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Finally, someone is resurrecting Olympia brewery pride

Passing the Olympia Brewing Company in 1988. (Robert Ashworth, Flickr)

Watching the land around the Olympia brewery sit idle in Tumwater is like watching the hot rod you grew up driving decay under a tarp in someone’s front yard.

In this case, the front yard is along I-5.

The site once produced Olympia Beer, and others, but has been static and silent, producing nothing for nearly 14 years. Now, someone is finally returning heritage to Tumwater, right around the Olympia brewery.

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“We are very excited to announce a new production facility that will be opening in late 2018 in Tumwater, Washington,” Justin Stiefel told KIRO Radio.

Steifel is the CEO, co-founder, and master distiller at Heritage Distilling Company, which hails from Gig Harbor. It has produced spirits since 2012, becoming the state’s largest independent craft distillery, and winning more awards each year than any other craft operation in North America. Heritage wants to take that success and expand across the street from the old Olympia brewery, and it won’t be alone.

“In addition to our distilleries, there will be a few other producers, breweries, South Puget Sound Community College will have a presence there including two- and four-year classes,” Stiefel said. “There will be an amphitheater for outside events. And it all overlooks the Deschutes River and the old Olympia brewing site.”

The new facility will not be on the brewery site, rather just south of the property.

Olympia brewery pride

The Oly brewery was a point of pride and tradition living in the Olympia and Tumwater area. I went to high school not far from it. My teachers spoke fondly of working summers at the facility, inspecting kegs and watching Oly stubbies come off the line. My senior pictures — as with nearly all high school grads each year — were taken along the Deschutes River just below the main facility.

For a time, it was hard to go to any pizza shop or bar in Olympia without an Oly ad hanging on the wall or posters of the beer with Evel Knievel or Clint Eastwood. But they were images of another time, when Olympia was among Washington’s beer royalty. For decades it rose to popularity along with Rainier and Heidelberg in Tacoma — what Stiefel calls the “great grandfathers” of the Washington state brew scene.

“Tumwater holds a special place in many people’s hearts in Western Washington and really the Northwest because it really started the evolution of craft beer back in the ’40s and ’50s,” Stiefel said. “It was home for Tumwater Brewing and for the Olympia Brewing Company. Our new facility is going to be part of the craft brewing and distilling center in Tumwater.”

Olympia beer hasn’t been produced on the site for years. In fact, the building hasn’t produced a drop since 2003. Olympia Beer was sold to one company, then another, before coming under the ownership of Pabst in the late 1990s (it’s now made in California). The large Oly sign seen from I-5 was taken down, and we watched a Miller sign go up in its place. Miller tried to make a go at it, producing Henry Weinhard’s there for a time, but that didn’t last long.

The Miller sign, too, eventually came down leaving a faint, vacant stain where a legacy was once on display. Since then the property has sat lifeless, and the pride it once produced was relegated to novelty t-shirts found at local bars.

There were rumors of a water bottling plant going into the facility in 2007, but that too went flat along with the economy.

A new era

There is now a chance to brew up — or distill — some of that old Oly pride. According to The Olympian, the plan is to construct up to 40,000-square-feet of buildings at a site just south of the brewery. Heritage, along with Sandstone Distillery of Tenino are the first tenants. South Puget Sound Community College will also occupy a portion. Cideries, breweries and even restaurants will reportedly come along in the future.

“This will be the first time that product is being distilled in Tumwater, legally, since prohibition,” Stiefel said. “The evolution of this concept in Tumwater really came about from the City of Tumwater, City of Olympia, and South Puget Sound Community College. They wanted to reinvigorate brewing activity and introduce distilling activity into this part of Thurston County — and remind people that Tumwater was the epicenter of brewing for a long time.”

The effort to reinvigorate the imbibe industry in Tumwater has taken years. Part of the project is to offer educational programs in brewing and distilling. South Puget Sound Community College has already got its training programs lined up. The state Legislature recently provided funding for the classes, Stiefel said.

“This is going to be a nationally recognized program for people around the country to come and learn about brewing and distilling,” Steifel said.

It will also be the next step for Stiefel. In his own way, he has been moving toward this his entire life. He studied chemical engineering in college, but he was studying long before that.

“I did my first batch in seventh grade in Spokane,” Stiefel said. “I grew up watching M*A*S*H* and I was always fascinated by what BJ Hunnicutt was doing in their tent. So I set up my own still in seventh grade and I got an A on that project.”

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would open a full distillery,” he said. “It wasn’t legal in Washington. It didn’t become legal until 2009. But the evolution of the industry has grown that fast because Washington has a tremendous history in winemaking, brewing and now Washington is leading the charge when it comes to craft spirits.”

The Olympia brewery facility still remains vacant. There remains hope it will, too, be resurrected one day. It’s not known if a new company sign will now be prominently displayed on the old building, facing I-5. But what is known, is that heritage will live on in Tumwater.

Heritage Distilling Company is an advertiser with KIRO Radio and MyNorthwest. No advertising dollars are related to this column.

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