Northwest Military Blogs: Served blog

August 11, 2014 at 11:39am

The resurgence of Tacoma's beer legacy

Pacific Brewing & Malting Co. founders Steve Navarro, left, and Brent Hall began brewing beer July 30 at their downtown Tacoma brewery. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Leffel

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As far back as when Job Carr stirred wort alongside the banks of Commencement Bay, our city has had a love affair with beer. It is only natural that with a mix of working class Scandinavians, Austria/Hungarians and Germans that someone (if not everyone) would be mixing their own home brew.

In pre-prohibition Tacoma, the brewery district housed Heidelberg, Milwaukee and Pacific Brewing and Malting companies. Today, we have new local favorites such as Tacoma Brewing Company, Narrows Brewing and Wingman Brewers creating flavorful brews and bringing beer pride to the City of Destiny - and more are on the horizon.

Tacoma's Brewery District

The area between South 17th Street to South Tacoma Way on the east side of downtown was once home to some of the most productive and influential beer making facilities of the pre-prohibition Northwest. Today, the area contains warehouses and storage facilities with its former breweries in derelict condition or demolished in the name of progress (I'm looking at you, Holiday Inn.)

According to, one of the first breweries in the area was the New Tacoma Brewery, which was established in 1884. The company changed hands in 1886, taking on the name United States Brewing & Ice Co. In 1891, the brewery changed hands again and became the first major brewery in the area, The Milwaukee Brewery. Though solely a Tacoma company, owner Samuel Loeb named his company "Milwaukee" to reflect the 19th century's award-winning breweries of the Midwest.

In 1897, Milwaukee Brewery merged with Puget Sound Brewing Company to form the Pacific Brewing and Malting Company. The building that housed PBMC still stands today at 2515 S. Holgate St.

Just as PBMC was coming together, Columbia Brewing opened its doors a few blocks away. However, both Columbia and PBMC hit hard times during the dark days of prohibition, and PBMC  closed shop in 1914 when Washington state jumped the gun and ratified prohibition six years before it was mandated by federal law. Columbia Brewing kept its doors open by producing non-alcoholic beverages. When the company came out the other side of forced temperance, it changed its name to Heidelberg Brewing.

As one of the top three breweries in the West (along with Olympia and Rainier), Heidelberg Brewing made Tacoma synonymous with beer until the 1970s, when it finally closed its doors.

>>> Wingman Brewers co-founder Ken Thoburnserved beer during Wingman's third anniversary party in April 2014. Photo credit: Pappi Swarner 

The Modern Era

"We hope to reawaken the greatness of Tacoma as a beer town like it was with big breweries like Pacific and Heidelberg, but it may not look the same as it once did," said Ken Thoburn, brewer at Wingman Brewers, brewing beer in the shadow of the Tacoma Dome. "Instead of one huge brewery serving a large area, craft beer is moving toward a hyper local kind of product."

Tap handles in every bar and restaurant around the Northwest symbolize the progress Tacoma is making toward reinvigorating its brewing traditions. Today, it isn't uncommon to find locally brewed beers next to nationally established standbys. This shows growing momentum in the acknowledgment of what local beer artisans are producing.

The resurgence started in the mid-'90s with Engine House No. 9 and the RAM Restaurant and Brewery followed by the Harmon Brewing Co. During the last 20 years, Tacoma's seen great strides in its craft beer movement with Narrows Brewing Co., Wingman Brewers and Tacoma Brewing Company. Five founders - three with local military ties - will open Odd Otter Brewing Co. on Pacific Avenue before October.

Additionally, surrounding Pierce County cities have spawned their own local flavors. Gig Harbor's 7 Seas Brewing has been making big waves since it opened in 2008. Powerhouse Brewing Company and Puyallup River Brewing offer tasty options in Puyallup.

With the assistance of Tacoma's Mash or Puyallup's Station U-Brew, the number of locally brewed concoctions coming from home brewers is growing exponentially. Who knows what mad genius is out there creating your next favorite beer?

At the 2014 Washington Beer Awards, Tacoma brought home six medals. E9 collected three. The Harmon brought home two. Wingman rounded out the showing with two medals. Notably, Puyallup (Tacoma's agrarian neighbor) had a big winner with Puyallup River Brewing grabbing three medals.

But in Tacoma, a few medals doesn't translate as a beer superpower.

>>> Harmon Brewing Co. co-owner Pat Nagle revamped his Harmon Tap Room's beer garden this spring, reopening it as the Harmon Garden last month. Photo credit: Pappi Swarner

"Imagine if EVERY pub and restaurant in the greater Tacoma area always served at least three Tacoma breweries on tap all of the time. This would be a phenomenon in and of itself," said Pat Nagel, co-owner of the Harmon Brewing Co. "It would provide enough business for all of the local breweries to meet their goals for production and build loyal customers supporting local business. It's a win/win. The breweries grow, the beer scene grows, the restaurants are supporting local and benefiting from this because their customers are local and they appreciate it."      

Pacific Brewing and Malting Company Redux

In September, the Pacific Brewing and Malting Company will be reborn. Not directly affiliated with the original PBMC, the new Pacific Brewing and Malting pays homage to Tacoma's illustrious brewing past. Previously, rights to the PBMC name, logo and recipes were held by Engine House No. 9. E9 even used the PBMC motto "Best East or West" to describe its own beer during the late '90s, which it continues today. This year, Steve Navarro, with help from investors, bought the "expired" rights to the PBMC name and will be using the Pacific Brewing and Malting name to usher in its own creations.

"When we started brainstorming names for the new brewery, a friend, who also happens to be one of the original investors, thought it would be great to bring back one of the cornerstones of the original Tacoma brewing industry. Being that we live in Tacoma and appreciate its history, we naturally gravitated to Pacific Brewing and Malting Co.," explained Navarro, co-owner and head brewer.

With a number of established local brews around T-town (such as E9, Harmon, Wingman and the RAM), PBMC has a lot of recent history to live up to.

"For such a small city, Tacoma has a very sophisticated beer community that spans all ages. They know what they like, and they like quality craft beer," Navarro continued. "The brewing community here is very supportive of one another and have been a huge help for me as I have been trying to open our brewery.

"One of our flagship beers is going to be a pale lager ... (like the) company's flagship beer from 1897 to 1915, (which was) known as Pacific Beer. I entertained the idea of staying within the style of a pre-prohibition style lager, but decided to create my own interpretation of the beer," Navarro said of the similarities between the original and new PBMC. "I think that our pale lager can act as a gateway beer for those beer drinkers who are just starting to explore what craft beer is."

The New PBMC will be located at 615 Commerce St., with its brewery doors opening out to Pacific Avenue.

We All Win When There Is More Beer      

"(Tacoma is) on the verge of being a true player on the craft beer scene - like Seattle, Portland and Bend," said Nagle. "We have key people not only brewing great local craft beer, but we also have smart, hip pubs serving great local craft beer like Parkway, The Red Hot, The Swiss, The Hub, Meconi's, The Office, the Social and many others. We also have awesome people running specialty bottle shops like 99 Bottles, Pint Defiance, World Beer Tacoma and the new Copper Door near us in the Stadium District. All of this is so important in building loyal beer drinkers that really want to get to know the beers."

Whether you drink Harmon's Browns Point ESB or the Narrow's Galloping Gertie Golden Ale, it is a good time to be a beer drinker in T-town.

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About this blog

Served, a blog by the Weekly Volcano, is the region’s feedbag of fresh chow daily, local restaurant news, New Beer Column, bar and restaurant openings and closings, breaking culinary news and breaking culinary ground - all brought to the table with a dollop of Internet frivolity on top.

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