Thurston County’s beer roots run as deep as its famous artesian wells.
Opened in 1896 by Leopold Schmidt, Olympia Brewery was a significant player in the region’s sudsy brew movement. The brewery slogged through Prohibition during the early 20th century and ownership changes 50 years later, but persisted with a slogan known around the world: “It’s the Water.”
That brewery closed in 2003 when its parent company shuttered the Tumwater plant and moved the production operation. It’s still being brewed, but it’s about a 1,000 miles away, in Irwindale, California.
After the closure, Thurston County’s brewing community didn’t grow at all, but that’s changed recently.
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“It’s kind of a hidden brew scene down here; we’re trying to grow it and let people know what’s happening ...,” explained Neil Meyer of the newly formed O-Town Brewing. “This could be the next down-the-road destination for breweries. Tacoma and Seattle and Portland have a scene going on, it’d be nice to have the Olympia area be the next big thing.”
Casey Sobol, co-owner of Top Rung Brewing in Lacey, added, “When we opened (in April 2014), ... Fish Brewing was kind of the only brewery down here. When we wanted to go to any other brewery or go to craft beer, we’d have to go up to Tacoma or way down south to Portland. There was a big gap; we saw this need for the area. The Olympia area has such a big brewing history with the Olympia Brewery, we had to bring that back.”
Nate Reilly, co-owner of Three Magnets Brewing, which opened in November 2014, also saw that potential for growth when he started planning his brewpub with wife Sara more than two years ago. “We were walking around downtown two and a half years ago, and we walked by where the new Olympia Coffee Company is expanding. I was like, this is a perfect place for a brewery. There was only one brewery in Olympia then. I really thought it was a pipe dream.”
He forged ahead. That pipe dream? It was the start of something, for sure.
Today? There are six new breweries, all open since 2014.
Take a tour here of new Thurston County breweries:
NEW BREWERIES OPEN TO THE PUBLIC
These breweries are open to the public for touring and sampling.
Three Magnets Brewing Co.
Contact: 600 Franklin St. SE, Olympia, WA 98501; 360-972-2481; threemagnetsbrewing.com.
Note: All ages in restaurant; bar is 21 and older.
Hours: Restaurant open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; bar open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday.
Opened: The brewpub opened in November 2014, but brewery operations began in July 2014.
As the owners of the popular Darby’s Cafe for 10 years, Nate and Sara Reilly are well known to longtime Olympians. They never intended to open a brewpub the size and scale of Three Magnets Brewing Co., but after securing the huge downtown space, they grew their idea of an intimate 50-seat brewery to the 200-seater in downtown Olympia.
The brewery is named after the English garden city movement of Ebenezer Howard, whose philosophy focused on the three magnets of a utopian community. Explained Sara Reilly, “We wanted to be the center of the community, a British-style pub where kids are running around. A ‘Cheers’ kind of place where people feel comfortable and casual. We wanted to be the hub of the community.”
One step into the bustling working brewery and brewpub and Sara’s sense of community was on display, with a large social group networking in one room of the brewery, while two young families dined with children in an adjacent room holding beer in wooden barrels stacked to the ceiling.
Gastropub is an oft-overused term to describe a brewpub with elevated fare, but the term actually fits here. Find an ambitious menu executed by chef Kyle Wnuk, who began at the brewery in July. South Sounders will recall the chef from his ownership of Marrow, a top-notch eatery in Tacoma, which Wnuk and co-owners Jaime Kay and Jason Jones sold in 2014. Nate Reilly said the brewery took a chance in hiring Wnuk, known more recently for haute cuisine than pub eats, but it was a worthy risk to elevate their pub fare to a level not seen in Olympia, or Tacoma for that matter.
From the burger side of the menu, the Jamburger ($15) arrived as a towering affair with the flame-grilled burger on a cottony brioche bun, with nutty Tunawerth gouda, tomato jam and a smoky onion aioli. The Lamburger ($17) was ground lamb from Yakima’s Martinez Ranch Farm, stacked in a similar fashion as the Jamburger, speared with cornichons and served with crispy-creamy house-cut fries.
