This review was originally published in the Capitol Hill Times.
Bluebird Microcreamery & Brewery, located on the corner of East Pike Street and 12th Avenue East, is one of many refuges on Capitol Hill where passersby can find warmth, caffeine, and alcohol. But Bluebird offers one thing that many of its competitors lack: ice cream.
When walking in Bluebird, the first thing that you notice is an increase in temperature of about 20 degrees. Depending on your cardiovascular rate – did you bus or bicycle? – this feels either cozy or sauna-like. This cloud of heat primes customers to indulge in cold brews and frozen dairy.
As you pass through the rickety, winding stairway, you see a familiar tableau: a barista behind the counter, a glass vase stuffed with crumpled dollar bills beside the cash register, and a chalkboard menu overhead. You peer closer and see that while the menu’s content begins with the predictable list of espresso drinks, it goes on to offer microbrew on tap, and a legion of esoteric ice cream flavors that start at $3.50 per scoop. These flavors include CB’s Peanut Butter (full and textured), Olympia Marionberry (as good as it sounds), and the Marshawn Lynch-saluting BEASTMODE!, made with real, melted-down Skittles. For cinnamon-craving readers, you can’t do any better than Snickerdoodle or its coconut milk-based vegan twin, horchata.
“The idea with the ice cream flavors was to play off what’s local,” said Josh Reynolds, the owner of Bluebird. “One example is our Elysian Stout ice cream flavor. The beer for that is brewed literally on the other side of the wall that our building shares with Elysian Brewery.”
Reynolds explained that when he opened the shop in the summer of 2009, the Great Recession had pushed rental prices on the Hill down low enough to allow his “shoestring operation” to gain a foothold. “Although it seemed crazy to open a business, I figured that ice cream was a happy product, which people needed during that sort of time. While they might not be able to afford going out to dinner with the whole family, they might be able to go out for ice cream instead.”
Since then, Bluebird expanded its locations into Fremont and Greenlake, and added beer and soda pop to its catalogue of homemade treats. According to Reynolds, the germ for Bluebird Brewery originated from the paucity of desserts next door at Elysian Brewing. “Elysian didn’t have a dessert menu,” said Reynolds, “but the waitresses there suggested that people go next door to Bluebird where ‘they make an ice cream out of our beer.’” To sweeten the pot, Bluebird added stout floats and a variety of scarce and expensive dessert beers to its menu. “One evening, a high school friend and I were talking about this, and he remarked, ‘You should just brew this stuff yourself.’ And, thus, Bluebird Brewery was born.” The current tap at their Capitol Hill store is just as local as the ice cream, including a stout made with Theo’s Chocolate.
While the beer is made in Greenlake, the smorgasbord of ice cream flavors continue to originate on the Hill. About six feet behind the front counter, there’s a boxy, nondescript machine that looks like it might be a miniature dishwasher or water heater. That’s the ice cream maker, explained my barista, John, and it runs about 10 hours per day, mixing, aerating, and chilling a pre-mixed dairy base. “We run it like way, way hard, beyond what it’s meant to be run at,” he said. “There was a guy who came to do maintenance on it, and he was just like, ‘You’re using it how much?’”
“People often remark that beer and ice cream is a weird combo,” said Reynolds. “Here is how I think of it: Bluebird is a modern, Northwest spin on the traditional soda fountain.” In his quest to merge elitist booze with old-timey sweets, Reynolds has combined local sourcing from businesses like Elysian Brewing and Café Vita with a maniacal insistence on “doing it yourself.” The result is a sweet-toothed Seattle classic that combines familiar neighborhood influences into a flavor that is uniquely its own.