A Postmodern Elks Club Serving Some of the World's Best Beer

Or, how a mini-mart in a Seattle neighborhood came to pour some of the most sought-after brews around--and changed the community.

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From the parking lot the convenience store looks like any other 7-Eleven knock-off: A freezer that reads I-C-E hums out front. A lottery sign in the window flashes this week's Powerball pipe dream. Open the door: See the racks crammed with Twinkies and Cheetos and lip balm and aspirin and fishing magazines and single rolls of toilet paper. Behind the register are Swisher Sweets and Camels, and the Korean shop owner who will ring it all up for you.

It takes a minute for your eyes to adjust and see that something odd and wonderful is afoot inside Super Deli Mart in West Seattle. First you notice the jeroboam of Stone Brewing's praised 15th Anniversary Escondidian Imperial Black IPA behind the counter -- and its $130 sticker. And why is that dude standing by the Hostess Cherry Fruit Pies drinking a pint of -- is it Port Brewing's Angel's Share? -- a barley wine that was given 100 out of 100 points by RateBeer.com. Now a young dad enters juggling a child and two growlers and queues to fill the jugs from taps pouring beers like Stone's new Vertical Epic Ale, a limited-release brew rich with Anaheim chiles and cinnamon.

This convenience store may be the oddest place in North America to enjoy some of the best beers around -- a quirky testament to Seattle's redoubled passion for the frothy stuff. Long a good microbrew town, the city that birthed Redhook in 1981 has undergone a craft-beer Renaissance in the last few years. Today some 30 breweries call the Greater Seattle area home, and with a raft of newer taprooms pouring the best stuff from here and around the world, residents of the Emerald City are drowning in great draughts.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Super Deli Mart isn't the beer at all, but what beer has wrought: community.

This trend is hardly limited to the vanguard Pacific Northwest: More breweries now exist nationwide than at any time since the late 1800s, according to the Brewers Association; nearly 25 percent more craft breweries opened in just the last decade. While overall beer sales have been falling, the amount of beer made by the nation's craft brewers has increased nearly 90 percent since 2001. (Craft beer is still just five percent of the market, though its market share nearly doubled in the last decade.)

Min Chung saw this new revolution coming and jumped aboard. Chung, 38, is a son of Korean immigrants with a business degree, a nose for marketing, and a mouth that loves to talk and drink good beer. He can usually be found wearing his preferred uniform of cargo shorts and running shoes, a sport vest stretched a little taut across a midsection that hasn't been denied the occasional pint. Chung bought the tired convenience store in early 2009 with the vision of sprucing it up and, among the Slim Jims and Red Bull, selling bottles of high-end brew to the Amazon workers and Boeing engineers who live near Puget Sound. Soon he thought, Why not pour beer so people could taste first? "Would people pay 11, 12 bucks a bottle if they didn't know what it is?" he asks. After much back-and-forth with the nonplussed Liquor Control Board, Chung got licensed as a restaurant (the "deli" in Super Deli Mart) and started pouring beer that August -- a first in the state for a mini-mart, as far as he knows.

What Chung didn't predict is what happened next. By last summer Super Deli Mart was burning though up to 25 kegs per week as people came to the store not just to pick up a six-pack of Dale's Pale Ale and a Snickers, but just to quaff pints and hang out.

HOW A MINI-MART STARTED POURING PLINY THE YOUNGER

A big reason for this success is simply that Super Deli Mart pours phenomenal beer. Chung's half-dozen taps routinely offer ales and porters that you won't find even in most bars in suds-savvy Seattle. On a recent Saturday afternoon Chung had just tapped Seattle's Elysian Brewing Company's Dark o' the Moon pumpkin stout, a deep, chocolate-y satisfaction that would've been right at home beside a bowl of stew on a sodden Seattle night. He was also just about to kick the last of about seven "fresh hops" offerings for the autumn -- beers made the same day with straight-off-the-vine hops instead of dried cones or pellets, which gives the beer a burst of aromatics and freshness. (Steady tweets announce to regulars every new keg.)

But it is the biweekly tasting events that Chung started hosting one year ago -- tastings that feature even quirkier and harder-to-find selections -- that got people driving in from the suburbs. In just one day last summer, in an event for respected California brewer Stone Brewing, Chung tapped a Japanese Green Tea Imperial IPA; the brewery's Double Dry Hopped Ruination IPA -- the only place in Washington State to ever serve them, he says -- as well as a limited-availability chipotle pepper smoked porter. Nearly 200 beer aficionados showed up.

That was nothing: On a Tuesday night in September, 300 thirsty people swarmed the store for a tasting of 10 beers by Northwest stalwart Deschutes Brewery. The line for beer wound past the pork rinds, snaked past the bear claws sweating in their cellophane, doubled past the packs of Rough Rider studded condoms ("The Original") until the humanity -- Goths and bikers, hipsters and plumbers -- reached all the way to the beer cooler at the rear of the store. "My employees were freaking out," recalls Chung.

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Christopher Solomon is a freelance writer based in Seattle. A former reporter for The Seattle Times, he writes regularly for The New York Times and has written for Outside magazine, Ski and Skiing magazines, and Men's Journal.

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