Thinking back to growing up in Olympia, one memory stands the test of time – the Olympia Brewery. It was a time when you could count on smelling the unique, yeasty aroma while driving through Tumwater and still hear the whistle blow every afternoon at quitting time.

The Olympia Brewery has always been part of this community, whether you are a beer drinker or not. Just take a drive around the area and you’ll see historic examples still standing, reminding us of these roots. Whether it’s the original brewery on the Deschutes River, the Schmidt House, Tumwater Falls Park or the now empty modern day brewery at the top of the falls, this rich history is alive and ready to be explored.

olympia beer history
The Schmidt family legacy of brewing beer in Olympia began in 1896.

What started as a chance idea in 1896 by Leopold Schmidt, grew to become a booming industry that would help to put Olympia and Tumwater on the map. With the purchase of five acres on the Deschutes River, Schmidt started The Capital Brewing Company, which would later become Olympia Brewing Company. Using the term “It’s the Water” to advertise the artesian springs used in its production, the idea caught on. As it continued to grow, a new six-story brewery was built in 1906 at the base of Tumwater Falls where it still stands today. However, the company was forced to shut down operations during the prohibition era and the brick building remained empty falling into disrepair.

While plans have been discussed over the years to bring the old brewhouse back to its former glory, none have come to fruition until last summer the property was donated to the City of Tumwater. The city has plans for the historic site’s future and is in the process of putting on a roof and sealing the structure for preservation. They will then begin the large task of fundraising to restore this iconic piece of history. In the meantime, a virtual video tour is being created, led by longtime Olympia Beer brewmaster Paul Knight, and will available for viewing sometime this spring.

schmidt house caretaker
The Schmidt House offers tours to the public led by longtime caretaker Bob Crim.

If you don’t want to wait for spring to immerse yourself in brewing history, what better place to start then at the home of Leopold Schmidt, founder of Olympia Brewing Company, and his wife Johanna. Built in 1904, the Schmidt House remains very similar today to it’s original glory. After passing through generations of the Schmidt family, the residence and property were donated to the non-profit Olympia Tumwater Foundation in 1983.

Today, the home is used for community events, weddings and to educate the community about the Schmidt family and local brewing history. Guests can tour the home on the second Tuesday of each month at 11 a.m. The free tours, led by Bob Crim, the home’s caretaker for the past sixty years, feature a glimpse into the early years of the Schmidt family, their brewery and the Tumwater community. Special house tours can also be arranged for groups of 8-15 people through the foundation.

tumwater falls river walk tour
A tour group crosses over a suspension bridge during the Tumwater Falls Park Riverwalk Tour. Photo courtesy: Olympia Tumwater Foundation

Another great piece of history can be found just up river at Tumwater Falls Park. This 15-acre parcel of land was donated to the Olympia Tumwater Foundation in 1962 by the Olympia Brewing Company. Visitors can enjoy a scenic river walk complete with six historic markers along the trail detailing the river’s purpose in the area’s history.  Free guided history Riverwalk tours are offered from mid-July to mid-September on Thursdays at 5 p.m.The impressive waterfalls and beautiful scenery won’t disappoint. This historic park is free to the public and open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to dusk.

Towering above Tumwater Falls Park are the now empty Olympia Brewing Company buildings. With the repeal of prohibition in 1933, Leopold Schmidt made the decision to build a new brewery at the top of the falls rather than reacquiring and fixing up the old one. Production began and by 1940 they were brewing more beer than ever before. The brewery remained in operation under the Schmidt family until 1982 when they sold the company.

The Olympia Brewing Company passed through several different corporations until closing its doors for good on June 27, 2003. The 31-acre property sold  in December 2015, the community waits with collective anticipation to see what the next chapter will be for the historic property which once provided hundreds of jobs to the area.

Olympia Brewing Company circa 1984 Photo courtesy: Washington State Archives

If all this talk about beer make you want a cold one to go along with the history lesson, head to nearby Rivers Edge Restaurant. Located on the Deschutes River, just upstream from the brewery property, this sports-bar style dining option has something for everyone, including an area for those under 21. With a variety of local beers on tap, a full-bar, extensive menu and historic photographs scattered throughout you can continue learning the area’s history onsite. River’s Edge is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Brewing is coming back to Tumwater with the launch of Matchless Brewing and Triceratops Brewing, which will open their tasting rooms later this year. Beer history is still alive and well. From old breweries to parks and local pubs, it’s still very much a part of what makes our community what it is. Take some time to learn more about Olympia and Tumwater’s rich brewing history. Who knows? Maybe you’ll decide to try brewing up a batch yourself.

For more details on the Riverwalk and Schmidt House Tours contact:
Heritage Builders
history@olytumfoundation.org
360-786-8117

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