Hilliard's in Ballard Has Great Beer in the Can

By: 
Cody Bay

It's not easy to distinguish oneself as a brewer in this microbrew-soaked city. But Ryan Hilliard is off to a good start before his Ballard brewery, Hilliard's Beer, is even open.

Hilliard, thanks to a relatively new small-scale packaging machine called the ACS 3.5 (by Cask Brewing Systems), is putting his prize-winning home brew-turned-professional-project craft beer into cans.

He's not worried that people don't usually associate really good beer with flimsy pieces of cheap aluminum some people like to crush on their foreheads—he's got it all figured.

“It has nothing to do with the quality of the beer. It has everything to do with production,” he told me in a pre-opening view of the brewery.

Packaging beer in cans, first of all, is better for the beer. It doesn't allow light in as bottles do, which will turn it skunky. It's also better for the environment, with more efficient recycling and shipping methods. Plus, it's a far more portable option for the consumer, and it's just better for Hilliard and partner Adam Merkl's bottom line. Sierra Nevada began doing it earlier this year, and New Belgium Brewing has been canning its beer since 2008. Locally, 7 Seas and Two Beers are both canning their beers; you can read much more about this in our huge, gigantic October beer issue, hitting stands next week.

Plus, that cool Conveyer-Driven Canner looks like something out of one of Mr. Rogers' factory field trips, and you secretly hope Hilliard will hire Lavern and Shirley to run it, just to add to the classic image that he's going for with his beer.

The only hitch, Hilliard says, is that there are only three aluminum can manufacturers in the country and their minimum order is two truckloads—the equivalent of $25,000 worth of cans that he says most brewers of his size don't even go through in a whole year. But Hilliard, a flight instructor in his previous life, is taking the “go big or go home” route, so it's on. He's got a list of nearly a dozen local establishments slated to pour his beer on tap (Brouwers, Beveridge Place Pub, The Whisky Bar and The Bravehorse Tavern, to name just a few), and grocery stores like PCC, Whole Foods and Metropolitan Market, he says, are game to sell his four-packs of 16-ounce tall boys for upwards $10 a pack.

You can't distinguish yourself with packaging alone, however. He's also getting noticed by brewing a damn good beer you probably don't often come across. If you've never tried a Saison, it's an earthy and complex Belgian ale that was traditionally brewed in farmhouses during the winter for consumption in the summer.

“It also uses a difficult yeast,” Hilliard says. “For a lot of production breweries trying to get beer out the door, this beer doesn't behave like that.” He's also doing an amber and a rotating cast of whatever else he feels like doing—which is probably a good thing, considering the number of cans he has committed to filling with a decidedly unpredictable brew.

The brewery, housed in a bright and airy former auto service shop, officially opens to the public on October 7. The tap room in the front, where customers are welcome to sit and relax with a (can-shaped!) pint, has been industrially furnished by Merkl, former manager of Design Within Reach, with touches like concrete construction benches and a large wooden spool table. Kegs, growlers and tall boy cans will be available for purchase Fridays and Saturdays from about 3-10 p.m.

Hilliard's Beer
Ballard
1550 NW 49th St
206.465.0078
hilliardsbeer.com

This post has been edited since its original publication.