Finally, positive momentum at historic brewery

The OlympianMay 16, 2014 

Ruger the watchdog keeps watch outside the historic Tumwater Brewery on Wednesday, May 14, 2014.

TONY OVERMAN — Staff Photographer

If the City of Tumwater and its partners can make the Tumwater Craft Brewing and Distillery Center a reality, it will be time to pop a bottle of champagne.

It was a smiling group of people Thursday who announced a public-private partnership determined to redevelop the historic Tumwater Brewery site and facilities north of Custer Way. Their good cheer and excitement was justified, because the road to this day has been long and arduous.

Ever since the Olympia Brewery Co. closed for good on June 27, 2003, eliminating 400 family-wage jobs, Tumwater officials have struggled over how to revitalize dozens of prime acres in the heart of the city. For the past decade, the once-iconic brewery, so visible from Interstate 5, languished in real estate entanglements and bankruptcy.

It’s been tough for South Sound residents to witness the slow decline of buildings where the Schmidt family once ran a successful, locally owned and operated brewery. But for years, the buildings have stood empty, physically deteriorating and clouded by legal issues.

So, pardon us if we are raising our collective hopes too high, too soon. The announcement was, after all, just for a feasibility study. But this project appears to have a high chance for success.

A Craft Brewing and Distilling Center taps into two young and growing Washington state industries – think the Wine Science Center at Washington State University in the Tri-Cities, but with a larger scope

This center could be a regional economic driver creating jobs, attracting tourists, and providing education for workforce development, and industry-related research.

We’re particularly excited about how South Puget Sound Community College and Washington State University might work together to train future brewmasters and distillers. SPSCC might create an Associate of Applied Technology degree with a transfer option into WSU’s Craft Brewing and Distilling Bachelors degree.

The university might run extension programs at the center, too, perhaps doing research projects on grains, the core ingredient of brewing and distilling operations.

Washington state already has 136 craft breweries — the second-largest number in the nation behind California — with more than 13,000 full-time employees making an average annual wage of about $34,000.

Since the Legislature cleared the way for craft distilleries in 2008, the business has been booming in Washington, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the nation. The state Liquor Control Board has licensed about 90 small distilleries that can produce a maximum of 150,000 gallons per year and sell up to three liters per day to one individual at the distillery. The LCB has about another 30 applications pending.

Although, the Craft Brewing and Distilling Center is far from a fait accompli, kudos are already due to the City of Tumwater for initiating this idea, and to its public and private partners for seeing its potential.

A center for brewing and distilling feels so appropriate for this community. It would create a practical and emotional link to the past when Leopold Schmidt, an early settler, founded the brewery in 1896.

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