Rainier beer is closely associated with Washington — the brand’s ads call Seattle “R Town” — but since 2003 Vitamin R has neither been owned nor produced by anybody within 900 miles of the Washington border. However, Greg Deuhs is happy to report that some production is moving home. The master brewer at Pabst, the company that bought Rainier and removed it from its Seattle home base, introduced Rainier Pale Mountain Ale to a dozen reporters Thursday at the Redhook brewery in Woodinville, site of the first Washington-brewed Rainier in 13 years.
The reporters surrounded Deuhs in a chilly tasting room, where he explained the historical significance of his latest creation. The beer’s vessel, the 16-ounce “pounder” bottle, is a throwback to Rainier bottles of old, and the ingredients were inspired by a 1930s variety. After the crowd was unmoved by a brief explanation of beer-tasting etiquette, Deuhs implored, “It’s just beer. Taste it and see what you think.”
So the reporters sampled a beverage that epitomizes the current state of the beer industry. The Pale Mountain Ale is produced by Rainier, a legacy Washington brewer bought out by Pabst, a former Milwaukee beer giant that now calls Los Angeles home. The Rainier lager ubiquitous in Puget Sound bars isn’t produced by Pabst employees, though; that task falls to an Irwindale, California brewery owned by MillerCoors, an amalgamation of iconic Milwaukee and Colorado brands that is headquartered in neither Milwaukee nor Colorado, but Chicago.
The beer itself is a response to changing industry trends. In 2010, 5 percent of beer sold in the U.S. came from craft brewers, according to the Brewers Association. But consumers have shown a taste for local-brewed beers in styles other than lagers; last year, craft breweries’ market share swelled to 12.2 percent, while overall beer sales declined. Thus, large brewers are accommodating customers’ expanded palate by producing ales, stouts, and porters alongside their flagship lagers.
Regional popularity of beers like Rainier will drive Pabst’s experimentation with new styles. Jon Wilhelm, general manager of Pabst’s “local legends” beers, said this initiative will help reconnect these beers with the people who have been drinking them longest. “Brands like Rainier, Lone Star in Texas, and Ballantine in New Jersey — they’re loved in the areas where they were founded” he said. “We want to shepherd them back to local production.”
Pabst found a convenient facility in Woodinville. Deuhs was former brewmaster for Craft Brew Alliance, which owns the Redhook facility, so he was familiar with the people and equipment at the brewery. Furthermore, Redhook sales have been flagging; CBA previously told reporters it was using about half of the Woodinville brewery’s capacity, but Deuhs told me before Thursday’s event, “We could use the whole thing if we want to.”
Pabst has a three-year option to purchase the brewery (Pabst representatives said they have no definitive plans for the facility, which includes the Forecaster pub). Meantime, the spot will function as a lab for locally-produced extensions of the Rainier brand. An official release date for the Pale Mountain Ale, which will sell for $12 a six-pack, hasn’t been announced, but Pabst plans to brew about 1,000 barrels of it next month. Deuhs hopes a second variety will follow shortly after.
“This beer allows us to go into bars that would otherwise carry only local craft beer,” said Mike Scott, Rainier’s brand manager. “Our beers go well with craft. You might start with a double IPA, but you won’t be drinking that all night.”
Pabst didn’t want to begin extending the Rainier line with an esoteric brew; the pale ale has a moderate alcohol content (5.3 percent) and isn’t bitter enough to scare away fans of the lager. But stiffer drinks may follow; IPAs and Scotch ales were mentioned.
Pabst hopes brewing beers more commonly found at microbreweries will better connect them with local drinkers and broaden their customer base. In a way, Pabst is wanting its individual brands to stand out, to feel less corporate.
“We’re not Anheuser-Busch,” Deuhs told me, referencing the maker of Budweiser. As for that St. Louis beer institution? Its parent company is a Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate, but Deuhs is correct in one respect — Anheuser-Bush’s operations, unlike Pabst’s or Rainier’s, are still based in its original hometown.