Night Out: Selkirk Abbey Brewing Company

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Have you ever walked into a room and thought to yourself, “This seems strangely familiar”?  You find yourself hit with an unexpected sense of deja vu that really gets you wondering why the scene seems so recognizable.  This is precisely what I thought to myself upon entering the tasting room at Selkirk Abbey Brewing Company in Post Falls, Idaho.  Featuring low, warm lighting; an inviting fireplace; a big, comfy couch; and walls adorned with wooden shelves, antique books, and photographs of far-off monastaries, one can’t help sinking in to the simultaneously relaxing and captivating surroundings.  After thinking on it for a moment, I realized why I felt as though I’d been there before: the room was strikingly similar to what I’ve imagined my home’s future library to look like, but with the fantastic addition of a dozen beer taps.  With this visual in mind, my maiden trip to the Abbey was off to a positively dreamy start.

My friend, Amy, and I arrived at the brewery around six o’clock last Friday, and we quickly discovered that we were far from being the only people with designs toward enjoying a celebratory end-of-the-workweek beer.  We walked in to the tasting room to find that it was already packed with the brewery’s fans and loyal patrons.  Both of us had been looking forward to visiting Selkirk Abbey for some time, so, while waiting to order, we took the opportunity to take in the atmosphere.  Realizing that more and more people were headed toward the tasting room, we quickly snagged the first open table we saw and prepared ourselves for the evening’s endeavor: to sample all of the beers that Selkirk Abbey had to offer.

Established in 2011, Selkirk Abbey Brewing Company places its focus on Belgian-style beers.  In addition to keeping six of their own beers on tap, including a seasonal or two, Selkirk Abbey also hosts five rotating guest taps (all of which are Belgian styles) and keeps the popular Duchesse De Bourgogne on permanent tap.  From saisons to dubbels to quads and beyond, this North Idaho brewery produces a formidable myriad of styles that serves to satisfy even the most persnickety beer fan.  As their slogan states, “It’s not for the masses.  It’s for you.”

Moments after we took our seats, our selection of six petite beer arrived.  Upon our samples’ arrival, Amy and I listened attentively as we were regaled with synopses of each of the beers and their identifying characteristics.  The descriptions left us intrigued and zealous about tasting each option.  Lining them up from by color, we commenced with the evening’s tasting.

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We began with the lightest of the bunch, in terms of both color and ABV.  First up was the aptly named White, an American wheat ale.  Garnished with an orange slice and pale as can be, this crisp, summery ale left us pining for warmer days.  The wholesome wheat flavor was satisfying to the palate, and the additions of orange peel and coriander to the brew gave it just enough spice to leave one pleasantly intrigued.  Next, Deacon showed itself to be everything that we had hoped a Belgian pale ale would be: bursting with the tell-tale aromas of sweet fruit and politely biting spice, this beer had a feel of European delicacy that complemented its vivid and rejuvenating vibe.  Deacon was succeeded by another Belgian staple: a classic saison by the name of St. Stephen.  Befitting the warmer months to come, St. Stephen initially seemed a bit subdued, but it soon showed its true character, letting loose carefree notes of fruit and a subtle aroma of hay, an olfactory homage to its farmland roots.  Not to be upstaged, St. Stephen’s cousin, St. Augustine, soon followed, eager to show us its stuff.  A rye saison, St. Augustine shared several of the style-indicative features of its predecessor, namely, profound fruit and spice influences from the vibrant Belgian yeast, along with a classic “barnyard” quality that really makes saisons stand out.  With the addition of rye, this beer gained another level of depth not present in the beer we had just tried.  Most notably, the spice notes in St. Augustine were perceived as slightly amplified in comparison to St. Stephen, and its finish came off as slightly sour, a feature I found to be an enjoyable and fascinating touch.  Relishing our first four samples, we were already impressed with Selkirk Abbey’s performance and exuberant about sampling our remaining two beers.  It was at this point that our time at the brewery took a terrific and unexpected turn.

It was at this point that Selkirk Abbey’s owner and president, Jeff Whitman, approached us to ask how things were going.  Anticipating that I would want to write about my visit to the brewery, I’d brought my notebook with me to dictate my experience.  Noticing my feverish scribbling, Jeff asked whether I was reviewing their beers.  I laughingly replied that I was not, though Amy did mention my intentions to write about our time that evening.  After inquiring how we had been enjoying his company’s beers thus far, Jeff asked whether we wanted to try something special that wasn’t yet on tap and wouldn’t be for some time.  Gleefully surprised, we replied in the affirmative.

