Do you have to be a knot head to hold down a full-time job and run a microbrewery on the side?
Brian Sollenberger and Bob Maphet call themselves knot heads, but in less than three years their Diamond Knot Brewing Co. in Mukilteo, Wash., has made a name for itself in one of the hottest beer towns in the country, Seattle. They continue to work long hours at Boeing while running the brewery in what used to be their spare time.
Diamond Knot, named for a sailor’s knot, is most definitely micro. The brewery takes up 350 square feet in back of a bar called Cheers Too!, and the brewing area itself is only 280 square feet. The partners store and mill the grain in Sollenberger’s garage, then haul it to the brewery. Although the brewery is close to Mukilteo’s Possession Sound waterfront, it’s so well hidden that some brewers
attending a recent conference in Seattle couldn’t find it.
“We might be the most underground brewery in Washington,” Maphet says. It’s located near the Whidbey Island ferry dock, but a lack of street frontage precludes on-premise advertising.
The small brewery has developed a large reputation since its first beer was ready in October 1994. That didn’t happen by accident; a lot of planning went into the venture. Originally, Sollenberger and the owner of Cheers Too! wanted to turn the tavern into a brewpub, but the state’s licensing rules made that very difficult.
Sollenberger, 34, was running out of money and patience when he hooked up with Maphet, 37, at a homebrew club meeting. “I was single and had a little bit of money to burn, so I got involved,” Maphet says. He is a business systems analyst for Boeing, and Sollenberger is a manufacturing engineer.
Diamond Knot leases space from Cheers Too! but is a separate business. The tavern is the brewery’s best customer.
Much of the brewery’s equipment is used or handmade. “Though he doesn’t claim to be an expert welder, Brian does well enough to make it work,” Maphet said. A lot of equipment was acquired as they went along. The mash tun came from a dairy, and a homemade pulley system enables them to fill the tun easily. They bought used grundy tanks and managed to stitch together a seven-barrel system.
The brewers started with two fermenters and increased their capacity when they added a third and hired a full-time employee, Justin Abel. Before then, they would brew on Sunday and keg on Saturday (a batch brewed two weeks before). Now, one week they keg on Saturday and brew on Sunday, but the next week they keg one batch, transfer another to secondary, and can brew on Sunday and an additional batch on Monday. In 1996 Diamond Knot produced about 400 barrels.
They brew three beers year round plus seasonals, and they make sure the highly regarded India pale ale is always available. “We have to keep constant production, or we have upset customers,” Maphet says. Although most Seattle-area alehouses rotate their draft selection often, about 10 accounts never take off the IPA. “They freak out if they run low,” Maphet says.
Diamond Knot IPA is a Northwest-style India pale ale with a heavy emphasis on hops. “Part of our mission is to produce products that are true to style,” Maphet says. The IPA is made from crystal, Munich, cara-pils, and two-row pale malts. Galena is the bittering hop, and the beer is finished and dry-hopped with Columbus. The result is an aggressively hopped beer that smacks the drinker in the nose, provides a depth of bitterness throughout, and has malt character clear to the finish.
It took more than a year to perfect this recipe. “We wanted to make something that stands out, and the IPA has done that,” Maphet says. Hopheads are stunned to learn that the 1.056 (original gravity) beer checks in at “only” 40 IBUs. “People say, ‘You’ve got the hoppiest beer in the world,’ but it’s the hop flavor,” Maphet says.
The secret is the dry hopping with whole Columbus hops. The brewers took a homebrewer’s approach when they found a way to dry hop in the keg. They make a tube out of mesh material, some unwaxed dental floss, and zip ties, then stuff it with hops to produce what looks like a string of sausage. The dry-hopped IPA sits in the kegs in the brewery for a week before going into the cooler.
The other regular beers are the Bavarian-style HefeWeizen and the Dublin-style Steamer Glide Stout, both of which prove these brewers aren’t one-dimensional hopheads. The stout is made from two-row Gambrinus flaked barley, which enhances head retention and mouthfeel, and black malt. Galena hops are used for bittering only, and the wort is fermented with a traditional Irish yeast. The beer has a modest original gravity of 1.044 and is served by nitrogen dispense.
The hefe-weizen is a test of their will to remain true to style. Selling a Bavarian hefe-weizen in the Northwest, where Widmer Hefeweizen has defined the style, has been difficult. Because the beer is a slow seller, keeping the Weihenstephan yeast from acting up is a constant challenge, but they likely will quit making the beer before they make it differently. “We keep hoping the trend will be away from the Northwest style,” Maphet says. They’ve thought about dropping the beer, but one loyal account keeps it alive.
Seasonals include an amber Irish ale, a golden ale, a high-gravity holiday special, and a porter.
The partners have plowed their profits back into the business, adding brewing equipment, the kegs necessary for an expanding draft-only operation, and the full-time employee. Abel, 30, splits his time between selling and brewing. He prefers brewing and hates cold calls but often finds receptive potential accounts. “Word of mouth is my best sales tool,” he says.
Maphet and Sollenberger hope to expand Diamond Knot, if only to give themselves more room to brew. At a minimum, they would like to occupy the back half of Cheers Too!, or they could acquire the entire tavern and go through the licensing procedure to turn it into a brewpub. That wouldn’t change their brewing philosophy — to make what they make well, rather than merely filling out tap handles. “We’re first and foremost a microbrewery,” Sollenberger says. “We’d keep the best of the best on. I’m not going to be arrogant and say ours is the best of everything.”
Maphet and Sollenberger both have beards, and people often think they’re brothers. A message board in the brewery is decorated with cartoon drawings of the two “knot heads,” and they have called themselves that since day one. They divide their duties comfortably. While Sollenberger is the metal and welding guy, Maphet is the wood guy, making the tap handles himself. Each is wrapped with a piece of rope, in keeping with the Diamond Knot theme.
Diamond Knot refers to a kind of knot used by sailors but also to a freighter ship that sank northwest of Port Angeles in 1947. The ship’s cargo of $3.5 million worth of canned salmon was at first thought to be a total loss.
A remarkable salvage effort — during which 12-inch siphon pipelines were rigged from barges to the freighter’s holds and the cargo was sucked up by compressed air in the manner of a giant vacuum cleaner — managed to save $2.1 million worth of the cargo.
Diamond Knot’s owners found a message in the freighter’s tale. “They said they’d never salvage the salmon that was lost and they did it, and they said we could never open a brewery this small and we did it,” Maphet says.
Diamond Knot Brewing Co. is at 621 Front St., Mukilteo, Wash. 98275. Beer fans are welcome to view the brewing process on Saturdays and Sundays through the windows in the back of Cheers Too! where you can sample Diamond Knot beers. Call (206) 355-4488.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of the Beer Travelers Guide, which lists more than 1,700 brewpubs, bars, and restaurants in the United States that serve flavorful beer.