800-square-foot facility in the city’s Laurelhurst neighborhood—is more than hitting its stride. After coming to terms with their finicky seven-barrel system, fine-tuning their yeast management, and dialing in their hopping and carbonation procedures, Burke-Gilman is putting out some of its best beer yet.
While that national recognition came first for their IPAs, the brewery embraces a wider range than that. On a weeknight in early June, the draft list featured seven IPAs, but it also included three lagers and a handful of stouts and Belgian ales. “Whatever you’re into, we’ve probably got a decent example of it, plus something you haven’t had before that you should totally try while you’re here,” Trease says. “We’ll sell you a half-pint, so you don’t have to make a big commitment, and we’re trying really hard to make sure it’s a safe environment for you.”
As word gets out, Burke-Gilman is unlikely to stay a well-kept secret. Yet it might become something even more exciting: a nationally renowned brewery that still feels like a local hangout.
Strengths and Constraints
Burke-Gilman’s brewing team is a talented trifecta. Alongside Trease—a former analytical chemist who says he mostly “stays out of the way” of the other brewers—there’s head brewer Phil Pesheck and brewer Julia Astrid Davis. Each has different areas of expertise—hoppy beers, stouts, and porters for Pesheck; lagers, kettle sours, and adjuncts for Davis. Their workflow aims to be cooperative and egalitarian, with each team member able to take the lead on developing recipes and brewing the styles in which they feel most confident. Pesheck says it allows each brewer to focus on their strengths.
“Where we tussle over beers is lagers that involve using hops in new ways or stouts that have additional flavor components like oak or chocolate,” Pesheck says. “But we’ll support each other whoever ‘wins’ the brew. We’re on the same side.”
Regardless of their particular stylistic focuses, Davis and Pesheck say they mostly begin recipe development the same way: They identify a gap in the brewery’s current lineup, study that style deeply, then make it their own.
“I do a lot of research on recipes and how they’re built historically, what the examples are out there,” Davis says. “I won’t copy recipes, but I do take inspiration from them. It’s then working through what works on our system and [with] our usual procedures.”
At times, Burke-Gilman’s equipment imposes constraints. Heavy wheat malts don’t lauter well on it, for example, so they might adjust the grain bill to preserve wheat character while lowering that grain’s percentage in the grist. The brewery also doesn’t have its own mill, so it’s at the mercy of suppliers to provide that—and some can’t. (Trease says this is the brewery’s next area of “problem-solving.”) The brewery also doesn’t have as much cold-storage space for hops as a larger brewery might; Pesheck has to plan ahead and occasionally adapt on the fly.
“Being where we are and trying to do the variety we’re doing means chaos is going to be part of what you deal with,” Pesheck says. “Do I like the chaos? It’s good mental exercise.”
What the brewing team shares is a fixation on best practices. Self-described “process nerds,” Davis and Pesheck say that refining standard operating procedures and adapting them to unconventional equipment or recipes are challenges that they enjoy.
At Burke-Gilman, that’s yielded tangible results. Over the past year, Pesheck has been extensively testing hop combinations and ratios as well as dry-hopping techniques. (“I’ve more or less exhausted every combination and ratio of Citra, Mosaic, Strata, Galaxy, Mosaic, and Idaho 7,” he says.)
A breakthrough came when he began dry hopping in three additions, with a day between each. He’d come in the morning after the first addition, taste the beer, dump the hop cone, tweak the dry-hop ratio, and repeat. Tasting between each step gave him insight into particular hop combinations that harmonized—or not. Sabro, Mosaic, and Strata, for example, gave Pesheck the flavor sensation of drinking orange juice after brushing his teeth—not what he wanted. He then bombarded the beer with Strata and Mosaic to downplay the Sabro, and he was able to create a tasty final product.
He also improved the brewery’s carbonation procedure. Early last year, he’d transfer a beer to the brite tank and begin carbonating at 13 PSI; a day later, though, tank pressure would read 8–10 PSI. He thought the tank had a leak, but it was just the headspace in the brite tank getting colder and causing the pressure to drop. Pesheck added a CO2 line to the CIP arm to keep the headspace at 12–13 PSI while carbonating. That has helped keep volatile aromatics in the beer.
“Those are the hop aromas that you can smell from elbow-length away from the beer,” he says. “We want those in the beer, not vented to the atmosphere.”
But perhaps one of the greatest process improvements the team has made was to narrow the yeast strains it regularly uses from a whopping 13 to just five or six. Now, when the brewery brings in a yeast strain, it tries to brew about four recipes from that particular strain before discarding it. It’s allowed the brewery to get bigger, healthier pitches than it did with more than a dozen strains to manage. That streamlines the brewing schedule and keeps the yeast healthier, all while maintaining variety on the tap list.
All of these incremental improvements nudge Burke-Gilman closer to its goal of providing world-class beer in a rainbow of styles. If that leads to more attention and customers, that’s a nice bonus. But the taproom already is often full, with drinkers packing the patio, too. Trease isn’t sure what they’d do with an influx of more customers.
“My role now is not to make more beer, but to make more tables.”