Jeff disappeared into the back, only to return moments later with gold-rimmed goblets filled with ethereal deep amber elixirs.  Setting down the glasses, he proudly introduced us to what is to be Selkirk Abbey’s anniversary ale, an imperial saison named St. Joseph.  I know what you’re thinking: an imperial saison?  Isn’t that a contradiction of terms?  This was my thought, too, and I’m certain that my befuddlement was clearly written across my face.  Prepared to counter my confusion, Jeff proceeded to tell us St. Joseph’s story: brewed this January for the brewery’s anniversary this coming June, St. Joseph weighs in around an astounding 9% ABV.  Yes, 9% ABV.  For a saison.  An imperial saison, mind you.  This gorgeous caramel-tinted amber ale is brewed with Pilsner and dark Munich malts and utilized a unique French saison yeast strain which imparted soft fruit notes that were velvety smooth.  After Jeff’s glowing introduction, I was more than a little curious to try this most pecuiar brew.  I took a hard look at the contents of the goblet, then leaned in to take a whiff.  Reviewing my notes for this beer, I realized that I dropped the vernacular ball when describing it: my first note on it is an expletive expressing my flabbergasted delight.  I was smitten.  It smelled amazing.  The prologue bestowed on St. Joseph resulted in high expectations for it, and in smelling, let alone trying, the beer itself, my expectations were wholly exceeded.  The aroma was nectarous and silky, with an intoxicating sweetness that neither Amy nor I were able to put our fingers on.  Plum?  Caramel?  Apricot?  After considerable consideration, I decided that I was reminded of the soft sweetness of a marshmallow.  Saisons’ usual barnyard aroma was not as pronounced in this iteration of the style as in the others we had already tried, and the addition of dark Munich malt imparted not only a glorious reddish hue to the beer, but also a mysterious sweetness that was pleasing to the palate and entertaining to the senses.  We sipped away on our goblets of St. Joseph, cherishing every bit of the precious ale.  Amy was kind enough to save a bit of her’s to share with her husband.  I was not so generous.  I guarded that goblet like it was the Holy Grail, committed to selfishly savoring every drop.  St. Joseph was absolutely worth it.

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After the thrill of sampling St. Joseph, we wondered, how could our night get any more exciting?  By sampling two more of Selkirk Abbey’s beers, that’s how.  Returning from our delectable departure, we revisited our original line-up of the brewery’s current offerings.  Breaking our pattern of drinking the beers in order of descending color, we next tried St. Thomas, a black saison.  It would have been all too easy for one to visually mistake St. Thomas for a stout, but upon tasting it, the distinction became apparent.  Tingling with the roasted bitterness of coffee flavors, this dark seasonal was surprisingly light and crisp.  It lacked the thick heaviness that can occasionally make some stouts less than ideally drinkable, and its flavor was full and satiating.  Being an avid fan of North Coast’s Old Rasputin, I found St. Thomas to be an exhilaratingly fresh take on the realm of dark beers.

Amy and I are both die-hard hopheads, so the choice to save the hoppiest of the group for last was more personal than stylistic.  Our final beer of the evening was Infidel, Selkirk Abbey’s Belgian IPA.  I quickly found myself reliving the olfactory euphoria that I had experienced with St. Joe, though this time, I was captivated by the citrusy aroma the emanated from the glass.  Finished with crowd-pleasing Cascade hops and dry-hopped with high-alpha Citra® hops, Infidel was everything we hoped that it would be: it was floral, with accents of grapefruit, and brimmed with sharp hop bitterness.  Unlike the other beers that we had sampled that night, the aroma of hops far outweighed the aromas produced by the Belgian yeast in the beer.  Another factor that set Infidel apart from its beer brethren was its color: brilliant, glowing gold, this beer was quite hazy in comparison to the others in the line-up.  Jeff enlightened us as to why this was: as a result of rough filtering, Infidel comes out looking cloudier than the other beers, which are filtered using other means.  Perhaps what truly set Infidel apart from Selkirk Abbey’s other beers was its origin: Infidel is the brewery’s only beer not to be an original creations.  The beer’s first incarnation was conceived by Steve Milnes at Sandpoint’s Laughing Dog Brewing Company where it went by the (somewhat long-winded) name “St. Benny’s Hoppy Monk.”  It was brewed as Laughing Dog’s Pro-Am entry at the 2011 Great American Beer Fest and was served at Laughing Dog’s 7th anniversary party in August 2011.  The recipe has since been lovingly adopted by Selkirk Abbey and has become one of its most popular products, providing the area’s hopheads with the high doses of bitterness they crave alongside the iconic spicy fruitiness brought about by Belgian yeast.  Having gained some supplementary insight into the brewery’s processes and back story, we continued our discussion of the beers and our then-present delectation of them.

By this point, our outing had already been an remarkable evening of sampling beers at one of the area’s premiere breweries.  Little did we suspect, it was about to become even more exceptional.  As we paid our tabs and prepared to depart, Jeff approached us with a terrific invitation: would we like to check out the brewhouse itself and see where they make the beer?  Of course, we would love to!  Exchanging looks of wide-eyed shock, we hurriedly followed Jeff behind the tasting room.  Three more friends had joined Amy and I over the course of the evening, and our group of five must have looked like ducks in a row walking after Jeff .  We were very excited.

