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December 25, 2007

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Rainier Brewery: Rest in Peace

'Too small to be big and too big to be small'

August, 1999

by Rick Star

The Rainier Brewery has been around for as long as anyone can remember.

It's as a much a part of Seattle as the Space Needle or the Smith Tower. Day in and day out, the ever-present letter "R" has stood on top of the brewery building like a sentinel watching over the city. From its perch high above Interstate 5, it gazes down on the thousands of anonymous vehicles that stream past every day. It peers out every morning through the swirling clouds of steam that rise from the brew kettles. It watches through the ever-present drizzle of Fall and Winter. Unfazed, it watches through the continuing drizzle of Spring. And when the sun peeks out during those wonderful days of Summer and the weather-weary Seattleites finally come out to play, it is there watching still.

After all this time, folks just took for granted that Rainier would be there forever. Well, all things change, and the economics of the industry finally caught up with the big R. In April of this year, Stroh Brewing Company, the parent of Rainier Brewing, announced it was getting out of the business. With Stroh's domestic sales falling 14 percent in 1998 and facing the prospect of once again taking it on the chin in 1999, they threw in the towel, ending a 150-year brewing tradition.

The elaborate three-company deal that transpired scattered brand names to the wind. Miller purchased the Weinhard and Mickey's brands. "Virtual brewer" Pabst picked up most of the rest taking Old Milwaukee, Schlitz, Schaefer, Old Style, Lone Star, Schmidt''s and Rainier. The only facility to actually change hands at the time of the deal was Stroh's Lehigh Valley, PA brewery. The rest were retained to be sold to the highest bidder.

Unfortunately, there isn't much of a market these days for a brewery the size of Rainier. As Redhook's Paul Shipman put it recently, "they're too small to be big and too big to be small" at an annual capacity of a little over 1 million barrels (compared to about 250,000 for Redhook in Woodinville).

The Mountain Room has always been Rainier's window to the public. All week prior to its May 22nd closure, complimentary beer and soda were poured as a thank you to the community that had supported the brewery these many years. Oddly enough, public reaction seemed subdued. Most people weren't even aware of the closure. Still, there was a steady trickle of the loyal few who came dutifully to the Mountain Room to pay their last respects.

The Rainier name dates all the way back to 1878 ( or 1792, if you count the mountain). The beer was originally made in Georgetown by the old Seattle Brewing and Malting Company. When Washington State (ever the trendsetter) went dry in 1916, four years ahead of national prohibition, the brewery closed. After the repeal of prohibition in 1933, Emil Sick purchased the brewery and relocated the operation a few blocks north on Airport Way. The Paul Allen of his day (but with a little less money), Sick purchased a local baseball team, the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League, shortly after acquiring the brewery. To promote his beer, he renamed them the Rainiers and provided them with a new ball park in the Rainier Valley. The team was tremendously popular in their day, winning five league titles.

But the Rainiers have long since faded into the sunset, and an Eagle hardware store now stands on the corner where the old Sick's Stadium used to be. Before its demise, it was briefly the home of the ill-fated American League Seattle Pilots, who moved to Milwaukee to become, ironically, the Brewers. When Sick passed away in 1954, Molson of Canada took majority interest in the brewery. In 1977, Rainier was purchased by G. Heileman, and less than 10 years later it was sold to Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond. After Heileman filed for bankruptcy in 1991, Rainier became the property of Dallas investment firm, Hicks, Muse and Co. The musical chairs ownership game continued when Stroh's entered the picture in 1996.

At the time of Stroh's announcement, Rainier employed about 230 people. Many current employees at the Mountain Room expressed uncertainty about their futures. The government has (to some degree) stepped in to help. Assuming that the Rainier job losses had something to do with foreign competition, the U.S. Department of Labor recently certified the brewery workers as eligible for benefits under the North American Free Trade Agreement. This will allow for extended unemployment payments and government sponsored re-training should people decide on moving to another industry.

They might not have to move far. It's possible that some workers may be picked up by the Olympia Brewery, which would still be within reasonable commuting distance for most. According to the terms of the original three-company deal, Olympia will change hands from Pabst to Miller with the latter agreeing to do a large share of contract brewing for the former. It is at Olympia ( Rainier's big rival in the 1970's) that the Rainier label will live on.

Quality is the one question mark that lingers in this arrangement. Quality was the biggest concern at Rainier a little over a year ago when a new management team was brought in. The new group broke down and re-tooled the entire brewing process from grain to glass in the hopes of brewing the best Rainier possible. Only the original recipe was left untouched. As a reward for their efforts, the Great American Beer Festival last year awarded Rainier the gold medal as the best American Pilsner in the nation. Ironically, a few months later the brewery was on the block.

On the Mountain Room's final day, employees and well -wishers gathered to lift a glass and to share fond memories of days passed. Beer and tears flowed freely. A TV monitor ran back to back all the wonderful television spots produced by the Heckler-Bowker advertising firm dating back to the early seventies. They remain commercial classics: stalking the wild Rainier, the motorized LA-Z-Boys, the fist through the fridge door, "get it yourself, Bob!", the weird guys with the "R" on their heads, the first brewery frogs, and of course the Rrrraaaaaaiiineeeeeeerrr motorcycle spot.

Maybe time just ran out. No doubt tastes changed and folks moved on to other beers. An industry that has shown little to no growth in 20 years (not counting the craft brewing sector) is surely to blame. When all is said and done, a person might think "so what. I don't drink that beer anyway." But the real issue is that Rainier has been a fixture in this community for generations. It is the red sentinel that has watched Seattle's evolution from a backwoods "gateway to the North Pacific" to one of the largest cities of the West. It is an institution with roots far older than Seattle itself, one that has existed solely to entertain, to cheer, to nourish - surely a noble mission in the Pacific Northwest.

Finally, it is last call at Rainier: the end of an era. One last toast and one last tip of the cap, and the old giant is laid to rest. May it rest in peace.

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