One-hundred twenty years ago, the 20-block section of downtown Tacoma covering South 21st Street to South Tacoma Way and Pacific Avenue to Tacoma Avenue South was lined with cobblestones, towering brick buildings, and the rich and heavy aroma of malt and hops. This was the city’s Brewery District, where major beer-makers such as Pacific Brewing & Malting, Columbia Brewing Co., and Heidelberg Brewing Company came for the area’s underground artesian wells, bringing with them a critical mass of brewers and imbibers alike.
By the 1920s, however, the enactment of Prohibition signaled the end of Tacoma’s hop heyday, shuttering most of Tacoma’s breweries — Heidelberg managed to make it until 1979.
Fast-forward to today, and the once-dormant Brewery District is experiencing a resurgence.
The roots of this revival date back to 1990, when the University of Washington opened a downtown Tacoma campus, bringing with it the promise of people — and potential revenue.
As the campus grew, the district’s economy began to recover. Harmon Brewing Co. opened in 1997 and thrived on Pacific Avenue, breaking the ice for future brewers some 20 years later.
The old Heidelberg Brewing Co. building was converted into a storage warehouse for Dale Chihuly art — the exterior left unkempt, the interior well-maintained, and even staffed.
Two years ago, the 80,000-square-foot building was back on the market and drawing attention from entrepreneurs, namely Mike Runion and Travis Guterson, the owners of Gig Harbor-based 7 Seas Brewery.
The duo said the space had it all: square footage, soaring ceilings, loading docks, and a 700-foot artesian well directly beneath. Its close proximity to UWT’s campus didn’t hurt, either.
But most appealing, however, is that the building is positioned between the soon-to-open, 180,000-square-foot Town Center and the mixed-use Brewery Blocks development.
“We are having housing, retail, and office space going in all around us, and it’s creating this synergy,” Runion marveled. “It’s such a unique corner of Tacoma. Industrial and brewing roots are all around us.”
More Development on Tap
Runion and Guterson aren’t the only craft beer mavens eyeing the Brewery District.
Black Fleet Brewing Taproom & Kitchen will open late this summer in a 10,000-square-foot space at the corner of Fawcett Avenue and South 23rd Street, just up the hill from 7 Seas.
“This area has been overlooked for years,” said Kyle Maxwell, who co-owns the business with his partner, Caitlyn Byce. “But these big, old buildings are perfect. Buildings with 15-to-18-foot ceilings are hard to come by.”
Like Runion, Maxwell believes the developing neighborhood will be a boon to his startup brewery. “The city announced the Town Center project the day after we signed the lease,” Maxwell said. “We couldn’t believe it.”
The mixed-use Town Center project, being developed by the China-based North American Asset Management LLC, will include 600 residential units, approximately 20,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, and an estimated 60,000 square feet of office space. It will be located just down the hill from St. Joseph Medical Center, its employees likely comprising a large part of the project’s residents and retail traffic.
Pacific Brewing & Malting Co. — named after the historical business, but of no direct relation — has a tasting room across town near South Seventh Street and Pacific Avenue. At the time of publication, the company was in the process of negotiating a move of its production to a site on Jefferson Avenue just south of 7 Seas, right down the street from the original Pacific Brewing. It seeks to consolidate production of its Pacific brand and the Edmonds-based American Brewing Company, which it recently purchased.
“We looked for commercial space for a good year and a half before we found this space,” said Steve Navarro, co-owner and head of brewing operations at Pacific and American breweries. “We really want to be part of this side of town.”
The location needs to have ample power, high ceilings, parking, and enough space to grow the production, he said. The prospective space on Jefferson would be solely utilized for production, though Navarro hopes to open a tasting room in the future.
A second X Group Restaurants-owned Engine House No. 9 Brewery location also will open later this year, at 2506 Fawcett Ave. The 9,000-square-foot space will house all of the brewery’s beer-making operations, and also will serve as a taproom with light snacks.
“We thought it was a good idea to be in the Brewery District,” said X Group Restaurant managing partner John Xitco. “The building was laid out perfectly for a brewery. It has a barrel roof, 25-foot-high ceilings, and lots of natural light.”
The building will give the brewery the opportunity to double its capacity and grow from there. The current brewery already is distributing in the Pacific Northwest and in the major cities on the East Coast, but is unable to meet its demand.
Down the street, Horizon Partners is developing Brewery Block, which aims to offer more brewery-type restaurants; tasting rooms; and even an unnamed cider company, which is eyeing space in the project.
“The whole idea is to have people live, work, and play (in the same area),” said Kyle Prosser of First Western Properties Inc., which will handle the property’s commercial leasing and sales.
The entire development will have 200 units of market-rate residential housing, 75,000 square feet of Class A office space, and 50,000 square feet of retail space. The development also will include 300 parking stalls. The materials used in the development’s construction will adhere to the post-and-beam style reminiscent of the district’s past.
Beer and Books
But a thirst for malted hops isn’t the only thing fueling the Brewery District’s growth, according to Elly Walkowiak, assistant director for Tacoma’s Community and Economic Development department, and Pat Beard, the city’s project manager.
“I believe UW did an outstanding job (developing its Tacoma campus), and that is one of the key reasons that the Brewery District is getting so much interest,” Beard said.
The campus has been the impetus for the growth in and around the district, Walkowiak added.
Walkowiak said the city was fortunate to be able to infill a high-density development in the middle of this older part of town.
“The city had 6.4 acres in over 33 parcels that it had aggregated,” she said. “It was a blank canvas. Meanwhile, there are several historic buildings that add character to this part of the city.”
Walkowiak believes the Brewery District’s mix of old buildings and new construction will make it attractive to people from around the region.
“There is a need for more housing regionally,” she said. “Tacoma is more value-conscious. We see more and more people moving here from Seattle because it’s so expensive up there. We have less traffic and still lots of cultural activities.”
“The future in Tacoma is bright,” said Pacific and American breweries’ Navarro. “There is a lot of outside money coming in now. A lot of people are starting to recognize Tacoma, and that will help grow the city.”
Runion believes all this growth will help develop a critical mass of local brewers.
“We are super excited to get more great breweries here,” he said. “It’s just awesome to see all the revitalization and growth.”