“GRUFF IS OPEN” reads the sign outside 104 E Maple Street on a drizzly Saturday evening in late September. I follow the big red arrow down an illuminated alley, turning right into Gruff’s signed entryway. This is the moment Bellingham beer enthusiasts have been waiting for: the first glimpse inside, the first taste after several years of anticipation. What secrets does Gruff Brewing hold?
The taproom is alive with chatter. Low lighting, high ceilings with exposed beams, and hardwood floors create a warm, inviting environment. Upbeat music plays in the background; a few pinball machines guard the entrance. There are no big screen TVs here. The walls are mostly bare, drawing my attention to the handwritten tap list and 16 unlabeled tap handles behind the bar. No frills, no cutesy beer names. Just beer.
This straightforward spirit is precisely where the name Gruff Brewing comes from. Upon deciding to open a brewery, owners Chris Bierman, Eric Wight, and Jameson Longman found that coming up with a name was one of the hardest decisions they had to make together. In the end Gruff prevailed, beating out hundreds of ideas. It manages to describe the taproom, the beer, and the no-nonsense vibe accurately, in a single word. Gruff!
A Gruff History
The seeds for Gruff Brewing have planted long ago. Chris, Eric, and Jameson — all native Bellinghamsters — have been lifelong friends. They started planning to open a brewery a few years back, when there were only three other breweries in town (Boundary Bay, Chuckanut, and Kulshan). Since then, Bellingham’s brewery count has tripled. So what sets Gruff apart from the crowd?
For starters, the history of Gruff Brewing’s space is fascinating. Originally the home of Henry Buzzard’s blacksmith shop, the building became Buzzard Iron Works in the 1940’s. According to research by WWU Professor Emeritus of Geology Dr. James Talbot, it was originally built in 1902 and has since housed a welding shop, marine fabrication services, a glass studio, and more. During the Buzzard era, the shop’s floors were simply made of dirt. Today, beautiful hardwood floors tell the story of industries and laborers past. A few photos of Buzzard Iron Works behind the bar offer a glimpse back in time.
And then there’s the beer. Gruff is not a restaurant (more on food later), allowing them to focus exclusively on the quality of their brews. The brewery has won numerous people’s choice awards at April Brews Day — taking first and second place for their Blonde and Amber ales in 2014. This year, their East Coast IPA earned another people’s choice award, and for good reason. Made with Alba malt from Skagit Valley Malting and late addition Mosaic hops, Gruff’s East Coast IPA is full of juicy hop flavor, with less bitterness than one might expect from an India Pale Ale. It’s a unique style not often found around Bellingham. Do yourself a favor and try it next time it’s on.
Speaking of availability, Gruff always has at least 12 beers on tap. A couple of these are likely to be IPAs — current offerings include Pineapple and Grapefruit variations — along with a wide variety of ales, from ESB to Brown and Nitro Stout. Essentially, there’s something for everyone. Interested in trying a sour? The Sour Saison is delicate and approachable — more “saison” than “sour” — and “very Belgian” according to my tasting notes.
Gruff’s beers are based on homebrew recipes developed by head brewer, Chris Bierman. As a 2-barrel brewhouse, Gruff may be the smallest brewery in town and definitely qualifies as a nano brewery. Creating small-batch brews allows Chris to experiment and release new beers every week. Currently, Gruff offers at least one new beer each Friday. Previous weeks have seen the limited release of various IPAs, Wishrock Wit (brewed in collaboration with The Racket), and a Coffee Stout brewed with Tony’s Coffee. My sources tell me that a Pilsner and Hef are on the way soon.
Nuts and Bolts
Gruff’s taproom is dog-friendly, and only open to those 21 and over. While they don’t make food on site, you can order from the Horseshoe Cafe — located just a couple blocks away for speedy delivery. Horseshoe menus are readily available at the bar. Head outside on sunny days to visit Gruff’s patio overlooking Bellingham Bay, where umbrella-topped picnic tables await. Gruff has plans to improve the beer garden by eventually adding grass and pavers.
Hours: Friday – Sunday from 11 am to 11 pm.
Stop by for a pint or two, say hello to the friendly owners, and get your Gruff on!