Bottled memories: Washington beer through the ages

Seattle’s beer culture has changed, but once upon a time, wild Rainiers roamed the hills and beer labels promised sex.

Crosscut archive image.

A 1906 Rainier beer poster - "Beneficial to young and old!"

Seattle’s beer culture has changed, but once upon a time, wild Rainiers roamed the hills and beer labels promised sex.

Drinking locally has a long tradition, though it has gone in and out of vogue. Washington was a major supplier of hops for beer and grapes for wine long before Prohibition, and during it, we avidly smuggled booze from Canada. One prominent bootlegger, featured in the new Ken Burns documentary Prohibition, which airs this month on KCTS, was a Seattle police officer, Roy Olmstead, whose side business was managing a gang of booze smugglers. They communicated via secret messages embedded in the scripts of a radio program for children, broadcast from a home in the Mount Baker neighborhood.

I grew up in Mount Baker and heard stories of Prohibition, though I don’t think I ever received any secret messages via KOMO’s kid-show host Captain Puget. But often you’d see a sleek old cruiser on Puget Sound and some boat buff would point out that it was likely built as a rumrunner, designed to zip around the sound’s dark channels.

In the 1980s, consciousness about local foods was blossoming, the state’s wine industry had burst onto the national scene, and local beer makers were making a comeback with microbrews. Washington hops, grains, a beer-friendly climate, and thirsty baby boomers made this a perfect place for what “ales” us.

After Prohibition, ordinary local beers, mostly lagers, had resurged and become part of everyday life. If you list local icons of the last half-century, you’d have to include beers like Olympia and Rainier (“Vitamin R”). They weren’t microbrews; they were what you might call baseline beers, that supported tavern culture.

Olympia’s slogan was “It’s the Water,” but say “Olympia” today and most people think of a political swamp. In the early ’70s, I was nearly impeached as editor of the college newspaper at Evergreen for accepting an Olympia beer ad that read: “Your Playboy arrived. No centerfold. You owe yourself an Oly.” The PC police said it was sexist, but I defended the brewery’s right to exploit young men’s sexual frustration, and won.

Rainier Beer probably made a bigger cultural mark. Its TV ad campaign featuring an elusive herd of wild Rainiers caught on with the public (one is in captivity at the Museum of History & Industry). Rainier also tried producing beers in varieties and shades long before it was cool. In the ’60s, it introduced three kinds: Light-Light, Light and Not-So-Light. Cute, but confusing to beer-addled fans who just wanted a plain old Rainier. The brewery also produced Rainier Ale, which resulted in hellacious hangovers and was nicknamed “Green Death.” Green was the color of the container, and of your face the next morning.

In the beer culture of our home, my father set the tone. We lived a couple of blocks from the old Sicks’ Stadium. Emil Sick owned Rainier brewery and the team named after his beer. Rainiers were on the field — and available for consumption under the grandstand. That’s where my father “watched” most of the baseball games we attended. In Seattle, beer and baseball were literally one and the same, long before Bill the Beerman rocked the Kingdome.

Still, Rainier was my father’s backup beer; his first choice was Tacoma’s Heidelberg. In the ’60s Cold War era, when we kids feared being nuked by the Russians, my mother told us that we would have to use my father’s basement darkroom as a bomb shelter. This was where my dad stored his beer. If we survived an atomic attack, we could have fallen back on selling warm beer to a radioactive public.

In the mid-’60s, the Olympia and Rainier bottle labels had mysterious dots or marks on the back — probably printer’s marks of some kind — but when I was in junior high, these were alleged to be tickets for sex. One dot meant you could go to first base with a girl, and so on up to five dots. What happened at five dots boggled the mind!

Long before we could drink, we hunted bottles to soak labels to see what kind of sex we could have if any girl would have us. Needless to say, no girl I ever met accepted these labels as currency, but it was a good trick for establishing brand loyalty at an early age.

And we held out hope that on the day a girl finally agreed to the scheme, we’d be holding the label from a Rainier “tall boy.”

This story first appeared in the October issue of Seattle Magazine, where the author is a regular columnist.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.