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Auf Wiedersehen Alt Heidelberg

A historical retrospective of a demolished landmark

COMING DOWN: Work crews dismantle a piece of Tacoma's past. Photography by Matt Driscoll

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, the old Heidelberg-Columbia Brewery caught fire mere minutes after we posted this story late Thursday night. Mere coincidence. We promise.

The Columbia Heidelberg Brewery complex on the corner of 21st and South C Street in downtown Tacoma is currently being demolished. Some see the change as a progressive move, while others find it hard to believe that yet another piece of Tacoma's past is vanishing. What is certain is that with the fall of the Heidelberg, a chapter in Tacoma's history will be closed for good. 

This is a story about the building's history. Its origins. And its connections with the people of Tacoma.

Humble Beginnings

In October of 1900, Emile Kliese opened the Columbia Brewery and started brewing beer. At its inception the brewery employed seven people with a total payroll of $750 a month., a historical website dedicated to bygone breweries, writes "It was a five story, wooden frame building built over an artesian well. The brewery's output was about 50 barrels per day."

Early on, the Columbia Brewery offered four types of beer: Columbia, Golden Drops, Golden Foam and Old Pilsner. As the brewery grew another beer was added to the line - 1912 brought the production of Alt Heidelberg, German for old Heidelberg. Alt Heidelberg quickly became the most popular and commercially famous of the brewery's line of adult beverages. 

For 16 years Columbia's contributions filled the many establishments of Tacoma with German-style beer. But in 1916 state prohibition passed, four years before the 18th amendment mandated a national ban on alcohol. Columbia Brewery turned its production to sodas. According to, the brewery's offerings went from beer to "... Birch Beer, Chocolate Soldier, Blue Jay, and Green River. In 1919 they introduced a non-alcoholic near-beer called "Colo.""

By 1932 national public outcry, coupled with criminal rum-running, made prohibition politically unpopular and unsustainable. With legislation pending to repeal the 18th amendment, Elmer E. Hemrich, along with a group of investors, bought the Columbia Brewery and changed the name to Columbia Breweries Inc. The Hemrich family was regarded as beer-making royalty, thanks to their involvement with the Hemrich Brothers Brewing Company and the Seattle Brewing and Malting Company (responsible for Rainer Beer). 

With the change in ownership, the company revised its image further by adding a mascot, the Student Prince - a character in the popular German opera "Alt Heidelberg." A beautiful frieze once adorned the entry into the brewery, and the same image graced every bottle off the Alt Heidelberg beer line.

Hemrich also updated the brewery's operation. Instead of adding to the original location, he deconstructed the brewery and built a concrete structure in its place. Hemrich sold his portion of the company a few years later.

The Heyday

Columbia Breweries Inc. thrived through WWII despite the war effort's restrictions on resources. In 1949 a reshuffling of management led to renaming the company Heidelberg Brewing Company. New equipment was brought in and more storage was built.

An article about the Columbia/Heidelberg brewing facility from the Tacoma News Tribune (TNT) dated Jan. 7, 1952, notes the popularity of the Student Prince icon. "This beaming Student Prince, trademark of the Columbia Breweries, is one of the best known most valuable in the brewing industry. Its widespread and continuous use on the label of Alt Heidelberg beer and in the company's advertising has given it tremendous recognition."

The same TNT article reflects on this growth and its impact on the community, "In the point of employment, it is one of the largest locally owned industries in the city, and its annual payroll, which now runs into the millions, is a substantial factor in the prosperity and economic stability of Pierce County."

Production in the new operation put out 2,000 barrels a day, with the brewery  producing three kinds of beer: Columbia Beer, Columbia Ale and Alt Heidelberg. The workforce that started at seven came to regularly exceed 350 employees. 

Another article from the TNT dated Sept. 2, 1957, describes the new up-to-date brewery and its technical advances. "Everything, including tanks, store rooms, pipes, floors, walls and ceilings is surgically clean. Chemists use exact scientific controls to assure constant brew. In multi-thousand gallon batches, the brew moves smoothly through the multiple series of scientifically precise steps to produce Heidelberg beer."

