Rudyard Kipling famously quipped that Tacoma was the “boomiest of boom towns.” But it could also be considered the “sudsiest of suds” towns because the City of Destiny’s early days were so interwoven with beer making. It’s a part of its history that is only recently starting to repeat.
The story of beer makers in Tacoma involves small-batch brewers looking to make money by tapping into the city’s bountiful water supply and quick access to the hops fields of the Puyallup Valley as well as the easy access to distribution networks thanks to the shipping traffic through Commencement Bay. Tacoma, in all regards, was a perfect beer town. But like the city itself, beer making started small only to boom and bust thanks to whims of outside investors. More than a dozen brew makers would form independent operations only to merge or sell their shares to then start another brewery. Ownership, names and recipes were shuffled and traded like baseball cards.
An example of how Tacoma brewing worked in those days can be found in the seeds of what would eventually become the city’s landmark beer maker. Like any great story, it started small and early in Tacoma’s history.
The collection of cabins of Tacoma City and the wooded hillside of New Tacoma merged to create the City of Tacoma in 1884. One of the first commercial breweries, Diedrich Stegmann Brewery, formed the same year. The growing immigrant population from Germany, Scandinavia and the Balkans made for a thirsty base of customers as well as a pool of expert brewers to make beer that the loggers and sailors in the area wanted to drink. Stegmann would run his brewery himself before adding a partner in 1886 and then changing the name to United States Brewing and Ice Co. in 1888. Business boomed and investors bought Stegmann’s controlling shares in 1891 to form Milwaukee Brewing. The brewery actually had no ties the nation’s beer-making capital but wanted to market itself as if it did, hence the Milwaukee name.
Meanwhile, Puget Sound Brewing Co. formed the same year as Stegmann’s operation. It came through a partnership between John D. Scholl, Anton Huth and Peter A. Kalenborn, and was a company that quickly gained notice.
“The Puget Sound Brewery has gained an enviable reputation for the manufacturing of the ‘Walhalla’ and ‘Der Goetten Trank’ beers, which are, as the name of the last implies, drink that is suitable for the gods,” according to Tacoma Illustrated: Her History, Growth & Resources – A Comprehensive Review of the City of Destiny. “Before this brewery was started considerable beer was shipped to Tacoma from the largest and most popular breweries in the East, but now saloonkeepers are rapidly withdrawing their patronage from these Eastern houses, and supply the public with an excellent beverage made from Washington hops by a process that insures a drink equally as good, in fact, superior owing to its freshness and purity. The distance of the transportation of eastern beer is said to have had a decidedly bad effect upon those drinking it, however, that may be, those who have drank the beer of this brewery enthusiastically concede its good effects.”
By 1894, however, Huth bought out Scholl – who would go on to form Chico Brewery in California. Huth would then negotiate a merger with Milwaukee Brewing in 1897 to form the Pacific Brewing and Malting Co. That parent company would then merge with Tacoma Brewing and also immediately become a major investor of a new brewery, Columbia Brewing Co.
Suffice it to say, beers made in Tacoma flooded the Pacific Northwest in dozens of styles and labels as the 20th century dawned. But then tragedy struck.
Teetotalers in the state convinced voters to outlaw alcohol in 1916, four years before the nation followed suit with the passage of the 18th Amendment. Many breweries, like Pacific Brewing simply closed. Some operations however, found ways to keep the boilers hot and their barrels rolling by making sodas or even soap until Prohibition was lifted in 1933.
Columbia Brewing, for example, switched to non-alcoholic beer called Golden Foam that proved popular, and also made fruit drinks, ciders, soft drinks, birch beer and oddities such as Chocolate Soldier and Blue Jay. Those drinks kept the company alive, but nothing brought profits like beer. On April 7, 1933, Columbia was the first Tacoma brewery to offer the public legal beer in over 17 years once Prohibition ended. Beer again flowed through its boilers as did record profits. The company then adopted the name Heidelberg Brewing Co. in 1949, a change that would create European-style pale ales that would make Tacoma nationally famous for the next three decades.
But the fame would not last. Heidelberg would bottle its last beer in 1979, a victim of a multi-million deal that left it under the same ownership as Seattle’s Rainier Brewing Co. Antitrust rules against monopoly ownership of a marketplace meant one brewery had to go, and Heidelberg drew the short straw. It simply closed.
Mass beer making might have come to an end, but that just meant the craft beer seeds of another rise of brewing was primed to sprout. The first of Tacoma’s beer renaissance was Engine House No. 9, which started out as a tavern in 1972 and quickly added brewing operations using the recipes from Tacoma’s brewing past.
Then came the Ram and Harmon, which were followed by Narrows Brewing, Tacoma Brewing, Wingman, Odd Otter Brewing Co., Dunagan Brewing, Dystopian State and Pacific Brewing and Malting Company, which took its name from Tacoma’s beer past. There is also 7 Seas Brewing Co., a Tacoma branch of a Gig Harbor-based brewery that has since taken over part of the former Heidelberg facility. Tacoma’s brewery scene continues to grow and branch, only adding to the city’s hoppy heritage.