A Brief History of Beer in Seattle

Seattle Brewing & Malting Co., a pioneer that still resonates . Dave Sizer on Flickr

While the Seattle area is known today as a great beer destination, its brewing history goes back nearly to the city's official founding, and far pre-dates Washington's statehood. It is a convoluted story of changing ownership, expansion and re-consolidation that could easily merit its own book—so consider this the short version.

It all began in 1854, when Antonio B. Rabbeson founded the Washington Brewery; Seattle was not quite three years old, but the growing logging town needed to start supplying its own beer as its population increased. Within 10 years, the brewery was advertising its "porter, beer and cream ale."

Next, Martin Schmeig's brewery, North Pacific (also known as simply Schmeig's Brewery) came on to the scene in 1865; Schmeig had started the first brewery in Washington Territory in Steilacoom, back in 1858, but this was his first step into Seattle. He began the business in partnership with Joseph Butterfield, but changes in ownership quickly became the norm for Seattle's early breweries—his next partner was a Mr. Brown (also not a long-serving owner). Schmeig eventually returned to his native Germany, leaving the brewery (and, it would seem, no forwarding address) in the hands of his manager, German-born August Mehlhorn continued to operate the business as North Pacific; he consolidated operations in another building near Lake Union—the original site is underneath downtown Seattle. North Pacific at that time was known for its production of 'steamed beer'—not unlike San Francisco's steam beer. Andrew Slorah next bought the company.

By 1886, there were four major breweries in Seattle: North Pacific, Bay View, the Puget Sound Brewery, and the Seattle Brewery ("...near the county jail...")—and the consolidation would only continue.

But it's also the point at which things start to heat up: enter one of Seattle's first families of beer, the Hemrichs. Andrew Hemrich was the first to arrive in Seattle, and his brothers would follow along shortly thereafter. The aforementioned Bay View Brewery was his first business venture in Seattle, but Hemrich had a long brewing pedigree. Born and raised in Wisconsin in a German-American family, Hemrich learned his trade early; he had already managed breweries in his home state as well as Montana before moving further west, first to Vancouver, and then to Seattle.

In partnership with John Kopp, Hemrich located his brewery a bit further south than some of his earlier competitors, in the Beacon Hill area. The brewery's initial output included more of the steam beers so popular at the time as well as German-style lagers more familiar to the modern palate—and that would eventually become Hemrich's hallmark.

Hemrich purchased North Pacific from Andrew Slorah; a short time later, he invited his four brothers to join the venture, now known as the Hemrich Brothers Brewing Company. After a few more purchases and consolidations, the company became known as the Seattle Brewing & Malting Company in 1893, and the main operations moved to Georgetown, taking in the premises of the former Claussen-Sweeney Brewery, which in 1886 had kicked off brewing in the neighborhood which would eventually become known for the activity. The new company's executives were drawn from the breweries absorbed by the last set of mergers—Albert Braun, whose eponymous brewery was acquired in January of 1893 (in the midst of an economic downturn which hastened the closure or purchase of a number of breweries), Edward F. Sweeney served for Claussen-Sweeney Brewery, and Andrew Hemrich was president of the operation.

"The newly-organized brewery launched a new beer that year, named for the mountain visible from their brewery—Rainier."

The newly-organized brewery launched a new beer that year, named for the mountain visible from their brewery—Rainier. They also made Olympic (not to be confused with Olympia—more on that in a moment), and both of their premier brands were promoted for their quality and health-giving properties—and they marketed directly to female consumers, something even many modern breweries have yet to figure out.

Just after the turn of the century, Seattle Brewing & Malting was 'the largest brewery in the West, excluding St. Louis,' with an annual capacity of more than 600,000 barrels. Depending on your math, the company had gone from 12 employees in 1886 (if you opted only to count Claussen-Sweeney staff) to more than 400 in a little over a decade. By 1912, the company was the sixth-largest brewery in the world.

Although they continued to make other beers, the popularity of Rainier far outpaced them. Even other local brands, like Tannhaeuser (from the Claussen Brewing Company, something of a spinoff of Claussen-Sweeney) could not match it. But this success was short-lived—state-wide Prohibition took effect in 1916 (before nationwide Prohibition), and although Andrew Hemrich's brother, Louis, attempted to save the brewery with a move to San Francisco, by 1919, Rainier—along with Seattle's other popular beers—was gone.

In the end, only Rainier was successfully revived after Prohibition was repealed (Olympia came back as well, but it was produced a little further south than the area we're covering here, though they were certainly wildly popular within Pacific Northwest and beyond). But things were different—Emil Sick was now in charge. He acquired (most of) the rights to the Rainier name in 1935, bought both the former Bay View and Seattle Brewing & Malting breweries (the latter had been converted into a feed mill during Prohibition), and moved Rainier back to its Seattle home.

The success of Rainier allowed Sick to continue to expand the brand into a regional powerhouse. But like so many other regional beer brands, the wider industry consolidation that took place between the 1950s to 1970s spelled the end for the beer; at least for a time. After changing hands a number of times, Rainier's production was moved to the brewery of its rival, Olympia—which, itself, ceased operating in 2003. Rainier still exists, but it is once again made in California—something of an ironic outcome for a beer with its history.

But Seattle's thriving beer scene today remains rooted in its 19th century roots—the Georgetown brewery from which Rainier sprang is home to beer once again. Georgetown Brewing, home of Manny's Pale Ale, now makes its home in the historic building that previously housed Claussen-Sweeney, Seattle Brewing & Malting, and Rainier. As for the other old brewery (the one that began life as Bay View)—you can live in an artist's studio or open a business there.

And anyone looking for a look at a pre-Prohibition brewery in action need look no further than the Washington State Historical Society, which has a collection of photos from Seattle Brewing & Malting Company hard at work in 1914—many aspects of the Seattle's brewing business then are not at all unfamiliar today.