In 1990, a brewer walked into Big Time Brewery & Alehouse in the University District, which had been open since 1988, and started to make a beer. The smell of steaming wort probably wafted over the Ave as the brewer mixed hot water with barley. Eventually, the wort was cooled down, fermented, bottled, and then left to rest in Big Time's cellar until, 29 years later, I walked into Big Time's pub and bought a bottle of that exact beer.
This is a story that can be told about almost no other American brewery.
Big Time is one of the country's oldest craft breweries and Seattle's oldest continuously operating brewery. The brewpub celebrated 30 years this past December by throwing a party and selling off some of the beers that have been sitting in their cellar for decades. While I rummaged between different bottles of old beers, the rest of the packed pub ate burgers and sandwiches and soups and drank Big Time beer. A special sour version of their iconic Scarlet Fire IPA, made in collaboration with one of Seattle's newest breweries, Dirty Couch Brewing, was especially popular.
A few minutes before I bought that barley wine made nearly three decades earlier, I was in the pub's back room sharing a different barley wine with Big Time's owner, Rick McLaughlin. Big boozy beers like barley wines can develop deep complexities as they age, and the 2010 Old Wooly that McLaughlin opened for me was deliciously smooth, with notes of toffee, caramel, nuttiness, and a touch of fruity apple.
Big Time's cellar of beers form a sort of history book for Seattle's beer scene, as many of the region's brewers have spent time working the mash tun on the Ave. Dozens of other breweries have employees who passed through Big Time's brewhouse, including Diamond Knot, American Brewing, Beardslee Public House, and Flying Bike. Probably the most famous Big Time alum is Dick Cantwell, who was the head brewer here before founding Elysian Brewing.
"Big Time was really a cultivator of a lot of Seattle's beer scene, if you think of all the great head brewers that have moved through here," McLaughlin said.
Big Time has somehow managed to stay alive amidst monumental changes in the city and the world of beer. While the Ave's teriyaki and falafel joints turned over, Big Time kept serving pub food and American craft beer. They've weathered four different presidents, Boeing layoffs, dot-com busts, and the Great Recession, continuously serving handmade IPAs behind a brick façade on the lower end of the Ave.
Will Big Time stay around? McLaughlin said business is still strong and he has over a decade left on his lease, but nothing is guaranteed, with massive towers and a new light rail station coming to the University District.
"At the end of the day, if you don't support it, it disappears, even iconic bars like Big Time," McLaughlin told me. "One thing for people to ultimately remember is that where you actually choose to spend your time and dollars is guaranteeing that that place will be around."
My 1990 Old Wooly is currently sitting in a dark and cool spot in my shed. I think I'll crack it open next January, when both the beer and I turn 30.