Wnuk’s culinary imagination is on display with his 3Mag Boards, house-cured seafood and meat selections paired with a trio of small beer pours. The seafood board ($24) was a delicious collision of Nordic technique with Northwest ingenuity — slippery hop-smoked halibut; octopus turned into a toothsome carpaccio; jewel-toned arctic char gravlax cured with beets, and a little bit of turf to complement the surf, a spreadable pork sausage nduja. The board was expertly paired with tastes of a porter, sour and lager.
Consider the elevated food an equal match for the beer, executed by Pat Jansen with assistance from Jeff Stokes. Jansen’s long been a name in Olympia beer and several people interviewed for this story called him a mentor. He earned a nod from the Washington Beer Awards this summer with a bronze medal for his barleywine. His beers, like Wnuk’s cooking, venture into territory few local breweries tackle. Find a beer list peppered with lagers, sours and farmhouse ales. Up to a dozen beers are poured here, with guest taps. Visitors can watch the brewing in action as the brewery’s in the center of the building.
The Reillys say their ambitious brewery has been well received, although diners are still adjusting to the hybrid style of service where table service is offered only during slower periods. The order-at-the-counter protocol kicks in when it’s busier. The high-end menu can feel at odds with the laid-back brewery service I would describe as friendly neglect on my visit. Just know that if you’re tired of waiting, head to the counter and take faster possession of your beer.
Top Rung Brewing
Contact: 8343 Hogum Bay Lane NE, Lacey; 360-915-8766; toprungbrewing.com.
Note: All ages.
Hours: 4-9 p.m. Thursdays; 2-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; and noon-5 p.m. Sundays.
Opened: April 2014.
Although Top Rung Brewing has only been open 16 months, the Lacey-based brewery and taproom has plans to double its production this year. That’s a testament to how receptive Thurston County has been to new brewers, said co-owner Casey Sobol, who operates Top Rung with business partner and fellow firefighter Jason Stoltz.
The two met while working for the McLane Black Lake Fire Department. “I’m a shift captain and Jason became one of our firefighters on my shift,” said Sobol. “It kind of morphed into more than a hobby. We did smaller batches, we would do tastings with co-workers. Each year, we would do a big tasting event at my house during the holidays.” From there, they went pro with a working brewery completely on display.
If it’s not apparent from the name that the brewery is run by two firefighters, it is in the taproom outfitted with firehouse memorabilia. A statue of a dalmatian dog welcomes visitors, ladders double as hanging light fixtures, and the logo looks like a firefighter shield.
Find seven brews on tap, with one tap from a visiting brewery or cidery. The brewery is receiving some buzz in the area for keeping two lagers on tap, something unusual in a region known for its love of ales. The brewery’s stout earned the ultimate nod for a brand-new brewery — a gold medal at the 2015 Washington Beer awards for its My Dog Scout Stout.
Find a bustling working brewery with a taproom outfitted with communal tables and shelves piled with board games. It’s typical to see children at the family-friendly taproom, which is located in a business park, where you’d never think to look for a brewery. No food beyond pretzels and other snacks is served, except for occasional visits from mobile food businesses, but outside food is welcomed.
Contact: 211 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia; 360-943-2337; cascadiahomebrew.com.
Note: All ages are welcome in the taproom.
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Thursday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Opened: April 2015.
Chris Emerson’s 3-month-old Cascadia Homebrew in downtown Olympia is a hybrid store squarely aimed at homebrewers, but doubles as Olympia’s newest — and smallest — brewery.
Cascade Homebrew stocks brewing supplies, with more than 80 kinds of hops, and mostly organic grains, and is a place to learn how to brew beer. Besides classes, anyone can book brew time at the store using Emerson’s recipes or their own.
But it’s his experimental beers that Emerson’s most happy to discuss. He calls his beers the kind that push the edge a little.
That experimentation translates into rosemary saison, a Belgian Wit brewed with chamomile (sourced locally), and the freedom to dabble in beer niches, such as gluten-free beers. He’s currently pouring a gluten-free chocolate milk stout.
