The old Olympia Beer brewery.
Driving by it every day on I-5 in Tumwater is like looking at that persistent pimple on your partner’s forehead. As much as you want to ignore it, you can’t take your eyes off the ugly thing.
The monstrous monolith — draperies fluttering through broken windows — stands silently along the tumbling falls of the Deschutes River as a interminable reminder of Tumwater’s glory days.
“It’s the Water.”
“A lot of people make beer. But only the Artesians make Oly.”
“Perfection in the art of brewing.”
Faint memories, really, since the Schmidt family sold off its struggling brewery in 1982.
Until one day in late 2014. Five people — two City of Tumwater staffers, two reps from Washington State University Extension in Olympia, and Tumwater City Administrator John Doan — met to do what so many others had done before: ponder the question, “What in the heck are we going to do with the old brewery?”
“Wherever you go in the country and say you’re from Tumwater or Olympia, people will inevitably say, ‘Artesians!’ ‘Beer, right?’” Doan said. “We still have brand equity around beer. How do we leverage that?”
Then it hit them like the shudder you get from a shot of moonshine.
When Leopold Schmidt, a German immigrant from Montana, built his four-story brewhouse below Tumwater Falls in 1896, his craft brewery, at first, churned out a few meager barrels a year until the taste for Olympia grew.
What if Tumwater seeded the brewery neighborhood with the building blocks for a craft revival in brewing, distilling, and cider-making? Distilling spirits, in particular, has yet to really take off in Washington state. The industry has yet to find a home as the wine industry has in Woodinville, Yakima Valley, and Walla Walla.
Could Tumwater become that home?
The idea has inspired key players to catch craft fever.
To become the capital of craft brewing and distilling requires expertise. So, Tim Stokes, president of South Puget Sound Community College, created a two-year craft brewing and distilling program that he thinks can grow into a four-year degree program. The inaugural classes start this fall.
“We were looking for a signature program,” Stokes said. “My family (in Arkansas) was in the distilling business for a while … When I heard this idea, I immediately thought, ‘Why not? Let’s try it.’ There’s not a program like this anywhere in the country.”
Meanwhile, Thurston County’s Center for Business & Innovation will chip in business support and investor connections to launch craft startups.
Justin Stiefel, CEO of Gig Harbor-based Heritage Distilling, has committed the state’s No. 1 distilling brand to opening a distillery and tasting room.
“This business is blowing up all over the country,” Stiefel said. “People want fresh, different, local. … This is our chance to give it to them.”
Then along came John Peters. He formed Craft District LLC, which already has plowed 5.5 acres in the shadow of the old brewery. SPSCC, Heritage, and other craft startups — beer, cider, wine, cheese, chocolate, coffee, and baked goods — will begin moving into four buildings in early 2019.
Will the investment catch fire enough to spill over into related redevelopment at the Olympia brewery?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Peters chuckled. “Our project will be the proof of concept as a draw for attention and traffic for bigger players to come in and help with that.”
“So much of success,” Doan said, “is about luck and capturing that luck when it passes you by.”
Just like the famous old, hand-drawn Olympia Beer label with the words “GOOD LUCK” hammered into the top of a golden horseshoe.
Good luck, Tumwater. Good luck.
Dan Voelpel is a former award-winning business columnist and has observed, written about, and advocated for the South Sound for more than three decades. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.