Main Spotlight: Craft Beverages and Main Street in Washington State

  
January 23, 2019 | Main Spotlight: Craft Beverages and Main Street in Washington State | By Logan Camporeale, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation Board of Directors and Historic Preservation Specialist at City/County of Spokane |

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Photo courtesy of Visit Seattle

In two months, Washington Main Street will co-host the 2019 Main Street Now Conference in Seattle, March 25-27. Get to know our host city through this special pre-conference blog series. Register for the conference today to take advantage of the member rates and the new special rate for civic leaders.

Beer

Ezra Meeker was the Hop King of the World. In 1852, Meeker and his wife Eliza left their small farm in Iowa and set out on the Oregon Trail in search of greater opportunity in the Pacific Northwest. Meeker and his family ultimately settled south of Seattle, near present day Puyallup in the Washington Territory. Meeker received some hop cuttings from his father in 1865 and he planted them that spring in the fertile Puyallup Valley. The hops flourished.

Meeker’s success prompted farmers across the region to plant hops in hopes of big returns on their investment. Meeker encouraged his neighbors to plant hops and he positioned himself as a distributor for the hop growers. His family business exported hundreds of pounds of hops overseas which earned him the title “Hop King of the World.” The business was highly profitable, with many crops selling at a 750% profit.

Unfortunately for Meeker and the other hop growers, the boom was short lived. In 1891, a hop lice infestation killed off most of the Washington hop crop. The pests devastated Washington hop farmers and many of them quit the business. Meeker later reflected on the loss writing, “All my accumulations were swept away, and I quit the business -- or rather, the business quit me.”

Despite Ezra Meeker’s descent from “royalty” and the rapid decline in hop growth in the late 1800s, Washington has regained its stature as the world’s greatest hop producer. In 2018, Washington produced over seventy-seven million pounds of hops, more than any other state in the country, and more than any other nation in the world except Germany. Most of those hops were grown in the fertile Yakima Valley, where farmers have been growing hops for over 150 years since Ezra Meeker popularized the crop.

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President Calvin Coolidge and Ezra Meeker (October 7, 1024) // Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

The recent hop boom in Washington has had a tremendous impact on Main Street communities in the state. There are over three hundred and thirty craft breweries in Washington leading to a multi-billion-dollar brewery industry. Many of those breweries and much of that economic development have found eager partners in Washington’s Main Street communities.

Just north of the Yakima Valley in Ellensburg, Main Street has seen huge economic impact in the past decade. Like many cities in central and eastern Washington, the east to west freeway, Interstate 90, bypassed downtown Ellensburg when it was constructed in 1967-68. The new highway dramatically decreased traffic on Ellensburg’s Main Street and new development was focused along the highway corridor instead of downtown. The trend continued for decades.

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Aslan Brewing Company in Bellingham, Washington. // Photo by Otto Greule

But not all business ignored downtown. The Pub by Iron Horse Brewery has been one of the cornerstones of Ellensburg’s revitalized downtown district. In 2004, Iron Horse opened their “micropub” in a small 1937 brick masonry building on Main Street. The business has been largely successful, producing one of the nation’s most popular craft beer brands, Irish Death. In 2013, Iron Horse Brewery moved their pub next door to a larger historic building allowing the business to expand. Despite maintaining a much larger brewing facility outside of downtown where beer tasters could witness on site brewing, Iron Horse choose to expand their downtown location because they “decided that accessibility and central downtown location trumped that.” Today, many Interstate 90 travelers happily make the four-mile detour to visit the Iron Horse Pub instead of the chain restaurants visible from the freeway.

When Iron Horse arrived on Main Street in 2004, downtown Ellensburg was struggling, but now things are looking up. As of January 2019, there were no hotels in downtown (they are located next to the freeway too) but that will soon change. The Windrow Hotel, a fifty-nine-room four-story boutique hotel, is scheduled to open this summer next door to the recently rehabilitated Elks Lodge in downtown, and just a half block from the Iron Horse Pub. Although many factors have contributed to Ellensburg’s revitalization over the years, craft beer is part of the equation.

Notable Washington Main Street communities for beer tasting:
• Head north of Seattle to Bellingham and Mount Vernon (even better, sign up for “Growing with the Grain,” a Main Street Now field session to Mount Vernon to explore and taste this very topic!)
• Travel to the Washington-Oregon border to visit Vancouver, Camas, and Stevenson
• Make your way to the fertile Yakima Valley (destination: Yakima!) with stops in Ellensburg and Cle Elum along the way

Wine

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A wine tasting at Walla Walla Vintners. Photo courtesy of Visit Walla Walla

In 1982, a recent college graduate named Casey McClellan, along with his father, planted some of the first grape vines in the Walla Walla Valley on his family estate. The vineyards were wildly successful due to the conducive soil and climate of Walla Walla. The vineyards planted by McClellan are known today as the Seven Hills Vineyard, and they produce some of the finest Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot fruit. The McClellan’s decision to plant, along with a handful of other pioneering families, spelled the beginning of a wine boom in Walla Walla that continues today.

