Rainier Beer -- Seattle's Iconic Brewery

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 8/26/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9130

The Rainier Brewing Company traced its historic roots back to the very beginnings of commercial beer-making in Washington Territory's pre-statehood years. The century-long saga of Seattle brewing encompasses Rainier's antecedent companies: the Bay View Brewery (founded 1883), and Sweeney's Brewery (founded 1884). In 1893 their successor firm, the Seattle Brewing and Malting Company, launched the "Rainier" brand of lager beer which became so popular that by 1904 they were the largest brewery west of the Mississippi River. After shutting its doors during the Prohibition era (1916-1933) the brewery ultimately re-emerged as the Rainier Brewing Company whose "Mountain Fresh" lager was the region's dominant beer for decades. It even insinuated itself into our provincial pop culture: from the 1930s through the 1960s the associated Rainiers baseball team was Seattle's main sports team, and later the brewery backed the Rainier Cup hydroplane races during the summer Seafair festival; during the 1950s the brewery sponsored Seattle's live country music program, KIRO radio's Rainier Ranch (and later KING's Rainier Ranch TV show); by the late-1970s Rainier's iconic regional status as a low-brow brew inspired some fans to refer to it ironically (and with a faux-French accent) as "Rahhn-yay" beer; the classic Superfuzz Bigmuff CD showed Seattle's '80s grunge rockers, Mudhoney, gripping their precious Rainier cans; and "tall boy" cans of the beer are repeatedly shown, and referred to as "Vitamin R," in the humorous 2008 cult film Twilight (which is set in the logging town of Forks, Washington). But hillbilly bands, thunderboat fans, grungers, and Gen X slackers aren't the only ones who loved a cold Rainier: it was the staple at countless working-class taverns and also managed to win numerous prestigious awards, including a silver medal for Best American Light Lager by the Great American Beer Festival in 1987, and gold medals in 1990, 1998, and 2000. Upon the Rainier Brewery's demise in June 1999, a wild and foamy chapter in Northwest brewing history also came to a close.

Bay View Brewery

It was in 1883 that Andrew Hemrich (b. 1856) and John Kopp arrived in Seattle where they acquired a parcel of land right below Seattle's Beacon Hill that boasted a cool, freshwater spring. It was there -- just south of Seattle's downtown (at Hanford Street -- and 9th Avenue S, today's Airport Way S) -- that they constructed a small brewing facility.

Hemrich was the son of a German brewmaster who'd run a brewery in Wisconsin in the 1850s and he'd opened his own brewery in Glendale, Montana, where he met Kopp, a local baker. Once settled in Seattle, the Kopp & Hemrich company began brewing a "steam" beer and soon branched out with a lager style. Business was good: More than 2,600 barrels of beer were sold that debut year.

Increasingly impressed by the beautiful view of Elliott Bay seen from the brewery, the men renamed their operation the Bay View Brewing Company in 1885. Steady growth in business caused the firm to construct a new and vastly larger plant in 1887. At that time the waters of Duwamish delta still lapped the slopes of Beacon Hill, and the narrow-gauge Grant Street Railway (Seattle's first "interurban" line) rode above the tideflats on a trestle along the future route of Airport Way. Hemrich erected his mansion above the brewery, in the middle of the future right-of-way for I-5.

Sweeney's Brewery

Meanwhile, in 1884 Edward F. Sweeney and W. J. Rule established their own small brewery. They located it in the Georgetown area a couple dozen blocks south of Bay View and near the Duwamish River (at today's Airport Way S and S Homer Street).

The firm was reorganized in January 1889 as the Claussen-Sweeney Brewing Company – with Sweeny as president and H. J. Claussen as secretary-treasurer. On November 11th of that year Washington finally attained its statehood.

Seattle Brewing and Malting Co.

In January 1893 Claussen-Sweeney merged with Bay View -- and yet another south Seattle firm, the Albert Braun Brewing Company -- to form the Seattle Brewing and Malting Company. The officers of the new firm represented the old firms: Hemrich, president; Braun, vice president; and Sweeney, secretary-treasurer.

The conglomerate continued operations at Sweeney's Georgetown and Hemrich's Bay View facilities, while the Braun plant was soon closed. Then a severe nationwide economic depression in 1893 caused many types of businesses to fold -- including various other breweries in Portland and Seattle. That void of competition allowed the newly consolidated firm to thrive.

A Beer Named "Rainier"

By the end of 1893, the Seattle Brewing and Malting Company was brewing a million gallons of beer a year. Its new premier brand -- "Rainier" (named in tribute to the majestic mountain that dominated the brewery's southern view horizon) -- was said to be some of the best brewed on the West Coast.