He’s most proud of his gruit beers, which is a class of beer that uses botanicals and herbs in lieu of hops. “You can make a gruit with pine, cedar, heather, mugwort. You can make it with anything. For thousands of years, all beer was gruit. You just used the herbs that grew in your area. It’s an interesting style that’s one of the fun parts of being a small-scale brewery. I get to experiment with fun things, and I don’t have to play the traditional roles. When you have a seven-barrel system, you’ve got to sell beers everyone likes, but I can do untraditional things, specialized beers for a special crowd.”
The taproom has seating for fewer than 20, and is a comfortable mix of table and bar seating that has its entire brewing operation on display. Emerson usually has four beers on tap.
PRODUCTION ONLY BREWERIES
These breweries are production only. Find their beers on tap around Olympia, but no taprooms to visit.
Contact: 360-701-4706; facebook.com/OTownBrewing.
On tap in Olympia: Regularly found at Northwest Beerwerks, Gravity Beer Market, Skep and Skein, Iron Rabbit and elsewhere.
What happens when a German-style brewery and a Northwest brewery collide? A collaboration called O-Town Brewing.
The brewery is a mashup of brewers Bryan Trunnell, of German-focused brewery Kastellan Brauerei, and Matt Smith and Neil Meyer, the namesakes behind S&M Brewing. Trunnell professionally brewed for two years before closing Kastellan. Smith and Meyer brewed unofficially for two years. Together, they brew in a production-only facility in Thurston County not open to the public.
The brewery partnership isn’t just in name, it’s also a partnership in beer style.
Explained Meyer, “We merged the two styles together, and that’s really personified with our Brewtarski, which is a German pale ale made with Northwest hops.”
O-Town’s tap list is far flung, including porters, kolsches and a coffee nut brown rye that’s a collaboration with Olympia’s Mud Bay Coffee. Their dry-hopped double IPA is a popular seller, but they were surprised recently by the fervent reaction to something that sounds like a beer dare: Sails N Gunpowder, a “Caribbean” IPA that’s a made-up style of beer that combines vanilla, cinnamon, coconut and is infused with rum-soaked oak staves and citrusy hops. The brewery expects to be brewing plenty of that in the near future. It debuted the beer at the Olympia Brew Fest this month.
Triceratops Brewing Co.
Opened: July 2014.
On tap in Olympia: Three Magnets Brewing Co., Eastside Club Tavern, Rhythm and Rye and elsewhere.
Rob Horn’s brewery is so small, it qualifies in the nano-nano brewery category. He operates his one-barrel Triceratops Brewing Co. out of his home, which is not open to the public, much to the liking of wife Kelly.
Triceratops got its name from “the three little Horns.” Those would be Rob and Kelly’s children, Molly, Sammy and Ben (also the names of three of Horn’s IPAs). He started brewing professionally about a year ago and found great success in persuading local taprooms to stock his beer. Like the brewers from Top Rung, he’s also a firefighter, serving at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
In the early days, he tested his beer on his fellow firefighters. “What I would do, I’d take bottles to the firehouse to get feedback from people whose tastes I knew. I’d make adjustments. Then I started getting requests. Someone would say, ‘I’m having a picnic, can you bring some home brew?’ Or, ‘I’m having a wedding, can you bring some home brew?’ From there, I grew and grew.”
In addition to the IPAs named after his kids, Ford also brews milk stouts (using Hawthorne Coffee), a strawberry blonde ale and a rye IPA.
Hoh River Brewery
Contact: hohriverbrewery.com; 360-705-4000 (also a business line for a wood floor business).
Opening: Sometime this fall.
John Christopherson’s Tumwater brewery received its licensing in May, which gave him just enough time to brew a single batch of beer before he started an upgrade on his brewery. Right now, he’s outfitting his production brewery with a two-barrel system. “It’s a big step from what I was brewing, which was a 50-gallon kettle system,” he said. Christopherson’s brewery is at his workshop and not open to the public, but he has the space and licensing approval to open as a taproom. For now, he offers tours by appointment.
Locals should begin seeing his beers on taps around Olympia starting this fall.