Much like craft beer, the wine industry has provided a jolt to many of Washington’s Main Street communities, especially Walla Walla. In the past two decades, Walla Walla has transitioned from a town known for its onions and prison, to a tourist destination famous for its excellent wines, delicious food, and historic downtown. But it was not always this way. Bonnie Bowton, the Director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, moved to Walla Walla in 1981. When she arrived in the early 1980s she found a “different Walla Walla than the city we know today.”

The transition began nearly 35 years ago, when the Walla Walla Main Street Foundation was founded in 1984, the same year the Main Street program started in Washington State. According to Bowton, the Foundation was created with the express purpose of combating the impact of a suburban mall that downtown business owners feared might steal their shoppers and restaurant-goers. Even before the wine industry’s impact was evident, Walla Wallans valued their downtown and were eager to see it succeed.

Today, there are over 140 wineries in the Walla Walla Valley and 30 tasting rooms in the downtown core. Much of Walla Walla’s economic transition has been driven by the growth of the wine industry, but the Main Street program and the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation were integral to focusing the energy from the wine industry into redevelopment in the downtown core. The Foundation initiated a low interest facade improvement loan program in 1987, began advocating for a Local Improvement District in 1989 that passed City Council in 1991, and pushed for Certified Local Government status to implement a historic preservation ordinance which passed in 2002.

Beyond advocacy, the Foundation continues to run programs that enhance the downtown experience by entertaining tourists, engaging locals, and driving business. Programs include a popular summer farmer’s market frequented by locals, the Summer Sounds concert series that began in 1987, a Sip and Stroll event connecting downtown businesses, and the Wine and Dine brochure that guides wayward tourists. All of these efforts by the Foundation over the past 35 years have focused the wine industry energy into keeping Walla Walla’s Main Street vital. As Bowton likes to say, “everything we do well, we do together.”

Notable Washington Main Street communities for wine tasting:
• Head east toward lakefront community of Chelan with a stop in Wenatchee along the way
• On your way to Washington’s wine mecca (Walla Walla), make sure to stop in Prosser and Kennewick

Spirits

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Justin and Jennifer Stiefel, owners of Heritage Distillery, at the Excellence on Main Awards Ceremony in 2018 // Photo by Otto Greule


Although they have been slower in growth than their lower alcohol by volume (ABV) cousins, craft distillers have also found a home on Washington’s Main Streets. Washington boasts over 100 craft distilleries, more than any state except California and New York. Washington’s largest independently-owned craft distillery is Heritage Distilling which opened in Gig Harbor, Washington in 2012.

After starting the flagship distillery, they opened a tasting room in the heart of Gig Harbor’s downtown waterfront district. They now have six locations, and their most popular spirit, Brown Sugar Bourbon, is served at Seattle Mariner home games.

In 2017, Heritage Distilling moved into another Main Street community when it opened a new location in Roslyn’s historic Northwest Improvement Company building, in the heart of downtown. The company’s focus on honoring cultural heritage made it the perfect fit to anchor the development in which it now operates a tasting bar and a production area with six operating stills, all named after families from Roslyn’s early days.

Heritage Distilling has quickly made a name for itself, and for the local communities in which it has invested. Cheri Marusa of the Roslyn Downtown Association says that Heritage is a transformative business for her community. Mary DesMarais of the Gig Harbor Downtown Waterfront Alliance says that Heritage has breathed new life and vitality into a prime, highly visible corner of downtown Gig Harbor, and that they are proud that the company calls their small community home base. In 2018, Heritage won Washington Main Street’s most prestigious award, “Excellence on Main,” for their positive impact in local communities.

Despite the recent growth in distillers, many are still making their homes outside of Main Streets or neighborhood business districts. As tasting craft spirits grows in popularity, we will likely see more distillers open locations on Main Street where their lower ABV cousins have had great success with tasting and tap rooms.

Notable Washington Main Street communities for spirits tasting:
• Visit Heritage Distilling’s locations in both Gig Harbor and Roslyn
• Enjoy downtown Olympia’s 222 Market, home to Shoebox Spirits (hint: make sure to also checkout Olympia’s burgeoning brewery scene)

The Main Street Program is asset-based economic development rooted in historic preservation that is planted in small communities throughout the state. Craft beverage businesses have organic success in Washington due to conducive conditions for growing hops, grapes, and grains. But most importantly, many of these companies have readily recognized the value of locating their businesses in historic, walkable, downtown spaces and the foundations and partnerships that make up Main Street programs have encouraged them to participate in the redevelopment of our communities.


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