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Ballard Brewery District Thrives By Balancing Cooperation And Competition

When you run a coffee shop, and someone else opens a coffee shop across the street, that’s usually a bad thing. But sometimes, when you get enough similar businesses in one location, that’s good. And the benefits of cooperation outweigh the cost of the extra competition.

Ballard’s Curmudgeon Of Beer
Once upon a time, there was only one brewery in Ballard: the Maritime Pacific Brewing Company. George Hancock founded the brewery 23 years ago. That makes him a self-described “curmudgeon of beer.”

Hancock has seen some lean times. He’s survived by brewing simple beers; beers he knows will sell far and wide in restaurants and grocery stores. Even with the economy recovering, he can’t always afford to pay himself.

Yet in the last three years, Hancock’s witnessed a brewery boom of unprecedented proportions: tiny breweries that sell to local restaurants or directly to customers in their tap rooms. Within a few minutes walk of Maritime’s front door are nine other breweries and eight of them are less than three years old.

Hancock said that competition pushes some brewers to come up with some crazy beers. “It does get kind of crazy, when you get the sage, chocolate-chip mocha, banana-split ice cream beer with a hint of chili pepper,” he said.

Hancock’s only exaggerating a little. One brewery’s menu (Bad Jimmy’s) currently boasts a Strawberry Mango Hefeweizen and a Habanero Amber. Hancock’s comment also gets at a deeper truth: in a crowded market, a brewery’s got to have a gimmick -- something to help it stand out in the crowd.

A New Generation Of Brewers
Bicycles are the gimmick at the Peddler Brewing Company. Founders Haley Woods and Dave Keller hope to snag bike commuters off the nearby Burke Gilman trail. So they put bike racks in their tasting room and deliver kegs to local restaurants by bike.

They still have day jobs. Woods is a math teacher. One day, she tried to grade papers at home while a brew was going in the couple’s living room. “It was a disaster,” she said.

“We always joked that the neighbors were going to call the police thinking we were a meth lab or something,” said Keller. “There was always smoke rising from the balcony.”

Still, they didn’t act on their dream of opening a brewery until Ballard’s big apartment projects brought paying customers to the neighborhood. A Kickstarter campaign helped them finish the remodel when they ran out of money.

A Culture of Cooperation Rather Than Competition
Kevin Klein also had a brewing hobby that he wanted to turn into a business, so he started NW Peaks Brewery a few blocks away. He’s a mountain climber and he’s named his beers after local mountains.

Klein’s tiny brewery could fit into an alpine warming hut. You’d think that would put him at a competitive disadvantage. But each time a new brewery opens in the neighborhood, Klein gets more customers. Before the brewery boom, he might have had to compete with other brewers for a small number of Ballard residents.

In contrast, the boom brings in hundreds of people from all over King County and beyond. Those customers usually hit four or five different breweries, according to Klein.

Sometimes the new Ballard breweries help each other out. There was a time when Hilliard’s Beer ran out of a particular strain of hops and asked to borrow some from NW Peaks. Klein was happy to help, even though he was in the middle of his own brewing job.

“I had to turn everything off, got a ride up to my house, found umpteen pounds of hops, gave that to him, then had to come back and finish my brew,” he recalled. Klein has borrowed his share of ingredients, too.

And the breweries send each other customers, like Oceania Eagan. She's a consultant with the company Taphandles, a firm that does marketing for breweries. Eagan said Ballard’s breweries do compete with each other. But what’s more important, she said, is how much they cooperate.

“It’s a complete camaraderie that goes on between all of them,” she explained. “And I think that is one of the collective energies around marketing. They know that by marketing, not just themselves, but the entire group and the idea of it being a brewery district, it only brings people here to be excited about craft beer in general. That only adds to everyone’s growth.”

The Curmudgeon Keeps An Open Mind
Back at Maritime Brewery, Hancock reflects on all the hoopla: the novelty beers, the marketing, the Kickstarter campaigns. Do the new breweries in his neighborhood bring him any joy?

“Am I supposed to be overjoyed?” he asked. “Am I supposed to give them a gift basket and say, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood?’ Come on! We’re competitive. We’re all competitive. But we all, I think in the long run, understand there’s more to this business than just being competitive.”

Hancock said no one’s knocked on his door asking to borrow a few pounds of hops. But if they did, he said that he would say “yes.”