Certainly other good breweries had been established in the Northwest -- Henry Weinhard opened his Portland brewery in 1856; Spokane's Peterson Brewery opened in 1879; Louis Blum & H. E. Anderson launched their Grays Harbor Brewery & Bottling Works in Aberdeen in 1887; and Leopold Schmidt founded his Tumwater-based Capital Brewing Co. (later renamed Olympia Brewing Co.) in 1896. But the success of the Seattle Brewing and Malting Company topped them all.

Georgetown's World Class Beer 

By 1904, the company was the largest brewery west of the Mississippi River, employing 300 people. That same year the Georgetown area incorporated as an official town. It was a classic “company town” in which the brewery's superintendent, John Mueller, also served as both mayor and fire chief -- an arrangement that safely managed civic affairs to align with the brewery's needs.

With continuing expansion of its physical plant -- and the increasing sales of Rainier beer (by 1905 the daily demand for Rainier in Seattle alone required 25 horse teams to deliver the suds) -- it had, by 1912, become the sixth largest in the world. In 1913 the whole operation consolidated in Georgetown and the Bay View plant ceased brewing and instead functioned strictly as a bottle-works. Business expansion continued apace and for a multi-year-long period the Georgetown-based brewery existed as the largest industrial establishment in the entire state of Washington. 

Vitamin R?

In those early decades of commercial brewing, the laws regulating advertising were lenient enough to allow all sorts of claims to be made for products, claims that would  never pass muster today. By 1902 such advertisements were placed in regional newspapers like the Spokesman-Review which on August 3rd published a display ad which stated:  

"An Ideal Home Drink must be palatable, refreshing and healthful, and it must be pure. It must be a drink that the entire family can use. RAINIER BEER is such a home drink. It is good for both women and child, has medicinal properties, and is as pure as good material and workmanship can possibly make it."

The Problem of Prohibition

Long-simmering objections to the consumption of alcohol by many moralistic individuals and various temperance organizations finally led to the enactment of Prohibition laws in Washington four years prior to similar laws going nationwide. It was on January 1, 1916 that Washington "went dry" and all breweries in the state were forced to cease operation. The dazed owners of the Seattle Brewing and Malting Company started anew by beginning the construction of a new facility in San Francisco: the Rainier Brewing Company (led by Hemrich's younger brother, Louis).

After this facility produced beer for less than two years, national Prohibition (via the federal Volstead Act) caught up with breweries across America. Rainier struggled ahead by re-gearing and settling for producing soda pop and near-beer until Prohibition was officially repealed on April 7, 1933.

Sicks' Rainier Brewing Co.

Later in 1933, the Canadian brewer Fritz Sick (1859-1945) and his Tacoma-born son Emil (1894-1964) leased the idle Bay View facility (3100 Airport Way S) and founded the Century Brewing Company, which over time made beers including Sick's Select and Brew 66. In 1934 they were able to purchase the property, and in 1935 they also acquired the Northwest regional rights to the Rainier brand and returned production to Seattle in a newly enlarged plant on whose roof the company eventually installed a giant red rotating "R" neon sign which became an iconic local landmark. In time the old Seattle Brewing and Malting Co.'s Georgetown plant was reconfigured as the Rainier Cold Storage & Ice complex.

The re-energized firm was subsequently recast under various names including Sicks' Seattle Brewing and Malting Company (1944-1957) and Sicks Rainier Brewing Company (1957-1970). Over time the firm launched a few other successful beer brands including: Old Stock Ale, Club Extra Pale, and Special Export Pale.

Beer and Baseball

With ever greater success backing him, Emil Sick was able to purchase the Seattle Indians baseball team in 1937. Renamed the Rainiers, the town's beloved team went on to earn several Pacific Coast League championships and launched the career of Fred Hutchinson (1919-1964), among other great players.

The following year saw the opening of a new outdoor ballpark for the Rainiers – as located on Rainier Avenue in Rainier Valley: Sicks' Stadium. It was a great venue that saw many fabled games by the Rainiers (up through 1968), the Seattle Pilots (in 1969) and even a few legendary rock concerts including the local debut of Elvis Presley (1935-1977) on September 1, 1957, of Janis Joplin (1943-1970) on July 5, 1970, and the final homecoming show by Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) on July 26, 1970.

The Sicks' Legacy

Over time Emil Sick became a prominent civic leader. As eventual president of the Seattle Historical Society, he led the fundraising drive that resulted in the construction of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) in 1952. The children of Emil and Kathleen Sick endowed a fund in their parents' names to promote publication of historical research by the University of Washington.