He turned his hobby into a profession after figuring the expensive hobby should pay for itself (in theory, anyway). His brewery is named after the Olympic Peninsula river that has significance for family members from that area.
Just call him a hophead. His beers are all IPAs, and his signature beer will be the Hoppy Hoh, a beer that carries an International Bitterness Unit (the measure of a beer’s bitterness) rating of 100 units. “It’s a big tasting beer. It’s made with the standard Cascade, Amarillo, Simcoe and Citra — the standard Northwest blend of hops.”
He added, “I’m going to make a pale ale, and I’ve made some lagers. I’m still in the experimentation stage of the beers. My regular IPA and my Hoppy Hoh IPA are the two that are really popular and people really go after.”
The Tumwater Artesian Brewfest is your chance to try several Olympia-area brewers, including O-Town, Three Magnets, Triceratops, Fish Brewing Co. and Top Rung.
When: 1-8 p.m. Aug. 22.
Where: Tumwater Valley Driving Range, 4611 Tumwater Valley Drive SE, Tumwater.
Tickets: $20 presale or $25 at the gate, with discounts for designated drivers ($10-$15) and military members ($15-$20). Event is for those 21 and older only.
What: Admission includes a tasting mug and five tastes from about 30 breweries, cideries and wineries.
THE BIG GUYS
Two large brewpubs operate in Olympia, but they’re both too big to be considered in the same category of the newer Olympia-based small craft breweries. Here’s a quick look at these two macro brewers.
Fish Tale Brewpub: The 21-and-older only Fish Tale Brewpub is the oldest brew kid on the block (it opened in 1993), and that translates into a finely tuned dine-and-brew experience. Find a menu of well-executed pub fare for the price, from a flame-grilled half pound burger ($11.99) dressed to impress to house-made wurst ($8.59) with a lean bite. Don’t miss the British-style house-made bangers and mash ($12.59) or the outstanding fish tacos ($11.99) with lemon-dressed cabbage. The Fish Brewing Co. operation is across the street, but find the brewery’s specialty, organic beers, on tap, as well as guest taps. Find the brewpub at 515 Jefferson St. SE, Olympia; 360-943-6480, fishbrewing.com.
McMenamins Spar: The Oregon-based family of restaurants and breweries purchased The Spar in 2006 from the McWain family, which had operated the downtown Olympia destination since the 1940s. The all-ages-welcome brewpub advertises that it brews its beer on-site, but you won’t see much of a brew operation from the dining room. I wouldn’t return for the overcooked flame-grilled burger ($11) or the it’s-so-dry-it’s-dusty vegetarian Hammerhead Garden burger ($11.50), but I would for the brewery’s vegetarian mushroom and roasted pepper sandwich ($13.25) and the outstanding truffle fries. Don’t miss the Edgefield cider, if it’s on tap. Find the brewpub at 114 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia; 360-357-6444, mcmenamins.com/spar.
CIDER AND MEAD
These brewers don’t work with grains, but they’re brewers indeed. Thurston County is home to a cidery and a meadery.
Whitewood Cider Co.: David White started his production-only Olympia cidery in 2011, with his first cider release in 2012. He’s operated it as a second job much of that time, but recently left his day job to become a full-time cider producer. Count his Old Fangled cider the most popular of his small line of craft ciders. That cider is made with Washington-grown apples, a blend of McIntosh, Jonathan, Gravenstein and Winesap varieties. Find his cider on tap all over town, including Three Magnets Brewery, Rhythm and Rye, Old School Pizza, Eastside Club and Northwest Beerwerks. Cidery visits are by appointment only. More info at 360-705-8202, whitewoodcider.com.
Skep and Skein Meadery and Tavern: Since 2010, Dave Ross’ meadery is also a taproom pouring a rich list of South Sound beers. A single house-made mead — a fermented beverage made from honey — is served every week, and our barkeep warned that the meadery occasionally runs out by the weekend. A recent visit found a crisp cyser on tap. I liked that pours are served in 5-, 9- or 16-ounce tastes. Find Skep and Skein next door at Wally’s Subs, 2106 Harrison Ave. NW, Olympia; 360-292-4400, skepandskein.com.