It's Last Call Tonight As Rainier Brewery Begins To Shut Down

In the famed Mountain Room at the Rainier Brewery yesterday, a group of grown men and women were crying in their beers.

Who could blame them? The hometown brew has been sold and the tap room closes for good tonight - another Seattle relic in the hangover of history.

Gone will be the free samples of Rainier, Mickey's and Ice beer; long gone are the parties for some of Seattle's most famed adventurers. Jim and Lou Whitaker were regulars here, celebrating their historic mountain-climbing expeditions. In 1963, Jim was the first American to stand on the summit of Mount Everest - and no, he did not take a can of Rainier with him to the top, despite local lore to the contrary.

"We took a lot of Rainier beer to base camp and to the advanced base at 22,000 feet, but I didn't take a can to the summit," Whitaker said. "I think it would have exploded if I'd opened it up there."

Nevertheless, that story and others swirled around the big room, under its dark, heavy beams and a giant, majestic painting of Mount Rainier. Regulars and old-timers stood at the bar; nostalgia was the drink of the day.

Stroh Brewing of Detroit bought the brewery in 1996 and is now getting out of the beer business. It sold the Rainier brand to Pabst, which is expected to continue to produce Rainier beer at that company's Tumwater, Thurston County, facility.

So, the brand will continue in some form; the plant and its icons will not.

Just what will become of the giant red R atop the Rainier plant remains undecided. Stroh spokeswoman Lacey Logan said the 11-foot neon letter probably will be donated to a Seattle museum or other public group.

Perched above the brewery in a waft of fermentation, it's been a fitting symbol for this working-class town. Eleven feet high and 10 feet wide, it has stood like a sentry on the edge of downtown.

Long ago, before Interstate 5 was built, the R even revolved. "But there was a big hullabaloo about it distracting drivers, so the brewery simply turned it off," said Bill Mugrage, a collector who has about 2,500 Rainier items stored in the basement of his Lynnwood home.

Nick Vukelic and Brad Bosshart come to the Mountain Room almost every day after working downtown. Yesterday, they tossed around an oversized, plastic football embossed with the Henry Weinhard logo. (It has been brewed at the Rainier facility.) Hand to heart, Vukelic recites the beer label verbatim - a true and touching tribute.

If you look into the bottom of a beer glass long enough, you can see the sediment of history.

In the late 1930s, the Rainier baseball team gathered in the Mountain Room. Their owner, Emil Sick, also owned the brewery. He bought the team to promote the beer, according to Edo Vanni, an outfielder who used to play for the team in Sick Stadium - another lost relic, replaced with an Eagle Hardware on Rainier Avenue.

"If I was at Eagle, and the ballpark was still there," he said, gently, "I'd be in the plumbing department."

Others reminisced about the days when actor Mickey Rooney visited the Mountain Room to film one of his many advertisements for the beer.

"We're stalking the wild Rainier," the ads began, as the safari-clad Rooney chased a four-legged bottle of beer. "Pop his cap!"

They were classics - as much a part of Seattle history as hydroplanes and Seafair pirates. Long before there were microbrews and gourmet coffee, there were thundering herds of Rainier beers.

But all things must pass - or pass out.

The tap room and gift shop will close tonight; the brewery will close late next month.

"It's going to be sad," Lou Whitaker said. "It's given me some awful good memories."