In his 1998 memoirs Robert Mondavi -- California's most prominent winemaker – recalled the key role Rainier played in helping kick-start his Robert Mondavi Winery and turn it into a massive wine empire. In 1967 a California-based wine distributor mentioned to Mondavi that he should talk with Alan Ferguson (1927-1993). Besides being the nephew (and then at age 13, adopted son) of Emil Sick, Ferguson was now the president and chairman of Rainier, and a "brewmaster who also loved wine. Rainier had ... sold its baseball team ... and they were looking for a new investment." Long story short: with an injection of Rainier's capital the brewery and budding wine mogul became partners in the new Robert Mondavi Vineyards & Co., which in 1968 quickly bought up hundreds of acres of promising vineyard land and within 18 months had boosted wine production from 20,000 to 125,000 cases a year.

Mondavi loved working with the Seattle guys, writing later that "Rainier was an amazing partner for us. I'd even say it was a deal made in heaven. For one thing they were a family partnership, so they understood our spirit and approach. Also, they were a company with a deep commitment to the pursuit of excellence."

Advertising Genius

In 1970 the firm was renamed the Rainier Brewing Company and before long a wild new series of outstanding television, radio, and print ads helped lock the brand name even deeper into the public's memory banks. Terry Heckler's ace advertising firm was hired to develop the humor-laden spots and his staff (in particular writer/producer, Ed Leimbacher) simply excelled at the task.

Among the best were: the "Motorcycle Spot" which showed a country road, Mount Rainier in the distance, and an approaching motorcycle racing by with its engine revving "Raaaiiii-niiieeerrrrBeeeerrrrr…". Then there was the "Running of the Wild Rainiers" (a parody of Pamploma Spain's famous annual "Running of the Bulls" event, only featuring human-sized bottles with legs); the "Brews Brothers" (a parody of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd's Blues Brothers schtick); the "Call Of The Fresh" (where Tarzan yodles "Ra-a-a--in-e-e-rr" and Jane rushes to join him for a brewski up in a tree-top jungle tavern); and, "Frogs" (those warty critters that croaked "Rain-ier. Beer." -- a trick the Budweiser toads "borrowed" years later).

More Changes Ahead...

The early 1970s saw dramatic changes in the realm of regional beer sales: Whereas for decades rival Northwest brands -- including Rainier, Olympia, Blitz-Weinhard, Lucky Lager, Rheinlander, and Heidelberg (which Rainier had taken on after the original Tacoma plant shut down) -- had ruled, now major national brands began chipping away their market shares. The business was getting tougher and at one point Sick's Rainier Brewing Co. felt it wise to align with the huge Canadian beer firm Molson, which bought up a 49 percent share.

But then, by 1975, Molson was pressuring Rainier to divest some of its holdings and as Robert Mondavi recalled, he was "summoned to Seattle for a crisis meeting." There was talk of removing Mondavi from leadership of his namesake company, which he emphatically resisted. With Ferguson -- who had been serving in Toronto as Molson's President -- brought in to mediate the tense negotiations, some agreements were hammered out. These ultimately gave Mondavi enough time to come back with enough cash to buy out Rainier/Molson's stake in his own firm and consolidate his ownership -- though his friend Ferguson would remain on Mondavi's Board of Directors for nearly two decades.

Meanwhile, in 1977 Rainier Brewing was bought by the Illinois-based G. Heileman Brewing Co. That same year, and in a sort of poetic bookend event, Sicks' Stadium (already superseded by the new Kingdome in 1976) was demolished, and in the 1990s the historic ballpark site saw the rise of just another big-box garden and hardware store.

Last Call

Despite legions of loyal drinkers, a winsome advertising campaign, and new products including Rainier Draft, Rainier Draft Light, Cold Filtered Draft, Rainier Ice, Special Dry, and the infamous Rainier Ale (whose green bottle, green label -- and strong flavor -- caused locals to affectionately nickname it "Green Death"), the brewery was struggling. The marketplace pressures of competing with national brands -- and then against the renaissance of "craft beers" or "microbrews" in the 1980s -- was too much. Rainier's ownership passed through several more remote and indifferent corporate hands. In 1996 the Detroit-based Stroh Brewery Co. bought in, but then only three years later, on February 8, 1999, Stroh (which had decided to leave the beer business altogether in order to concentrate on its real-estate holdings) announced that the Rainier and its brewery facility were each for sale.

