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Safeco Field Beer Review

John Choiniere, May 07, 2014 -   

How a person judges the quality of Safeco Field’s craft beer offerings depends pretty heavily on that person’s definition of craft beer. At worst, it has a pretty good selection of local craft offerings at about a half-dozen locations pretty evenly distributed throughout; at best, you don’t have to walk more than about three sections to find a craft offering.

Assessing the craft offerings at Seattle’s ballpark feels a bit like talking about Starbucks from a Seattle perspective. On the one hand, it’s a “local” company.  The first Starbucks coffee shop, which only sold beans wholesale, has been operating at Pike Place Market since 1976. The one of the three busiest locations in the world (the title changes frequently) operates just east of the University of Washington.  It’s one of the most recognizable cultural touchstones of the city.  That said, it’s also expanded into a multinational corporation with over 20,000 locations. It’s no one’s definition of a local coffee shop.

That same paradox can be seen in the most prominent beer company at Safeco, Pyramid Brewing. Pyramid began in the 1980s as a craft brewer in a small town in Washington, brewing locally and eventually moving their headquarters to a building that’s literally across the street from Safeco.  Since 2004, though, the company has been owner of or owned by a variety of other companies, eventually being bought out The (Costa Rican-based) Florida Ice and Farm Company.  The Safeco-adjacent brewpub still makes a few small-batch offerings, but the larger-scale operations moved out of the state years ago. It no longer fits the technical definition of a craft brewer, but should it still count anyway?

To me, defining a craft beer is much more about the product itself than the company behind it.  I’m perfectly ready to call Pyramid brews craft beers, whether the total production volume of the company exceeds the barrel limit of that definition or not.  I’m also fine with defining Craft Brew Alliance products as craft beers.  I’m even fine with Leinie’s being a “craft” beer for these purposes, because even though SABMiller has owned it since 1988 it’s still 95% brewed in the original location that opened in 1867.

I recognize, though, that not everyone’s going to agree with me. That’s fine; sticking to the strict definition is a perfectly defensible position.  I was aware of this potential disagreement going into this, too, so as I walked Safeco on Friday noting the availability of the various offerings, I distinguished true craft beers from pseudo-craft ones.

The following map notates the fixed-location beer vendors in Safeco Field.  Green dots represent true craft offerings, yellow dots are locations with craft-style beers, and the three red dots are the only locations with no craft offerings at all.  The outfield one is situated behind the centerfield bleachers, and only has Coors Light.  The dot at section 137 is the “Irish Pub” stand, serving Guinness and Harp; the other is a sausage stand that only has Miller Lite and Killian’s Irish Red.

The typical stand offers one macro beer and one craft; this usually means something like Miller Lite and Pyramid Curveball Blonde.  On both the 100- and the 300-levels you can find stands dedicated to craft beer only, though there aren’t as many so they take a little more walking to get to.  In left field, behind section 149 (and conveniently close to the garlic fries stand) there’s “Ales of the NW”, a four-cart-wide semi-permanent setup that has six craft beers on twelve total taps.  Similarly in center field, roughly under section 185, there’s a double-wide cart called “NW Beers” that features more obscure, mostly local offerings.  That same area in center field is roughly where you can find the stairs to The ‘Pen, Safeco’s recently remodeled bullpen-adjacent area that features four higher-end food vendors not found elsewhere in the park, access to the center field standing-room-only pavilion, and about a dozen craft beer offerings.

The other dedicated craft beer spots are a little more obscure, but no less worth your time.  Three locations are, as of this year, serving cask beers (the specific beer changes every other homestand according to the incredibly friendly Lisa Harper, who was manning one of the three locations on Friday); one is in The ‘Pen, one is a cart at section 134, and the last is the Northwest Beer Bar, found in what’s best described as a museum alley running parallel to the main concourse from roughly section 132 to 137. They have eight taps in addition to the cask, all of which pour only northwestern beers.

 

There’s also the Hit It Here Café, which most people don’t realize you don’t need a special ticket to get into.  It’s accessed through the stairs to the right of the center field bleachers, is on the club level, and in addition to the six taps offers two dozen 22 oz. bombers from local breweries, most of which can’t be found anywhere else in the park.  These get poured into a plastic cup, and can be taken anywhere in the park a normal beer is allowed.  If you’re okay with giving up the special nature of an on-draught beer, these are a much better deal than other craft offerings; the standard 16 oz. craft beer runs $9.75, and these 22 oz.’ers are only $12.

As you might expect, IPAs are the most widely-available style at Safeco.  By my count, there are 34 locations offering an IPA of some variety (even outnumbering macro-style stands, of which there are 32).  There were 14 different IPAs available during my survey (plus an IPL), vastly outnumbering the two runners-up, pale ales and amber ales (eight varieties each).  However, there are definitely options for non-hop heads; there were, in fact, 21 different styles of beer available.  Though IPAs were the most widespread, the selection was generally pretty good for all lighter-colored beers.  It was noteworthy, though, that stouts and porters get a bit of a short shrift at Safeco; the only draught stout available is Guinness, and the only porter at all is a Schooner Exact bomber at the Hit it Here Café.  This is a pretty significant change from the past few years, when both the Georgetown 9 Lb. Porter and Deschutes’s Obsidian Stout were available at multiple stands around the park.  In fact, given the emphasis on NW beers, Deschutes’s complete absence is worth noting (and is, in my opinion, a negative mark on the selection).

Style Unique Beers Number of Stands
IPA 13 33
Macro 4 32
Pale 8 31
Wheat 6 31
Amber 8 21
Blonde 3 17
Mexican Lager 2 8
Red 3 7
Cider 5 7
Shandy 1 4
Stout 3 4
India Pale Lager 1 3
Brown 1 3
Maibock 1 3
ESB 2 3
Pilsner 2 2
Lager 1 2
Double IPA 1 2
Winter 1 1
White 1 1
Porter 1 1

All told, the key word to describe the craft selection at Safeco is variety. Across the 21 available styles there are 64 different beers, including a gluten-free option, and four ciders. There’s everything from imperial IPAs to shandies; there’s draught, bottled, and cans (which I couldn’t even begin to count the varieties of, about half of which were craft brews); there are traditional kegs, casks, and even multiple nitro taps.  Each level of the stadium has access to at least a dozen craft beers, and nearly every stand/cart has either a true craft or pseudo-craft option available.  Although my list of visited ballparks is fairly small, given what I found on Friday I can’t imagine Safeco not being among the very best in craft beer offerings.

On a final, post-hoc note, I was ready to give Safeco a score very near 100, given how much high-quality variety is offered; however, in finding the "top" beers for the closing summary I discovered that Washington State beers in general have fairly low BARs. My contention is that you're all crazy, and that there are some excellent beers here that deserve higher scores, but my overall Safeco score has been adjusted accordingly.

Safeco Field: 92/100

Top Beers: Mac & Jack African Amber (5.64), Guinness Draught (10.19), Rogue Dead Guy Ale (5.21), Georgetown Lucille IPA (4.64)
Excellent Stands: 12+
Price: $9.75 - 16 oz. / $12 - 22 oz. bombers

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