A Nickels Worth
Old Breweries Never Die --
by Bret Nickels
Many years ago, I visited the Rainier Brewery at S. Spokane Street and Airport Way S. in the Georgetown area of Seattle. I fell in love with the vintage brewery buildings and the wafting aromas of malt and hops. At one time, this quaint old brewery (established in the early 1880s) was the world's sixth largest, known for its Rainier beer brand and famous giant red "R" neon sign landmark on top of the building. I have fond memories of both the tour and the beer (this was long before my foray into the craft beer world), but it was the ancient building itself, with history behind every nook and cranny, that really caught my fancy.
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The rich rustic colors and the soft filtered light that seeped into the building through old windows gave even this large, open brewery a feeling of warmth, coziness and surprising intimacy. It was like going back to a time when wooden kegs, horse-drawn beer wagons and the architectural statement of the brewery itself were almost as important as the beer!
These were not the architecturally challenged, industrial-functional and historically starved behemoths that some of the larger national breweries have thrust upon the public in the name of profit. These structures were from a different time, when a sense of statement, power, and ornate grandiose vision ruled the building of breweries.
On that same trip, I visited the turn-of-the-century Blitz-Weinhard brewery in Portland, Ore., and was amazed at both the history and the architectural enormity contained within its old brick walls. Built in 1906, the Blitz-Weinhard brewery occupied five city blocks and offered a tour that started in a 20-seat theater and ended in a German-looking hospitality room with a dark wood U-shaped bar featuring six Blitz-Weinhard beers on tap for visitors to sample. But again, the beer was of secondary enjoyment; the thick old walls of the brewery, full of past palatial glories, were the highlight. This brewery was full of deep, natural, weather-beaten brick; rough-hewn wood beams; and hard, cold metal braces. Despite the building's utilitarian purpose, it felt very lavish and comfortable. It was a brewery with enough cubbyholes and hidden rooms to keep one busy exploring for weeks!
Many years later, I was saddened to learn that both the Rainier and Blitz-Weinhard breweries no longer existed (at least, not as breweries). In fact, many other old breweries with beer brands that some of us grew up with -- Falstaff, Blatz, Schlitz, Pabst -- no longer exist as breweries. Many of these large old breweries throughout North America have shut down over the last 30 years due to consolidation and to the people's collective thirst for industrial beer focusing on the remaining Big Three. However, many of these same brewery buildings have been redeveloped into a variety of commercial and retail ventures. It would seem that there is new life long after a brewery's last call!
For instance, a decade after the old Falstaff brewery in Fort Wayne, Ind., stopped making beer and shipped its equipment to China, it was reborn as a light industrial park (after considerable expense and cleanup). Tom Daykin of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel discussed how 50 truckloads were required to haul off the 440 tons of empty beer bottles and 50 tons of unused labels as well as other assorted "junk" that littered the site.
In addition, the former Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. building (once the largest brewery in North America) was converted into Schlitz Park, an office park with 1.6 million square feet of office space just north of Milwaukee's downtown. Also in downtown Milwaukee, the old Pabst Brewery's many 19th-century German-style buildings (complete with colorful wall murals depicting the brewing process, stained glass windows and stone arched doorways), totaling 1.3 million square feet on 21 acres, were put on the market for $20 million. One proposal recommends that the site be converted into a university research park. Other possibilities include redevelopment into offices, housing and warehousing. However, officials maintain that some of the Pabst buildings will have to be torn down because they present little redevelopment opportunity. A third Milwaukee brewery, the former Blatz Brewing Co., was converted into the 170-unit Blatz Apartments a few years ago.
The former Miller brewery in Fulton, N.Y., and the former Stroh breweries in St. Paul, Minn.; Baltimore, Md.; Longview, Texas; and Winston-Salem, N.C., have been sold in recent years for conversion to industrial and warehouse space.
And what happened to Blitz-Weinhard and Rainier?
After 143 years of brewing, the Blitz-Weinhard brewery closed its doors in 1999 and is now being converted into the Brewery Blocks, a combination of offices, retail space and 65 condominiums.
Despite a legion of loyal drinkers and an imaginative advertising campaign (largely conceived by Seattle designer Terry Heckler), Rainier was unable to compete with the national brands. After years of remote and indifferent Stroh corporate management, the brewery was finally sold in 1999. This sale included the giant "R" neon sign, which is now in the collection of the Museum of History and Industry.
But not all was lost in the transition. The Rainier brewery is now being used by Tully's Coffee Corporation for its roasting business, corporate offices and employee training center. However, some of the old brewery buildings will be torn down to make way for a light rail maintenance building. Nevertheless, as Rainier enthusiasts Paul Dorpat and Walt Crowley maintain, "Tully's ownership ensures that something will still be 'brewing' in south Seattle for years to come." Old breweries really don't ever die.
Bret Nickels is the former publisher and editor of the Celebrator. He is presently an instructor in the Department of Native Studies and Anthropology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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