The basic reasons for Rainier's decline were later outlined by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: It had fallen victim to fast-paced changes in the marketplace. The brewery was "an older, smaller plant trying to operate in an environment of worldwide consolidation of brands, breweries and companies, stagnant sales, too much production capacity, and a shift away from regional brands to big national brands such as Budweiser and Coors." But, as the local Redhook microbrew mogul, Paul Shipman, succinctly put it: Rainier was simply "Too small to be big and too big to be small" (Virgin).

Many feared that both the beer and its home would pass into history, but the Rainier brand and recipe were both sold to the Texas-based Pabst Brewing Company, and production of the beer shifted to the old Olympia Brewery (which they'd purchased from the Schmidt family back in 1983). Later in 1999, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based Miller Brewing Company purchased the Olympia Brewery and began making Rainier there under contract with Pabst. Finally, when the Olympia facility was shuttered in July, 2003, Miller continued brewing its version of it down in Irwindale, California -- a Rainier Beer still available to this day.

Rainier Commons

Meanwhile, the venerable old Rainier Brewery complex remains at home in Seattle, albeit in drastically modified form. After the facility finally closed in June 1999, Seattle's Benaroya Foundation bought the site (and the plant's 21 buildings) and in 2000 Tully's Coffee Corporation leased it for its new headquarters. And that is when the famous glowing red "R" sign (now in the collection of the Museum of History &  Industry) was suddenly replaced by a neon green "T" sign.

Then in August 2003, a developer, the Rainier Commons group purchased the property and a multi-year revamping effort began with a goal of creating the ArtsBrewery complex. By March, 2008, some of the buildings had been turned into numerous "Artist Studio Dwelling" units while a few of the site's many other buildings were converted to other uses including: a large recording studio, the Jam Box band rehearsal spaces, and Tully's Customer Service Department and a Tully's Drive-Through. Down the street, that same year saw local mega-developer, the Sabey Corporation, begin the revitalization of the Rainier Cold Storage (the old Sweeney's Brewery site) into residential, retail, and office spaces.

Meanwhile, the traditional aroma of spicy hops and rich malts has once again been wafting through that history drenched neighborhood thanks to the founding, in 2002, of the Georgetown Brewing Company at 5840 Airport Way S.


Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. 2 (Seattle: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916), 625-626;  Rainier Beer display ad, Spokesman-Review August 3, 1902, p. 2;  Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide, Seattle (New York: Preservation Press/Wiley & Sons, 1998);  Norman H. Clark, The Dry Years: Prohibition & Social Change in Washington. Revised Edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 62;  Paula Bock, "Alan Ferguson, 66, Brewmaster, Businessman, Civil-Rights Activist," obit The Seattle Times, March 10, 1993 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Robert Mondavi, Harvests of Joy: How the Good Life Became Great Business (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998), 151-155, 171; "Heileman Buys Rainier beer," Spokesman-Review April 4, 1977, p. 25;  HstoryLink.org, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Now & Then -- Rainier Brewery" (by Paul Dorpat), www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 18, 2009); Bill Virgin, "Rainier Beer Is Leaving Town -- Brand Name Sold; Brewery on I-5 Could Go Idle," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 9, 1999 (http://www.seattlepi.com); "Spokane Breweries: In Search of a Beer Identity: City Has Colorful Brewing History and Solid Contingent of Craft Breweries," Northwest Beer Notes website accessed on August 21, 2009 (http://www.beernotes.com/northwest/articles/000366.html); Rick Star, "Rainier Brewery: Rest in Peace," beernotes.com website accessed on August 20, 2009 (http://beernotes.com/northwest/articles/000409.html);  Kathy Mulady,  "Rainier's Landmark Big 'R' Surrenders I-5 Perch to a Sign of the Times: Tully's 'T,'"  Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 4, 2000 (http://www.seattlepi.com); Bill Virgin and Todd Bishop "Miller to Close Landmark Northwest Brewery in July," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 10, 2003 (http://www.seattlepi.com); Gary Flynn, "The History of Rainier Beer," brewerygems.com website accessed on August 20, 2009 (http://brewerygems.com/rainier.htm); Gary Flynn, emails to the author, August 24-25, 2009, copies in author's possession; Brian Miller, "Artist Utopia Spoiled by Legal Dispute in the old Rainier Plant," Seattle Weekly website accessed on August 23, 2009 (http://www.seattleweekly.com/2007-04-18/news/artist-utopia-spoiled-by-legal-dispute-in-the-old-rainier-plant/); The ArtsBrewery website accessed on August 22, 2009 (http://www.artsbrewery.com/); and author's recollections.
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