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Sidle up to any bar and try asking for an Oly. After your server gives you a blank look, you might have to slowly enunciate

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Olympia Beer: The Water and the History

Olympia horseshoe.jpeg
Sidle up to any bar and try asking for an Oly. After your server gives you a blank look, you might have to slowly enunciate the name again. Olympia. No, not the state capital, the beer. After a brief discussion about spring water and horseshoes, the bartender will probably sneer and direct you to a Coors Light or, worse, a Budweiser.

Sadly, Olympia beer has gone the way of well-made American cars, the Marlboro Man and CB radios. Even in Seattle, the chance of finding a joint (other than a grocery store) that still serves up Oly, either on draft or in a can is about as rare as, say, finding an Olympia label with four dots on the back of it in the 1980s.

And if you lived here then, you know how rare and important a find that was.

At one time, Olympia was a nationally recognized brand. During the 1970s, it was the ninth largest brewer in the United States and was pumping out three million barrels of brewski a year. The label was a favorite in Hollywood as well. Clint Eastwood used it in several of his movies; you can catch Dirty Harry Callahan drinking one in "Magnum Force". The beer was also quaffed in "The Graduate", "The China Syndrome" and by John Denver in "Oh, God!"

Heady times indeed.

Ask for a beer back then and you would likely be given an Oly unless otherwise specified. After knocking off work, blue-collar workers at Boeing or Weyerhaeuser headed to their neighborhood tavern with the boys to throw back a few "Stubbies" - Olympia's signature 11-ounce bottle - before heading home to the wife and kids.

This writer's grandfather was the model Olympia drinker. He was a union man at the Bethlehem Steel Company in West Seattle . When the work whistle blew at the end of his shift, he headed up Delridge to the Tug Tavern and had an Oly.

Although Olympia was crafted with only the finest artesian spring water , the beer was also cheap. And perhaps that fact, more than any other, made it the favorite with any man who worked with his hands for a living.

The Olympia Brewery was originally known as the Capitol Brewing Company and first brewed in 1896 by Leopold F. Schmidt. The German brewer viewed Tumwater's natural spring water as the perfect ingredient for brewing beer. The timing was fortuitous: Schmidt's brewery flourished during the Klondike Gold Rush, slaking the thirst of thousands of miners who stopped off in Seattle before heading north to the gold fields.

After changing its name to the Olympia Brewing Company in 1902, the Schmidt family hit upon the trademark slogan "It's the Water". Coupled with its horseshoe label, both marketing tactics became a hit and are still recognizable after more than a century.

Always on the forefront of nanny state idealism even then, Washington went dry in 1916, three years before Prohibition outlawed alcohol sales nationally in 1919. The Schmidt family eventually sold out after trying a variety of schemes in order to keep their Tumwater operation afloat. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Schmidt family got back in the beer business in 1934, building the "modern" Olympia Brewery familiar to most locals. The complex of sand-colored buildings sprawled over several acres and put the city of Tumwater on the map.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, television ads pitched a beer that was enjoyed by rugged outdoor types who drove pickup trucks and spent the weekend fishing or rock climbing. Later, a tongue-in-cheek campaign focused on the search for mythical creatures called Artesians who were responsible for the beer.

The company pioneered several packaging innovations, including using metal caps on bottles (1898), the seven-ounce "Little Oly" bottle (1962), the "Tall Twelve" bottle (1968) and the all-aluminum can (1971). Olympia's signature container was the 11-ounce "Stubby", having more than its own fair share of folklore surrounding it. One story is that if you peeled the label off of a Stubby and found four dots on the back, you could bring it to the brewery and get a free beer. Another, more misogynistic notion was that if a male found a four-dot label and presented it to a member of the female persuasion, she'd be expected to perform any action required of her.

The brewery is probably most fondly remembered for its tours. Pretty much every kid who grew up here has their own story. Mom and dad would bring the family down to Tumwater from Seattle or Tacoma so they could view the operation. It was an "educational" experience which had the happy side-effect of promoting brand loyalty. And at the end of the tour, the youngsters were given root beer while the older folks got a pitcher of the real stuff.

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The Olympia Brewery overlooking Tumwater Falls
So what went wrong?

