Washington Beer Guide: Seattle: Cloudburst Brewing: A Connecticut brewer in the Emerald City

It began with a bottle of Number 9. 

As a high school student - raised in Ridgefield (Connecticut) - Steve Luke condoned the illegal consumption of beer prior to his 21st birthday. 

But unlike his fellow Ridgefield Tigers, Steve developed an early appreciation for Magic Hat #9. Often purchased from a nearby gas station with a illegal drivers license, there was something appealing about this 20 IBU "Not Quite Pale Ale". 

Like many young adults after high school graduation, Steve departed Connecticut for nearby Maine to study Liberal Arts at Colby College. Enlisting credits towards a double-major in Economics and Psychology, Steve occasionally endorsed mercurial inspirations to escape the campus to forget about studies. On one particular occasion he drove to nearby Skowhegan, on a rumor the owner still believed 18 was the legal drinking age. After driving the 16 miles from Waterville, Steve arrived at the doorstep of Skip and Marjorie Lawton - owners of Oak Pond Brewing Co. Opened in 1996, the brewery was built in the barn on the Lawton farm. Upon answering the door, Skip motioned Steve (and some colleagues) toward the barn 50 yards from the farmhouse. As he frequently did for his guests, Skip offered to drive the group on one of his tractors to the brewery. Upon arriving at the brewery, anyone wishing to drink Skip's beers would have to confirm they were at least 18 years of age.

Recalling his 1st time visiting the Oak Pond, Steve remembers the 10 barrel (20 keg) brewery, accompanied by six brewery fermenters, and an energetic 83 year-old farmer. To Steve it felt like something out of a speakeasy, where one only needed the correct phrase (or age) to gain access. After a few samples, the group returned to school, no doubt recalling tractors and future opportunities to drink underage. 

Sadly, Marjorie "Margie" Lawton passed away September 26th, 2012, followed by her husband Wilfred "Skip" Lawton passing away shortly thereafter on December 12th, 2012. They were survived by three daughters, one son, and (as of 2012) five grandchildren.

Whether it was his visit to Oak Pond Brewing or memories of his first "craft beer", in 2005 Steve applied and was accepted at Portland, Maine's Allagash Brewing Company. Enlisted as a 'keg washer', Steve took direction from head brewer Jason Perkins, while occasionally engaging with former brewer Dee Dee Germain (who has since left the brewing community to work for angela adams ) During the summer between his Junior and Senior year, Luke washed kegs, mopped floors, and worked on the bottling line, while also learning about the brewing process.

After graduating college in 2006, Steve used his credentials to work in the Marketing department at Harpoon Brewing in Boston, Massachusetts. There he promoted Harpoon's beers, mostly in the the brewery's tasting room. But Luke longed for the smell of spent grain in the atmosphere, coupled with the sensation of his feet being removed from moisture-drenched socks.

"It's all about making the beer ... the beer itself is enough marketing for me."

At the beginning of 2007, realizing he enjoyed brewing beer instead of selling it, Steve re-applied for a position at Allagash, as an assistant brewer. There he would re-align himself under Jason Perkins, while being introduced to such assistant brewers as Kevin Watson and keg washer Zach Kornfeld. Steve would stay on at Allagash until 2008, when he returned to Connecticut to be closer to his girlfriend. 

Shortly into 2008, Steve applied for the position of head brewer at "Cambridge House Brew Pub". With two locations, in Granby and Torrington, Steve was tasked with supplying locals with approachable beers. Inspired by necessity to garner attention (due to falling profits), the new owners allowed Steve to use his experience at Allagash to brew beers he thought people would drink. Often this meant beers like Big Dipper Double IPA, Lil' Dipper SIPA, and Moonbeam Stout were brewed alongside flagship beers Abijah Rowe IPA, Old Mill Pond ESB, Kolsch. As the only brewer at Cambridge House, this also meant he had to perform double duty, brewing in Granby and 45 minutes away in Torrington. As you can imagine Luke worked on average around 60-70 hours per week. while maintaining a relationship with his fiance.

And Steve's hard even paid off, in the form of a Silver Medal at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival, for Three Steve Stout. 

Reinforcing his capricious resume, Steve departed Connecticut in late 2009 for the University of California Davis, to continue his brewery studies via the Master Brewers Program. 

Applying his credits from Colby College, Steve Luke finalized his studies in the Summer of 2010 before submitting his resume at Rogue Ale's Issaquah Brewhouse. For Luke, this was another opportunity to not only garner brewing experience but also support his girlfriend's fiance residency requirements in nearby Seattle. 

From Mid-2010thru early 2011, Steve introduced challenging beers like Modest Frog "light American pub ale", Pumpkin Frog, a Belgian-style Dubbel brewed with 200 pounds of local pumpkins and spiced with vanilla bean, nutmeg, and cinnamon sticks. along with a familiar Coffee Milk Stout called Cafe Frog - while brewing Rogue's familiar beers (like Shakespeare Stout) for the public house. It wasn't until 2011, during the Washington Brewers Guild Cask Festival, that Steve would make (some say) the biggest decision of his career - by aligning himself with Seattle brewery pioneer Dick Cantwell. 

