Was It Really the Water in Olympia’s First Brewery?

olympia beer history
Isaac Wood's Union Brewery was located at 4th and Columbia. During his days, this was right on the water front.

pints logoThe story of Olympia’s first ever brewery and first ever locally brewed beer is a great illustration about how the waves of history can make landfall in several corners of a community.

Isaac Wood was an early pioneer of the area east of Olympia that eventually became Lacey, taking a land claim in 1852. Seven years later he opened Olympia’s first brewery on the northeast corner of 4th and Columbia.

Wood’s family is so ingrained in the Lacey landscape that if not for the other Woodland on the Columbia River getting to the name first in the 1890s, the city we call Lacey now might have been named after him.

isaac wood
Isaac Wood is credited with starting the first brewery in Olympia.

In the late 1850s and the early 1860s, Wood brewed a variety of beer called a cream ale. The corner of 4th and Columbia now sits several blocks away from what we’d consider the waterfront, since the acres of downtown fill had not occurred in Wood’s time. So his “Union Brewery”  was very near the shore of Budd Inlet.

Wood’s cream ale likely referred to a beer closely resembling what we would today call a typical American lager (think Budweiser as a fairly commercial example), with some influences from ale hop beers. Brewers influenced by German brewing traditions used lager recipes as an alternative to English styles such as ales. (Today’s Northwest IPAs are descendants.)

From More Beer:

Welsh and Yankee brewers in the Delaware Valley region of Pennsylvania had established Philadelphia as a center for ale brewing, but around the beginning of this century, the adjunct lagers being sold by the area’s new German brewers began to make inroads into ale sales. The public was beginning to prefer American lager’s light, clear, and effervescent appearance. Ale brewers responded to this demand by creating a top-fermented product similar to an American lager. Using ale yeast (or possibly even a combination of lager and ale yeasts, though no concrete evidence exists for the use of lager yeast in the early cream ales), they could produce beer more quickly than the lager brewers could, thereby potentially increasing sales and market share.* It may also have meant that they could use the same worts for both lagers and ales and benefit from economies of scale. These new beers were termed “brilliant,” “sparkling,” or “present use” ales, with the nickname “cream ale” sticking as the common name. Cream ales of the early twentieth century were described as having the appearance of a lager beer, but a fairly pronounced ale taste and character.

olympia beer history
Isaac Wood’s Union Brewery was located at 4th and Columbia. During his days, this was right on the water front.

The naming of his brewery as the “Union Brewery” most likely had to do with the political reaction to the brewing Civil War on the East Coast. Up until the Lincoln administration, the Washington Territory had been a government led by Democrats. As such, local Democrats in Olympia tended to be in leadership positions. But, as Democrats were forced to show their loyalty to the union cause, we see some interesting displays. Maybe one of them was Woods’ Union Brewery.

Isaac Wood was also the first person to bring over English hops to the Pacific Northwest, kicking off the most iconic portion of Northwest brewing.

From the Oregon Historical Quarterly:

During the fall of 1865, Olympia Washington Brewer Isaac Wood became frustrated with his inability to acquire hops, grown predominantly in distant East Coast and European fields. He asked his neighboring farming family, the Meekers to plant a few hills of the crop and they agreed to experiment. It was a historic decision… Following the family’s windfall, Ezra Meeker energetically promoted the news to farmers across the region. He asserted that the future of Pacific Northwest farming rested in hops.

Meeker would eventually become known as the “Hop King of the World.” Today, hardly anyone can imagine Northwest brewing without the inclusion of Pacific Northwest hops. Without Wood’s cagey suggestion, hop growing may have eventually come to the Northwest. But, we can certainly trace the hop crazy beer tradition in the Northwest to Olympia’s own brewer.

olympia beer history
Olympia residents clamored for Wood’s cream ale which had a unique flavor, perhaps from the water source.

The specific location of Wood’s Union Brewery may turn out to be the most interesting historic nugget of Wood’s brewing life. Because 4th and Columbia was so near the saltwater, and Wood took his water for brewing from a reportedly shallow well, his specific variety of cream ale took on a very particular taste.

We know what cream ales are and how they developed into the iconic American lagers. But there is something specific about Wood’s brew that lasted for decades in the memories of locals.

Writing about the eventual 1909 destruction of Wood’s brewery building, Gordon Newell in “Rogues, Buffoons and Statesmen wrote: “(Washington Standard editor John Miller Murphy) observed nostalgically that the remaining pioneers ‘would give five dollars for a glass of that cream ale.’”

Wood likely tapped into an unrelated tradition of German brewing called Gose Beer. Named after the town of Goslar, Germany, this variety of beer includes either briney water or actually adding salt to the beer recipe.  By accidently mixing cream ale with the briny water from the Deschutes River estuary, Wood probably created a very unique and very particular variety of beer.

References and further reading:

More Beer: Cream Ale
Oregon Historical Quarterly: Hop Fever
Lacey: An Interesting History And Unusual Place Name

Print Friendly, PDF & Email