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Seattle’s Urban Family Brewing Keeps it Local and Funky Fresh

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With a new head brewer and renewed focus on catering to Seattle’s beer crowd, Urban Family’s fleet of super-fruited barrel-aged Sours and juicy IPAs is making the brewery a delicious staple in the Emerald City.

On a sunny Friday morning in June with a cool breeze floating off Salmon Bay, the warehouse district in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood is fairly sleepy. But tucked away among the other nondescript industrial spaces, the metallic clang of kegs being washed and the thump of Thievery Corporation blasting through speakers drifts onto the street from Urban Family Brewing.

Porchswingin’ over barrels at Urban Family’s taproom

Milling around in the back behind a legion of oak barrels, brewers prepare for another bustling weekend -- in a matter of hours, the weekend crowd (likely accompanied by a fleet of friendly doggos) will be streaming through the garage doors thirsty for their fix of Fruited Sours and juicy IPAs. Two days earlier, the brewery wrapped up their second iteration of Sun’s Out, Buns Out, a Hazy Double IPA made in collaboration with Portland’s Ex Novo Brewing. The following Monday, they would be heading out to Berkeley’s Fieldwork for another collab.

In short: the Urban Family team is active as hell, and with each project bleeding into the next at a breakneck pace, there’s no sign of slowing down.

“We have a busy, busy future. It’s all about staying sane somehow,” quips owner Andy Gundel.

This momentum wasn’t always the case, though. When Urban Family opened in 2012, they were positioned in Seattle’s densely populated Ballard neighborhood, home to operations like Reuben’s Brews and Stoup. Their initial focus was centered on more of a pub model, bringing in Belgian favorites like Cantillon for Seattle’s beer nerd crowd. Their three barrel brewing system was more of a back burner project. But when the owner at the time wanted to expand, he decided to relocate from the rapidly rising prices of Ballard to sleepy Magnolia.

After the relocation, production ramped up with the brewery pumping out more Saisons, Sour Ales, and IPAs than ever. They started working with 12 Percent Distributing, getting their name out to beer drinkers around the country with a presence in upward of 30 states. But sometimes, boosting distribution for a small brewery doesn’t necessarily mean surefire success; sometimes it spells loss of ownership and quality control of your beer.

“It just wasn’t working... you lose track of everywhere your product goes,” says Gundel. When he was in Nashville for the Craft Brewers Conference this May, he saw “lost children” beers in bottle shops that were over a year and a half old.

It wasn’t until previous owner decided to move back to the East Coast and Gundel took the reigns, that the Urban Family we know today truly began to take form. Searching for a new head brewer, he found a creative match in New Belgium’s Isaac Koski.

“I knew Isaac through a mutual friend who also worked at New Belgium at the time, and she introduced us,” Gundel says. “He flew out here for a weekend, brewed a beer with us, and just jumped on board from that point.”

Simple as that.

At the peak of working with 12 Percent, Gundel estimates distribution accounted for 95% of their total sales, while the taproom composed the measly remaining 5%. When Koski came aboard, he pushed to scale back distro and concentrate on the brewery’s immediate local audience.

“I asked myself, ‘Why are we catering toward a national audience when we’re a Seattle brewery and we wanna focus on our hometown and the local people?’” Koski says. “If you can just cater to them, that’s all you really need.”

Repurposed oak barrel tap handles

Now taproom sales account for a third of the entire operation, with distribution limited to Washington state (and sometimes Oregon, when they have enough beer to spread around). This renewed focus on “keeping it local” has made Urban Family’s quality better than ever.

Koski didn’t simply bring more than 5 years of experience as a brewer and cellarman at one of the largest, most respected craft breweries in the country. He also brought a creative vision and a desire to make the highest quality, smallest batch beers possible.

“It kinda got to the point where I had learned as much as I felt like I could at the time, so I was looking for something where I had a little more creative freedom,” Koski says. “New Belgium is cool and they listen to your ideas, but they’re so big that it takes like 2 years if you have an idea to see it come to fruition. It has to run through the gauntlet of boards and panels. I was looking to keep learning and growing as a brewer, and it seemed natural to take a step back in terms of barrel aging and production size.”

Upon his arrival, Koski “cleaned house,” meticulously sorting through each of UF’s barrels and getting rid of any that showed signs of infection or flaws. He then tripled the size of their program, adding up to 80 barrels, and began developing a house blended culture of different Brett, Lacto, and Pedio strains for both long-term barrel aging and more clean stainless fermented Sours.

Koski has the instincts of a barrel whisperer. He and the UF team regularly sample beers throughout the aging process, getting a collective tasting perspective to move forward and determine how they’ll blend.

Gundel says he had to develop patience waiting for the long-term barrel aged beers to mature. “I made the mistake early on of being like, ‘when’s that gonna be ready? When’s that gonna be ready?! But it’s never going to work like that.”

“Exactly,” Koski replies. “The beer tells you when it’s ready.”

Isaac pours a sample from Urban Family’s foeder, a currently aging Sour Ale with blueberries

Alongside super hazy hoppy beers, Fruited Sours are UF’s jam. They source most of their fruit from Yakima Valley’s Collins Family Orchards, which conveniently has an outpost for their Seattle Farmer’s Market and CSA about a block away from the brewery. Sometimes, when they have perfectly ripe fruit at its peak, they’ll call up Urban Family to utilize it properly -- at its freshest.

Working at such an intimately hands-on operation means a lot of hands-on work.

“Last season I think Isaac had 2 days where basically he just chopped apricots for 16 hours straight,” Gundel laughs.

“Yeah, it was a lot,” Koski retorts.

Barrel wise, Koski and the UF brewing team have some exciting, eclectic projects in the works. In addition to a Golden Sour aging in Chardonnay barrels from Woodinville’s Chateau Ste. Michelle, the brewery also acquired a collection of Gin barrels. One even previously housed Ardbeg Scotch before its Gin-aging lifetime, to which the brewery added a heaping dose of blueberries.

Other than keeping the beers flowing, the Urban Family team is on the lookout for more space as the brewery starts to burst at the seams. Expansion, as Koski puts it, “is imminent, with more tanks.”

For now, though, they’ll keep doing what they do best: churning out delicious beers for the Seattle community in mind, with a crystal clear emphasis on only producing palate-rousing brews.

“We just make what we like to make, what we think is fun, and what we wanna drink,” Koski says. “If we just say, ‘oh, we’re sick of making lactose Pale Ales,’ then we’ll stop making them. But we’re not, they’re fun.”

Urban Family’s collaboration with Anaheim’s Bottle Logic, Aku Aku: A tart Hazy Double IPA brewed with raspberry, peach, guava, pineapple, and lactose sugar, and double dry-hopped with Galaxy, El Dorado, and Citra. Pours thick and tastes like a pineapple-guava-pink grapefruit smoothie, with a bright tanginess and sharp, zesty bitterness. Complex, weird, and immensely enjoyable.

Written by Sigmund Steiger

Photos by Sigmund Steiger

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