To hear Steve tell it, it began with several phone calls and emails, and concluded with a beer-influenced Cantwell promising to find a position for Luke at the brewery. Not wanting to allow a chemical reaction to impair a conversation, Steve reminded Dick he would hold him to his word. The next morning, a refreshed Dick Cantwell re-confirmed his commitment to Steve to work together. Halfway through 2011, Steve Luke was now Lead Brewer at their Elysian Brewing's Fields location, working alongside former co-worker - Kevin Watson. 

Encouraged by Dick Cantwell's approach to giving his brewers an opportunity to grow creatively, Steve would brew some 250 different beers, for almost 4 years, between mid-2011 and early 2015. With names like Split Shot Espresso Stout, Day Glow India Pale Ale, and Space Dust India Pale Ale, Steve's contributions are listed on beer review websites, Twitter tweets, and Facebook posts. Looking back, Steve would tell you one of his most memorable beers was the Split Shot Espresso Stout The Fix Imperial Stout - a beer inspired by a television show's visit. 

Hosted by the Esquire Network, Brew Dogs is a show that promotes craft beer awareness by visiting towns around the world. Started in 2013, Season 1 would showcase some of the United States' best drinking cities. One of those featured was Seattle, home to Elysian Brewing Company. As it turned out, the hosts Martin Dickie and James Watt wanted to brew a beer inspired by Seattle's love of beer and coffee. So the duo from Scotland reached out to Elysian to see if they could concoct caffeinated chocolate-coffee imperial stout. Steve, having brewed a coffee stout at Rogue, had the most experience and provided leadership of the recipe that would be featured on the show.

Normally a beer like this would take 5 weeks to conceive of and release, but Luke and the talented brewers at Elysian managed to release it in time for filming. Not only did the beer receive a "drink it" from Brew Dog's taped audience, but The Fix won a silver medal, at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival. 

An interesting side-note. The beer featured in the Seattle episode of Brew Dogs, was in-fact brewed at the brewery. While the beer brewed on the deck of a ferry, was done to fulfill Martin and James' necessity to brew a beer, with a local brewer, under interesting circumstances. Think of it as a cooking show, but with beer, where the finished product is what everyone was drinking at the end of the show. And if you asked Steve if he would do anything differently, he would tell you to put cocoa nibbs in a bag, before pouring into a fermenter. Spending hours, cleaning a kegging hose, in between filled kegs, removing clogged cocoa nibbs, isn't what he had in mind. 

For Steve, the dream of owning a brewery has remained an ambition. Upon receipt of a LLC (Limited Liability Company) title Steve reached out to Dick Cantwell to inform him his plans. As it turns out Dick took the news both with a hairline of regret but also understanding. It seemed that Cantwell had conceived his brewery in between shifts, while working as head brewer for Big Time Brewing. With his blessing, Steve sought advice from not only Elysian co-owners Joe Bisaca and Dave Buhler, but also fellow brewery owners. Through these conversations Steve was able to secure loans, a location, brewery equipment and even an assistant brewer. By 2014, Steve had a business plan to set into motion his goal of starting Cloudburst Brewing.

Then in early 2015, it was announced that Elysian Brewing Company would be acquired by Anheuser-Busch for an undisclosed price. As part of this deal, brewers would maintain autonomy as it related to their recipes. In exchange each employee would have to meet with Anheuser-Busch's human resource department and sign new employee agreement. Concerned about his future at Elysian, Steve was given assurances he would remain an employee until such time he needed to depart.
Unfortunately that time came sooner than expected after Steve secured a location near the Pike Place Market, which would serve as the future home of his brewery. After the official sale to Anheuser-Busch, Steve left Elysian Brewing to begin work inside the walls of the former home of Elliott Bay Bicycles. 

As is common, the question asked most whenever a brewer departs is "will he / she brew [insert name of your favorite beer(s)] at his / her new brewery?"

To those who assume they will be able to purchase a pint of Day Glow, Space Dust, or Split Shot Espresso Stout - Steve's got some bad news for you. Maintaining his tradition of never looking back, Steve has left those recipes in the capable hands of Elysian's brewers. Much as Dick Cantwell did when he left Big Time, Steve's recipes are Elysian's to brew. This also means the brewers of Elysian are free to evangelize the recipe with different hops, if they like. Steve will tell you, the original recipe for Space Dust hasn't been the original recipe for some time. So if you like SDIPA today, you'll more than likely enjoy just as much, despite Steve's absence.

As of December 2015, Cloudburst Brewing is self-distributing its beer to various locations around Seattle. Hosted at places like The Pine Box, Beer Junction, and (soon) Beveridge Place Pub; you can start enjoying pints of Steve's inspired IPAs or his continuously evolving Market Fresh Saison - made with ingredients found at the Pike Place Market.

Today, the brewery is happy to announce the opening of their taproom, January 7th, from 2pm.

Located at 2116 Western Avenue, Cloudburst Brewing is the culmination of a Connecticuter's dream to work and own a brewery. The zip code might be states away from his childhood home of Ridgefield, but Steve Luke is happy to see the words Founder / Owner under the name "Cloudburst Brewing".
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