Matt Bonney (photo by Robert Brenlin)
There are these few Seattle beer shops and bars that do more than stand the test of time. They become definitive examples of the city’s beer culture and Seattle beer drinkers’ support for craft beer. A beer shop like Bottleworks, for instance, or a pub-restaurant like Brouwer’s or the Burgundian, or a classic corner bar like Seattle’s branch of the Toronado. The link that connected all of these, and more, over the years was Matt Bonney. After moving to Seattle from Wisconsin in the 1990s, Bonney was instrumental in opening and running the Bottleworks specialist beer shop in Wallingford, on North 45th Street; in the early 2000s, Bonney was at the helm managing the massive beer bar and restaurant that is Brouwer’s; in in 2014, Bonney struck forth on his own, opening Seattle’s own branch of the Toronado, the near-legendary San Francisco beer bar.
Along the way to working at and running some of Seattle’s most successful beer bars, Bonney became a well-known public figure, winning an abundance of friends, both locally and farther afield. The original Toronado’s founder, Dave Keene, was among them, as were pub-owners and beer people far and wide. But Bonney’s path to well-known publican was not a simple, straightforward one.
Matt Bonney was born in Baraboo Wisconsin on January 5th 1974, and eventually moved to Humboldt County, California to be with his dad. It was there that Bonney got his first experience in the brewing business, and after his father passed, Bonney moved to Seattle (where his eventual wife-to-be, Lynn, lived) in the 1990s. He continued working in the beer industry at the Maritime Pacific Brewery in Ballard, where he met Matt “Vern” Vandenberghe, and they eventually opened Bottleworks, specializing in craft and imported beers, in February 1999. The Little Beer Shop That Could specialized in hard-to-get rarities and prospered in due time, eventually getting to the point where special annual Bottleworks commemorative brews were commissioned and some of the leading breweries in the region and beyond, including Flyers, Far West Brewing, New Belgium, Stone, Russian River, Cascade, Lost Abbey, and Rogue Ales.
The next project was far larger and more ambitious than a beer shop, but it, too, was beer-focused from the start. An old defunct building in Seattle’s Fremont district was gutted and thoroughly remodeled, and in March 2005, Brouwer’s opened to an eager public. The places was and continues to be one of the city’s premier beer bars, featuring a huge range of craft and import draft beers from just about everywhere good beer was brewed, and a massive bottle collection and full liquor bar bolstered the range on offer. At the helm, managing what he sometimes referred to as “The Beast,” was Matt Bonney. As he expanded his job description from bottle shop retail sales to pub and restaurant manager, Brouwer’s gained a reputation from far and wide as a must-visit beer bar in Seattle, garnering numerous accolades and mentions from national and international publications. Along the way, Bonney’s affable nature gained him a veritable army of friends, both locally and from far away. As with Bottleworks, relationships with leading craft brewers resulted in exceptional special-release annual brews of extraordinary depth and character, from the likes of Lost Abbey, Structures, Holy Mountain, North Fork, Hopworks, and Pfriem.
Another milestone came about in 2011 with the opening of the Burgundian, a smaller bar and restaurant, but still focused on food and beer pairings in a more intimate space, and also open for breakfast and brunch on weekends. Bonney split time between the pubs, but in 2013, time came to move on, and move on he did. In 2014, Bonney opened the doors to the third bar in the country to carry the famous Toronado name. Bonney had already become acquainted with the Toronado’s Dave Keene in San Francisco more than a decade earlier, and Bonney had been working on a plan to start his own place. Toronado Seattle opened with the dedication to good beer that had characterized all he’d been working with for the previous decade and a half, and featured two things the San Francisco original didn’t: a full food menu from the on-premises kitchen, and a full liquor bar. The Toronado became a local hit, and Bonney now had his own place. He was often behind the bar, still carrying on in his good-natured way; it wouldn’t be uncommon for him to shake hands with everyone at the bar prior to departing his shift. Why? “Because I shake hands with people I like,” he would say. He liked a lot of people, and a lot of people liked him right back. The Toronado could be good place for a quiet drink on a weekday afternoon, or for a more boisterous weekend evening out. It also hosted some legendary Seattle bottle shares, much as Brouwer’s had done in previous years. Matt and Lynn Bonney successfully co-owned and developed a business that became one of the most beloved in Seattle’s craft-beer scene.
On March 23rd, 2019, social media was set ablaze with the stunning announcement that “The Centaur,” Matt Bonney, publican, mentor, husband, and friend to so many, had passed away. The depth of emotion and grief expressed was, to put it mildly, staggering. The Seattle beer world had lost one of its best proponents, a true original who loved art, loud metal music, tattoos, cigars, good drink, and good food. He is survived by his wife and business partner Lynn, and his sister Angela and brother Phil. Seattle and the Pacific Northwest has lost one of its best, and while the Toronado will soldier on, without Matt Bonney at the helm, it’s hard to imagine things staying quite the same. Nonetheless, the Toronado is still a very good place for a drink and a bite to eat, and if you’re in there, sitting at the bar, think of Matt Bonney, reaching across to say hello and shake your hand. It’s a good way to remember.