RRRRRAAAAAAIIIINNNNIIIEEEER BEEEER — Locals of a certain age, sang along with that sentence.
The bar-and-beer-cooler scene these days is a bit more stocked with microbrews and megabrands masquerading as IPA powerhouses, but there was a time when Rainier beer reigned supreme.
Rainier’s rise to be the Northwest’s king of beers wasn’t about the water or the recipe. It was all about the quirky, topical, and downright hilarious commercials from the mid-1970s until the late 1980s.
Those television spots can predominantly be found as barely watchable transfers of dusty VHS tapes on YouTube, but now they will be upgraded to 4K, preserved and presented thanks to a locally produced documentary.
Rainier: A Beer Odyssey
“Rainier: A Beer Odyssey” is an independent feature documentary in the works. It all started when Tacoma’s Peterson Bros. 1111 owners Justin and Robby Peterson got to chatting with filmmaker Isaac Olsen about wanting to upgrade with a shrine to a Rainier beer booth at their bar to better tell the story of the Pacific Northwest’s iconic brewery. That chat gave rise to making a documentary from the original footage, which they found just down the hill at the Washington State Historical Society’s archives.
Washington State Historical Society Special Collections’ Ed Nolan had salvaged hundreds of film rolls from the Rainier brewery when the beermaker left town in 1999.
“The film was sitting on palettes wrapped in saran wrap,” Olsen said. “Nobody was interested in it, and since there was so much of it, and even storing film is a big undertaking, it’s likely it would have been junked. The arrangement was for Rainier to gift to WSHS lots of boxes of historical documents, artifacts, and large paintings hanging in the original ‘Mountain Room.’ This film was never discussed, but when Ed saw it sitting there, he knew it had to be saved too. Taking it had no short-term practical usefulness, but he knew someday it would be useful to someone. This is a very important (but fading) line of thinking in his profession. This simple but progressive act is what makes projects like this possible.”
Saved from the dump that day was about 60 hours of finished commercials, outtakes, and extra footage in more than 100 boxes of film cans that marked not only a landmark time in Northwest brewing but in beer advertising.
“At the time these commercials first aired, beer commercials were boring,” Justin Peterson said. “When Rainier aired the new commercials, I think it changed a lot of people’s idea of what commercials could be like. It doesn’t have to take the product so seriously and can be fun. People loved them so much that they couldn’t wait for them to come on tv. With such excitement, there is no way they wouldn’t have a lasting effect. You mention rainier beer, and people immediately start imitating the motorcycle commercial rainiiiierbeeeeerrr.”
The commercials tapped into the zeitgeist of time and place that Puget Sound was then in much the same way, era, as the age of Grunge.
“Seattle was a completely different political and social environment in the 70s than it is now (as far as I’m told),” Robby Peterson said. “Even though these commercials seem so right-on with how we think of Seattle and the Northwest today, they were really ahead of their time. The self-deprecating Northwest humor reminds me of things we saw from “Almost Live” later in the 90s.”
Alongside commercials for herds of Rainier beer bottles crossing a forested road, a Rambo spoof, a gaggle of shoots starring the late Mickie Rooney, Sasquatch spots, and some outtakes flesh out the gems in the collection.
“There’s one where they built these living room sets in
the desert that you could actually drive around and operate, like a working
vehicle,” Justin Peterson said. “Later, they did the same thing with
These commercials were made by the Heckler-Bowker advertising agency between 1974 and 1987. Then Bond Brewing bought Rainier and moved everything in-house to market to a national market rather than keeping commercials locally relevant.
“The idea was to abandon the ‘Northwest style’ and think globally to make more money, as was the custom then,” Olsen said. “(The commercials) were cheesy then, and time has not been kind to them. But in this agency’s defense, the style was merely what everybody was doing at that time.”
Saving the Memories of the Brew
While Olsen is busy converting the filmed commercials to high-definition digital files for the film, donations to finance the project continue to come in with homes of screening the documentary during the 2024 film festival circuit. That year just also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the first of the Heckler-Bowker commercials.
The documentary itself will be part stroll down memory lane for Rainier beer lovers, part feature about preserving film and part marketing lessons.
“I feel we have a high bar to achieve, and we are trying to honor all who were a part of making these commercials and at home enjoying them,” Justin Peterson said. “We will be covering what Seattle advertising was like and how the Rainier commercials changed everything. We are going to cram visually every commercial we can into the movie.”