Not content with being a regional powerhouse, the company undertook a strategy to break into the national market. In 1975, the Schmidt family acquired the Hamm's Brewery in Minnesota and Lone Star Brewing Company in Texas the next year, both regional players in the Midwest market. The expansion backfired, leading to regulatory difficulties and financial losses. A new recipe for a light beer introduced around this time also flopped with the public.

Company president Leopold F. "Rick" Schmidt, who took over the firm in 1974, brought scandal to the company in 1980 when he was outed for having a tryst with another man. For a beer that draped itself in sturdy, blue-collar values, the fact that the company president had homosexual tendencies was almost too much. No self-respecting construction worker, longshoreman or truck driver would want to be seen drinking "queer beer" (remember, this was 1980, well before Schmitts Gay permanently and positively altered queer beer's image).

Olympia was acquired by the G. Heileman Brewing Company in 1982, which in turn was acquired by Pabst the next year. Another merger in 1999 brought the aging Tumwater brewery into the Miller Brewing Company empire. Miller was then purchased in 2002 by South African Breweries, creating the second largest brewing company in the world.

At the time, the Olympia brewery was SABMiller's smallest, oldest and least-efficient bottling plant. Recognized for its slogan "It's the Water", the plant became embroiled in a dispute with local and state government officials who seemed intent on running the brewing company out of town by fighting over the very same water.

In 2000, Miller was unable to come to an agreement with Thurston County's regional wastewater treatment facility, LOTT. The brewery was producing over a million and a half barrels of beer a year, well under the brewery's capacity. Even still, LOTT was unable to handle increased brewery production.

The company applied for permits to treat its own water on site and in February, 2001, LOTT bought back sewage capacity from the brewery. In November, 2001, however, the Department of Ecology denied Miller's permit to discharge treated waste water into the Deschutes River, which flows past the brewery.

Complicating matters was an artificial salmon run. Salmon were not indigenous to the upper portion of the Deschutes River. The picturesque Tumwater Falls, which are located just a few feet next to the brewery effectively blocked the natural migration of salmon in the waterway. In the 1950s and 1960s a series of fish ladders and hatcheries were built on the river, allowing an upstream migration. Salmon that scale the fish ladders at the falls are collected in a holding area adjacent to the brewery and killed after their eggs are harvested.

At the time, government bureaucrats feared that the treated wastwater (which was almost clean enough to be drinking quality) would damage the artificial salmon run. An apocryphal quote attributed to an unnamed DOE staffer summed up the sentiment. "The water might be good enough for people to drink, but that doesn't mean it's good for the fish."

Rather than deal with an army of governmental pencil pushers and the dozen or so local, state and tribal agencies that were shareholders in the process, SABMiller gave the middle-finger to Washington and closed up the brewery in 2003. Over 300 employees at the Tumwater plant lost their jobs, and brewing operations were moved south to California.

As a final departing "fuck you", SABMiller placed covenants on the property stipulating that no alcohol can ever be produced again at the brewery.

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Sale signs now cover the defunct brewery grounds
As complex as the story about downfall and closure of the Olympia Brewing Company is, the fate of the brewery property over the past seven years is even more convoluted, following several separate story arcs.

After a period of mutual fingerpointing and denunciations against SABMiller for being the evil corporate bastards that they are, a knight in shining armor was sought. Enter L. Eric Whetstone and the All American Bottled Water Corp. In 2004, the entrepreneur proposed to turn the brewery into a bottled water plant while promising to attract well-heeled investors.

Instead of a Galahad, Tumwater found itself with a Falstaff. As has been covered extensively by The Olympian, Whetstone and his wife apparently pocketed investors' money and then skipped town. He had been convicted of fraud several times in the 1980s and 1990s in Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Creditors descended on All American after the company declared bankruptcy in 2007, scrabbling over the final remaining asset, the Olympia Brewery. After three years of court battles, the property was put up for auction in August, 2010 where it was purchased for $24.9 million by R.E. Loans, a California mortgage lender which had been trying to bring the brewery under foreclosure.

After having been abandoned for nearly seven years, many of the buildings that are part of the 76-year old brewery are in poor shape. Making matters worse, much of the machinery has been gutted and sold, and part of the complex sits in a flood plain. But the biggest drawback comes from the fact that Olympia, Tumwater and Lacey have effectively usurped the water rights to the brewery. Citing an obscure state law, the cities were able to condemn the water rights after they had been abandoned for five years. The cities paid $5.3 million in recompense, which was quite the bargain.

