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Who are we?

Understanding Tacoma's image through drink

TACOMA AND BOOZE: They just go together. Photo design by Pappi Swarner

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Tacoma is going through an image crisis. It has been for the last 30 years. Are we a rough industrial town? Are we an arts community? Are we a suburb for a military base? Are we Seattle's little brother? What are we?

Ask most Tacoma locals about their city and you're bound to get a varying combination of the following labels and adjectives: working-class, arts, the word "gritty," drinking and community.

One example comes from Mike Harrington, a local singer/songwriter and beer enthusiast.

"I kind of take pride in living in a place as diverse as Tacoma. There is so much culture and beauty in it, but alas another man's treasure is viewed as the state's junk," says Harrington. "I think Tacoma maintains its negative image because it's kind of like a bunch of people backed into a corner, being forced to put on a bowtie and shirt for a wedding because their stodgy old grandparents flew in from Boca Raton and want to see us dressed up nice. ‘F you, Mom! I wanna dress like The Demon from KISS!'"

"That's how I see Tacoma," Harrington continues. "We are who we are, and F you if you don't like it. Go to Renton."

Another view comes from Ava D Jor of the Gritty City Sirens burlesque troupe, who tells the Volcano, "As an official resident of Tacoma I think clearly that Tacoma is misunderstood. Tacoma is very communal and neighborhood oriented. This also applies to our nightlife."

"People drink where they are comfortable since our downtown city merges in with suburban life," D Jor continues. "So when you enter almost any bar, restaurant or establishment, it's almost like walking into a friend's garage. You usually know someone at the bar."

However you describe Tacoma, the flux in our city's image has forced us into a limbo of cultural identity. Tacoma's "Grit City" moniker has become something of a misnomer. In all reality it should probably be "Formally Grit City," or "Grittier Than Those Other Cities."

Not long ago we were tough and dirty. Tacoma was a hard-living town - a place former mayor Harold Moss likened to war-torn Beirut. True, we still hold onto parts of our past edginess, and our working class mentality. But, in reality, Tacoma has grown into a town with a budding arts community and great local businesses. One need only review Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland's 2012 State of the City address to understand the cultural leaps we have made in just the last year. Additionally, according to the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, since 1985 Tacoma's violent crime rates have been reduced by half - across the board.

Throughout all of this change and growth a common thread has stayed true for Tacoma's entire history - how T-Town relates to its drink. From the earliest laborers frequenting after-work saloons in the 1890s to the artisan breweries popping up today, in many ways how Tacoma drinks - without pretension or irony - is a unifying feature between our past and our present.

Girl Trouble's drummer, Bon Von Wheelie, extrapolates further: "I think the style of drinking in Tacoma may be one of the last leftovers from that tough city that Tacoma once was," she says. "In the old days, people drank after work. They didn't go to the tavern they lived next to, they went to the one closest to their job. After work the taverns would be packed with people trying to unwind after a hard day of labor. They drank Heidelberg, Rainier and Olympia beer. When they did go to a real bar, the drinks were not fancy. No frills. No umbrellas."

"Some of the newbies might enjoy the fancy stuff," Von Wheelie continues, "but people who have lived here since the beginning don't get fancy." 

The business of drinking: legal or otherwise

A portion of the German immigrants who came to Tacoma in the early 1900s came to set up shop as brewers. What started as a meager few barrels a year of production soon burst into full-fledged breweries, including the Milwaukee Brewing Company, Pacific Brewing and Malting and Columbia Brewing Company (later the Heidelberg Brewery). All of these breweries were situated in the now-defunct brewery district that was named for them, just east of current-day University of Washington Tacoma.

When the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919 and America's Prohibition Era was officially kicked off, many of Tacoma's breweries put up a front of doing legitimate business. Meanwhile, in some capacity, many of the operations continued to brew illegally.

"Peter Marinoff (founder Northwest Brewing Company) was a big-time bootlegger. He had a fleet of fast motorboats. He was not quite a gangster, but close," details Gary Flynn of "He lived in Tacoma - that was his home."

Other parts of Tacoma were also involved in bootlegging. Salmon Beach on the western side of Point Defiance was a major hub for bootlegging and distilling. An article from The Tacoma Times from Dec. 31, 1925 details a raid on Salmon Beach and the suspicion that the moonshine was being transported to state representatives in Olympia.

In 1923, The Eugene Register reported that Tacoma businessman Mike Vendetti was leading a crusade to save his speakeasy, the Cascade Club. Vendetti brought the matter to local court, and due to the mass distain for prohibition in the area he won an injunction. From then on the local police were forbidden to search or antagonize patrons entering or leaving known speakeasies.

When Prohibition was repealed in December of 1933 Tacoma's breweries started producing again - legally. Soon after, the Teamsters Union (which was huge in Tacoma) - supporting the brewery workers strike of Rainer Brewing in Seattle - got into a ground war with Tacoma brewers who had a financial interest in Rainier. Local papers from the time detail that the violence came to an end after one union man was killed.