Carling Brewing Company out of Canada bought the location in 1959. With the buyout Carling changed up the production line, shifting production to four types of beer: Columbia Beer, Alt Heidelberg, Carling Black Label and Red Cap Ale. The new owners continued to use the Heidelberg name and Student Prince logo. 

In 1965 the Prince vanished from the bottle labels but his effigy remained on the entryway frieze. Prosperity and production reigned for 11 years until 1976, when the brewery was bought by the Heileman Brewery Co. of Wisconsin. Heileman already owned Rainier Brewery and would soon own the Olympia Brewery as well. Unfortunately, the close proximity of the Rainier Brewing Company to the Heidelberg Brewery stirred legal turmoil. details the sad close of the brewery: "Prior to the purchase of the Heidelberg Brewery, Heileman had acquired the Rainier Brewing Co, in Seattle. Unfortunately this multiple acquisition ran afoul of the antitrust laws. Owning two major plants in such close proximity gave Heileman too large a share of the regional market, and they were forced to close one of the plants. So, in the Spring of ‘79, after three-fourths of a century of brewing in Tacoma, the old Columbia Brewery closed its doors for good."

A Cultural Hub

For the next five years the question of what to do with the old brewery was debated throughout Tacoma. One idea that arose was to turn the location into an Ethanol plant - a plan ultimately abandoned due to public outcry over safety issues and the price tag of refurbishing the space to modern fuel-production standards.

In 1988 MCH Partnership, made up of Lester Collons, Thomas Habersetzer and Berry Margolese, bought the property and opened it up to tenants, including a printing broker and a manufacturer of custom office furniture.

Though business tenants did come and go, it was the youth culture of the time that eventually took over the building. In the very late ‘80s and into the early ‘90s, the Heidelberg became a rave spot; underground and invitation-only parties became regular. Hundreds of kids filled the Heidelberg to lounge, trip and dance.  Of course, it didn't take long before the location got too much attention from local media and the party moved from the Heidelberg to more regulated venues in Seattle.

Soon after the rave scene at the brewery dried up, the Tacoma punk rock scene of the early-to-mid ‘90s replaced it.

Rick King, owner of Guitar Maniacs, regularly visited the Heidelberg. "It was an amazing place. Lots of bands played," he recalls.

The Heidelberg became a practice space and crash pad for musicians and local artists. Often bands that used the space to practice would host impromptu shows in the cavernous void of the hollow brewery. King remembers performers like Seaweed, Evan Holloway and Portrait of Poverty all playing the old brewery at one time or another.

"We played there, practiced there and even slept there more than once," says Flash Connel, a guitarist for Portrait of Poverty and current proprietor of Hell's Kitchen. He says the band found a home at the Heidelberg between 1993 and 1994. "Many a blurry evening was spent in the 1000-square-foot cooler we practiced in, and the alley behind it," he recalls.

In June of 1996 a fire ravaged the historic Tacoma structure. An article from the News Tribune describes the effects: "It spread through two floors of the warehouse, damaging 10,000 square feet where bands rent space and practice. Several residents in the Heidelberg Building were evacuated."


The fire marked the beginning of the end for the Heidelberg. Soon the location became unlivable, dilapidated and dangerous. Large holes and degraded interiors made the building unsafe to walk around in. Transients began using the building to escape the elements.

Due to the brewery complex's state of disrepair something had to be done. The current owners, Collons and Strand Investors, presented the case to Tacoma's Landmark Preservation Commission, which ultimately voted against making the Heidelberg a historical site in 2008. The Commission noted that since the original building had been changed, altered, deconstructed, built again and added to, no trace of the original 1900 brewery still exists. 

Adding urgency to the matter, last year, after ongoing complaints from the community and the Tacoma Police Department's downtown community liaison officer that the fading Heidelberg harbored drug deals, addicts and prostitution, a formal investigation was launched by the City of Tacoma. The search for crime in the building turned up not only a reported haven for vice, but also a huge public safety concern.

The owners had two options: restore the brewery or dismantle it. Since the LPC passed on making the building a historical site, the owners received the go-ahead to demolish the old Heidelberg complex at a reported price of roughly $660,000. Speculation has centered on a Holiday Inn Express and a surface parking lot eventually filling the physical void.

No word yet on how Tacoma will fill the historical void. 

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