The brewery is currently being marketed by Pacific Real Estate Partners. Despite the funeral dirge which accompanies any mention of today's commercial real estate market, branch manager Troy Dana said that in the past six weeks, he's responded to three separate offers. adding that he's "cautiously optimistic" a buyer will step forward who "finds value in the brewery and who can leverage the iconic nature of the buildings".

The property has been split up into several separate parcels, but Dana said that his clients have little interest in marketing them individually. The current owners want to get rid of the brewery in one big lump.

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The brick Olympia Brewhouse, at the foot of Tumwater Falls, was built in 1906 and is on the National Register of Historic Places
Meanwhile, the old Olympia Brewhouse, visible from I-5, has recently found a new owner. The multi-story structure was built of brick and sandstone in 1906 and was converted into a paper mill in the 1920s after being sold by the Schmidt family. It has been used on and off as storage over the years and has essentially been abandoned and left to rot since the 1960s.

Last year the Brewhouse was purchased by George Heidgerken and Patrick Rhodes for $1.4 million along with 32-acres of land. To say that the structure is in dilapidated condition would be complimentary.

Over the past few months, Heidgerken's team has begun cleanup work on the site, clearing vegetation clinging to the old structure, removing debris and identifying sites and foundations of historic buildings which were used for brewing beer a century ago.

Although it doesn't look like much at the moment, Heidgerken said that he has begun actively seeking future tenants for the Brewhouse and hopes to attract either a microbrewery or a coffee roaster to the site.

"These old buildings talk to you," Heidgerken said. "If you listen to them a little bit, they'll tell you what to do.

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Nirvana leadman Kurt Cobain wearing an Olympia beer t-shirt in the 1990s
Although it's been almost eight years since the last case of Olympia left the Tumwater brewery, the label is still being brewed, now back under the banner of Pabst. In May last year, investor C. Dean Metropoulos purchased Pabst Brewing Company from SABMiller for $250 million. Along with the purchase of PBR came a beer wagon of old regional favorites, including Olympia and also Rainier beer.

Oly is currently being brewed in Irwindale, Calif. and is only being offered in 12- and 16-ounce cans. Asked about whether the Olympia Stubby will ever return, a representative with Pabst responded via e-mail in the negative.

"We agree that the Stubby bottle is a great package, and have been looking for ways to reintroduce it. However, at this time, we have no plans to bring it back," says Sanjiv Gajiwala, marketing manager for Olympia Beer.

Pabst is introducing a new packaging scheme for Olympia which will be hitting store shelves in late February. Gajiwala said that their graphics will be updated to more closely resemble can designs from the 1960s and 1970s.

Pat Herbert, a sales manager with Marine View Beverage in Tumwater, is one of the few distributors in the country which still sells Olympia. "We had a pretty good year for Oly last year," Herbert explains, saying that despite a bad economy there was a 40 percent increase in draft sales in 2010. Although 12-ounce cans make up the bulk of their product, Herbert said the sale of 16-ounce cans in convenience stores are on the rise.

Although old timers hankering for a taste of bygone days make up part of the sales, Herbert believes that most of the customers are under 30. "The bars are catering to 21-29 year olds. It's the PBR effect with kids enjoying their grandfather's beer."

The popularity of so-called retro beers has been on the rise. Spurned by their parents in the 1980s and 1990s in favor of handcrafted microbrews like Redhook, brands like Schlitz, Lone Star and Rainier have been on the rebound with the younger set. Although the origins of the retro beer movement are difficult to trace, it is often attributed locally to the Portland bar scene, where young hipsters started drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon in order to be cool and ironic.

Joe Moore has been tending bar at the 4th Avenue Tavern in Olympia for the past 15 years and has seen the change. He said that a lot of the older customers won't drink Oly, most likely because they're still pissed at Miller for closing down the brewery or because the taste of the beer brewed in California is different than when it was brewed in Tumwater. But the kids don't seem to have the same compunctions.

"If you're part of the downtown [Olympia] music scene, you drink Olympia." Moore said before adding. "I wonder if its because of the name. Or just because it's cheap."

And being cheap has always been the main appeal of Olympia beer.

 
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