The brewery industry in Tacoma waxed and waned for decades until the 1970s when, due to antitrust guidelines, the last of the major breweries, the Heidelberg Brewery, was shut down.

"Maybe brewing in Tacoma never recovered because it was so catastrophic," offers Ken Thoburn of Tacoma's current-day Wingman Brewing. "I started a brewery in the historical brewery district because I want to recharge this industry in Tacoma."

"Beer is in our blood," Thoburn continues. "Tacoma was attractive to me because I'm from here. I'm part of the community."

Fortunately Tacoma has seen a steady resurgence in local brewing - including Thoburn's Wingman brews. Partially due to the microbrew movement and partially due to Tacoma's lustrous brewing history, we now have three growing entities in the world of beer: Engine House No. 9, The Harmon Company and Wingman.

The after-work drink

"Tacoma's Population grew from 17,000 in 1887 to 36,000 in 1890, as immigrant trains brought eager newcomers to town drawn by land company ads and the prospect of high wages. Workers with many skills arrived: "iron molders, machinist, tailors, bakers, brewers, musicians, cigar makers, butchers, barbers, cooks, waiters and construction workers," according "To Live with Dignity," a 1989 report by the Pierce County Labor Centennial Committee.

At the beginning of the 1900s Tacoma was one of the fastest growing cities in America. The promise of good jobs for skilled labor became a rallying call for the western movement, and in the Northwest the "City of Destiny" was one of the hottest places to go.

With the mass increase in population, Tacoma saw a number of saloons, taverns and breweries emerge, many of them catering to the after-work thirst of the newly immigrated laborers.

"Regardless of whether you work at a desk or in a labor job you want a beer after work," says Thoburn. "Beer tastes good. It makes you smile and if you're having a hard time smiling, chances are having a beer with your friends will help. I think it's good for Tacoma to stick with the working class image, because it's honest."

In this regard, over the past century not much has changed. Go by the Corner Bar, The Spar or frankly most any bar in Tacoma at 5 p.m. and you will still see throngs of post-work drinkers having one (or more) on the way home.

"The thing I love most about Tacoma's taverns and local bars is the fact that you can walk in, after work, dirty, tired, whatever, and sit down and it's all good," says Gary Davis, designer of the now-famous "Tacoma 185000 Alcoholics Can't Be Wrong" T-shirt and a lifelong PBR advocate.

Be it the PBR and Rainer crowd or the artisan beer drinkers, the underlying goal stays true. We gather in Tacoma's saloons to unwind after a long day of toil.

"I think the drinking (in Tacoma) is such a thing to do because of how tough life is here," Herrington muses about drinking in his city.

Tacoma's bar scene of today carries on the tradition of the after-work drink. Of course, there are a number of upscale locations these days as well, like Maxwell's or El Gaucho, but those are ferw and far between in Tacoma's the landscape of dives, taverns and pubs. Check out the Volcano's unofficial South Sound dive bar directory from May 2011 (compiled by Steph DeRosa) and you'll get the idea.

Contradictory to popular belief, according to the Washington State Liquor control board, Tacoma has about half as many liquor and spirit licenses per capita as either Seattle or Olympia. Additionally, the overall amount of money spent on sprits at liquor stores is also about half. Of course, this does not account for how many actual people are attending bars and restaurants, or how much money they spend while there.

Maybe it's the working class spirit or maybe it's just who Tacoma is, but our drinking establishments seem to have remained honest. Tacoma's love of the drink along with our affinity for unassuming drinking establishments have made places like Bob's Java Jive, Knapps, the Hob Nob and the Cloverleaf landmarks in their modesty.

What makes Tacoma different?

Maybe a part of our identity crisis comes from having a bigger, over-achieving brother to the north.

"The main difference I notice between Seattle and Tacoma is the people: Seattle seems to be made up of mostly transplants or passers through, while the people of Tacoma seem to be from here for the most part," says Chris Hill, a local Merchant Marine.

Tacoma has served as transportation and shipping hub for most of its existence. We have seen literally millions of passers-by. Our city is not the urban cultural destination our big brother to the north is, and we do not want it to be. Maybe it's because of Tacoma's geographic location, or maybe the aroma of the paper mill still gives off a "gritty" image? But one way or another, Tacoma maintains a collective sense of oneness against our surroundings.

Though there may be everyday, Cheer's-style bars on many corners, it's Tacoma, collectively and as a city, that revels in our sense of community. The shared history and struggles that make Tacoma what it is also make us want to drink together. We want to celebrate the good and lament the bad. And what better way to do it than at the local watering hole with your friends and neighbors.

So what if we aren't the grittiest or the roughest? What we are is Tacoma.

And that's not bad.

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