Smoke is one of beer's oldest flavors, so it felt fitting that Slow Boat Tavern celebrated their anniversary this year by tapping six smoky rauchbiers on Wednesday night. Although the bar has only been open for three years, there's something distinctly old about the Slow Boat tavern.
Ken Provost, the bar's proprietor, said it best as I was talking to him Wednesday night.
"The bar is new but all of the ideas are old," Provost said.
Slow Boat has a beer list that is better than some of the most established beer bars in the city. The combination of Slow Boat's somewhat grumpy service ("Fuck Yelp" sign included) and free peanuts make it feel like it's been Hillman City's local bar for decades.
One of the oldest ideas Ken has embraced is that the beer needs to be good. Really, really good.
The smoked beer on Tuesday night was no different. Cloudburst Brewing was pouring Free Smoke, a smoked helles that was crisp like a light lager but with a light savory touch of smoke. Holy Mountain Brewing was pouring Athanor, a smoked helles served on a gravity cask, which is just a fancy way of saying that the beer was sitting in a wooden barrel on top of the bar with a small tap on the bottom. Athanor was lightly smoky, smooth, and imminently quaffable. It was the kind of beer a 15-century knight would fucking love.
Smoke is one of the oldest flavors in beer. When our ancestors drank beer before the Industrial Revolution they were likely tasting some smoke in their mugs. Grains must be sprouted and then heated before they can be turned into beer (in a process called malting), and smoke-free malts were not common until new malting inventions were discovered about 300 years ago.
Smoked beer mostly went out of style when the new pale, smoke-free malts of the 18th century became common and widely available, but the torch of smoke has been carried by the brewers in the Bavarian city of Bamberg, where the smoked lager style called rauchbier is common. Holy Mountain and Cloudburst both used smoked malts from the German maltster Weyermann, which is located in the city of Bamberg. And Provost, who always seems to have some venerable European beer on tap, tapped two rauchbiers from Schlenkerla, a 600-year-old Bamber brewery.
I tried Schlenkerla's Oak Smoke, a malty lager that is made with barley that has been smoked with oak wood. This rauchbier was sweeter than the smoked lagers made by Cloudburst and Holy Mountain. It had the copper sweetness of an amber ale, the crisp finish of a lager, and the deep smokiness of a barbecued brisket. The combination of sweet and smoky made this feel like the barbecue of beers.
Provost was also serving six beers from the Danish brewery To Øl, which has gained international fame for their offbeat and strange styles. For most taprooms, getting six kegs from a highly sought-after brewery in Denmark would be its own event. For Slow Boat, it was just a little addendum to the Ruachbier night, which speaks to the caliber of the beer that flows through Slow Boat's tap lines. The tavern is off the beaten path in South Seattle's sleepy Hillman City neighborhood, yet maintains a distinctly global feel to it. Slow Boat feels more similar to a cosmopolitan beer bar in London or Montreal than another Pacific Northwest craft beer pub. Provost said that's by design.
"If I’m in a highly regarded beer bar in Rome it’s going to have some of the same beers I have on tap. I don’t even look at what people in Seattle are pouring. I look at what people in Atlanta are pouring, or pouring in New Orleans," Provost said. "I look at what my favorite beer bars around the world are pouring and that’s my benchmark."
The local beers that Provost does pour almost always come from the region's best breweries. Provost has been working in Seattle's beer industry since the early 2000s and has close connections with many of the area's best brewers. Slow Boat is regarded as one of the industry's favorite beer bars, but Provost said his strongest clientele are the locals in Hillman City.
"This bar could have totally failed if it wasn’t for the neighborhood. Pouring people $12, 8-ounce pours of esoteric Danish sour beers, and people went from drinking Manny’s to embracing that. That’s pretty fortunate for us," Provost said. "People who never drank a sour beer before this bar opened are now like, 'What’s the sourest thing you have?' or 'What’s the craziest thing you have?' So, the neighborhood has been really accepting of what we are doing."
Slow Boat's three-year anniversary party has turned into a full week of events. Provost opened a bunch of rare bottles on the bar's actual anniversary the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and he is planning on having an even bigger party on Friday. Provost won't let me tell you what exactly he is tapping on Friday, but it's the Slow Boat. You know it's going to be good.