Exiting the tasting room and entering the brewhouse, my friends and I gazed at the scene.  Filled with great steel tanks and a variety of brewing machinery, the brewhouse was an impressive sight.  Jeff proceeded to tell us a bit about their operation and its background: Selkirk Abbey houses a seven-barrel brewing system which produces about ninety barrels each month.  In total, the brewery is currently capable of producing about 2,700 barrels each year.  Selkirk Abbey’s beers can currently be found on tap throughout central and eastern Washington and northern Idaho, and they also distribute to Virgina and Delaware.  As we moved through the brewhouse, Jeff showed us a spacious refrigerator full of kegs waiting to be shipped east.  The brewery isn’t expanding its horizons through distribution alone: in the coming months, Selkirk Abbey is set to start releasing its brews in 22 oz. bottles.  Initial offerings will include three of its saisons, Saints Stephen, Thomas, and Augustine, as well as Infidel, Deacon, a quad, and Octavian, a special release imperial dark ale.  Besides releasing their beers in bottles, Selkirk Abbey also has aspirations of beginning a sour beer program.  As I have encountered numerous barrel-aged beers from local breweries as of late, I couldn’t help but ask about Jeff’s thoughts regarding the barrel-aging trend.  He replied that they would like to try barrel-aging their White in whiskey barrels from Spokane’s Dry Fly Distillery and have been eying aging some of their other brews in used Chardonnay wine barrels.  Intriguing, no?  If their present success is any indicator, their fans are sure to love and embrace any and all new offerings, sour or otherwise, that the brewery may produce.

Like Spokane’s breweries, Selkirk Abbey, located several miles away and just over the Washington-Idaho state line, has access to the Spokane Aquifer.  Other than having to treat the water to counter annual chlorine additions, Selkirk Abbey does not treat the water it uses in its beers.  Along with its water, the brewery locally sources as many of its ingredients as it can.  As evidenced by the stacks of sacks filling the shelves of the brewhouse, much of the malt used by the brewery originates in Vancouver, WA and the surrounding areas.  With few exceptions, the hops featured in Selkirk Abbey’s beers are grown Washington’s Yakima Valley and near Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

As we slowly made our way out of the brewhouse, we were delighted that Jeff took the time to entertain a few of our questions about both his brewery and the brewing industry at large.  Regarding Jeff’s own background, he worked for Avista Utilities for over a decade and homebrewed for seven years before founding his brewery.  He now works full-time at his brewery, and he and his wife can frequently be found manning the brewery’s tasting room.  Even if he were to win the lottery, Jeff says, he wouldn’t dare leave his brewery.  If anything, he said, he’d use his hypothetical winnings to expand his company. Speaking of growth, Selkirk Abbey has already begun its foray into the national competitive brewing scene: its brews competed at last year’s the Great American Beer Festival and North American Brewers Association competition, and Jeff has every intention of competing again this year.

My final inquiry regarded barley wines.  With the exception of the presently unavailable Octavian, the brewery didn’t appear to have any on-tap offerings resembling strong ales.  When Jeff asked whether I was a barley wine fan, one of my friends took the liberty of answering for me, declaring, “Yes, she loves barley wines.”  With that, Jeff vanished for a moment into yet another exceptionally spacious refrigerator.  Upon his reemergence, he graciously offered me his last remaining bottle of vintage 2012 Terra Incognita, a barley wine brewed as a winter seasonal by Matt Ganz at Salmon River Brewing Company in McCall, Idaho.  Gratefully, I accepted the generous gift and promised to enjoy it as soon as possible.  That said, I drank it the next day.  It was fantastic.  It reminded me of Selkirk Abbey’s own St. Joe in that it had a difficult-to-identify sweetness which I found irresistible.  The off-white head emitted notes of citrus and notions of caramel, and the deep amber liquid revealed a sweetness that alluded toward dried dates and warming spices.  Terra Incognita was more bitter than I expected, though I appreciated it all the more for it.  A beautiful beer that brought forth memories of blazing fires on frigid winter days, I was and am greatly appreciative to Jeff for offering to share this beer with me.

After shaking hands with Jeff and thanking him for allowing us to tour his brewery and sample an exclusive and outstanding brew, we migrated back into the tasting room to regroup before going our separate ways.  My friends and I had a wonderful time trying each of Selkirk Abbey’s selections and were so grateful for the opportunity to get a closer look at the brewery.  Given the outstanding quality of its brews and its fans’ fervent support, I believe that this standout brewery has nowhere to go but up.  Whether visiting for the premiere of a new brew or to simply enjoy a soothing pint after a wearying workweek, I can’t wait to return to the Abbey to worship the Northwest beer powers that be.

Special thanks to Jeff and Dana at Selkirk Abbey Brewing Company for their generosity, graciousness, and hospitality.  It was an absolute pleasure meeting both of them, and I had a fantastic time sampling their beers and visiting their brewery.  Also, thank you to Amy for helping me with the photography for this post and for being game to go on yet another brew-venture.

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