Rainier Beer shortage has Seattle taps dry and fans frothing


It hasn't always been easy for Seattle fans of Rainier Beer.

There were the traumas of the 1970s, when the quintessential Seattle company was sold to the first in a string of out-of-state beer conglomerates.

Then Rainier's landmark brewery near Boeing Field was closed in 1999, and the actual brewing of the beer was outsourced — eventually to a facility near Los Angeles owned by former rival Miller.

Even the iconic "R" was ripped from Seattle's skyline in 2000 and replaced with a replica more than a decade later.

But now, Seattle's Rainier faithful must confront the ultimate outrage: a partial outage of the pale lager that has idled local taps and laid bare the byzantine realities of the macro-brew industrial complex.

Yes, Seattle, we're out of draft Rainier. Though bottles and cans of Vitamin R remain as plentiful as starlings, kegs of Rainier have been unavailable since late March, according to proprietors and customers of sundry Seattle-area watering holes.

"We ran out two weeks ago," said Tylor Dows, co-owner of Touchdown's Sports Bar & Grill in Shoreline, where draft Rainier is, or was, the most popular of a dozen tap beers.

Likewise at Al's Tavern in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood, where Rainier accounted for maybe 70% of tap sales and where manager Percy Weintraub had to pivot with extra cases of Rainier tallboy cans, which his regulars "blew through in, like, two days."

"We have no kegs at this time," confirmed Lindsi Taylor, spokesperson for Columbia Distributing, the largest distributor in the Pacific Northwest.

Substitutes have been suggested. At Al's, bartenders offered up Pabst Blue Ribbon draft, but that led at least one Rainier man to walk out after just two sips — and "he won't come back until there's Rainier here," cautioned fellow customer John Smith, who was in attendance Thursday afternoon.

Just how long that might take is far from clear.

In a terse email last Wednesday, Sean McKillop, a spokesperson for Rainier's Los Angeles-based parent, Pabst Brewing, said that "our intention is to be at full supply of Rainier as soon as possible," but offered no time frame.

Also unclear are the reasons for the shortage, with various explanations pointing to a strike at a Texas beer brewery, hiccups in the supply chain and strains on the system of contract brewing that produces a lot of today's "macro" brews, including Rainier.

For decades, many of America's most cherished local beer brands have not been local at all, but have been brewed far from home, often by national producers with extra production capacity.

Pabst, for example, is essentially a beer holding company for dozens of brands, including Pabst Blue Ribbon, Rainier, Stroh's, Old Style, Lone Star and Old Milwaukee, that it doesn't actually brew itself, according to media reports.

After Pabst purchased Rainier, it contracted with Miller Brewing to produce Rainier, first at the old Olympia Beer brewery in Tumwater and then at Miller's facility in Irwindale, Calif., near Los Angeles, according to media reports.

"Pabst is a virtual brewer," said Benj Steinmann, president of Beer Marketer's Insights and a veteran industry observer.

But the world of contract brewing is often in flux. In 2019, Pabst announced it was shifting most of its production from Miller, now Molson-Coors, to Wisconsin-based City Brewing, a transition it expected to finish by the end of this year, according to the industry journal Brewbound.

In 2021, an investor group that includes the owners of Pabst bought City Brewing and also acquired the Irwindale facility, according to Brewbound.

Pabst's McKillop confirmed that Pabst is "in the midst of a complex transition from contract brew agreements with Molson Coors to City Brewing," but made no reference to production problems at the Irwindale brewing facility.

He did refer, somewhat cryptically, to "issues" at Molson breweries: "Due to the interconnectedness of the supply chain, there have been knock-on effects resulting from brewery level issues at Molson Coors."

McKillop declined to elaborate on the nature or location of these issues or say how they might affect the supply of Rainier kegs.

But one major "brewery level issue" for Molson is the nearly two-month Teamsters strike at Molson's brewery in Fort Worth, Texas. Among other products, that plant makes Rainier 18-pack bottles, according to Teamsters spokesperson Kara Deniz.

Several bar owners in and around Seattle say they were told by their suppliers that the strike is at least partly to blame for the outage.

In a statement Friday, Molson Coors did not refute that explanation.

"While we can't speak for Pabst's business, our contingency plans in Fort Worth are working well," Molson spokesperson Adam Collins said.

"We're still brewing, packaging and shipping and we've exceeded all of our weekly production expectations since the strike began," Collins added. "Our other five U.S. breweries are absorbing extra production across the country, and we deliberately built up inventories earlier this year."

Collins also said "the vast majority" of Pabst production had moved out of Molson refineries by last fall.

However, Beer Marketer's Steinmann said the Texas strike has been affecting Pabst and another Molson contract customer, Pennsylvania-based Yuengling, in part because "Molson Coors is scrambling to fulfill its own volume needs."

Steinmann said the fact that Molson was still producing some Pabst could be making Pabst more vulnerable to a strike's effects. "The supply chains are interconnected and there are ripple effects," he added.

In the context of the national beer economy, the impact of a temporary shortage of Rainier draft is pretty small beer.

According to estimates by Beer Marketer, Rainier's total 2023 output was around 165,000 barrels. That's about 5% of Pabst's volume — and less than 0.1% of total U.S. output of 196 million barrels, said Beer Marketer.

But in Rainier's home market of Washington, Steinmann said, Rainier might account for 2%-4% of beer sales. (A 2017 Beer Marketer estimate listed Rainier as the No. 3 "volume brand in Seattle/Tacoma food stores by volume.")

Those volumes appear to be growing: Rainier sales increased 3% in each of 2022 and 2023, even as total U.S. beer sales fell 5% last year, according to Beer Marketer estimates.

Growth has been the trend at Al's Tavern. Prior to the recent supply issues, the self-styled dive bar was plowing through four and a half to five Rainier kegs a week, up from three kegs in 2019, said bartender Karl St. Mary.

Going from five kegs to no kegs overnight has required some adaptation.

Weintraub, Al's manager, ordered extra Rainier tallboys from his supplier, but in the meantime had to plead for cases from other bars, including the Pine Tavern in Ballard. "That's the beauty — everybody helped me out, no questions asked," Weintraub said.

At Touchdown's Sports Bar, the shortage of Rainier led Dows to bring back Miller draft, though he promises that Rainier "will get their spot back" when supplies resume, whenever that is.

In the meantime, the absence of Rainier has occasioned some deep reflection on the success of a "macro" brew in the age of microbrews and the durability of a Seattle brand that is no longer from Seattle.

One obvious reason for that success is that Rainier isn't a microbrew, but a lighter beer that is easier on the wallet and the liver.

"A lot of the local microbrews are so hop-heavy and high-alcohol," said Shawn O'Donnell, Jr., owner of Shawn O'Donnell's American Grill & Irish Pub in Seattle. A beer like Rainier, he said, lets people come in and enjoy a few beers with friends "and not get wrecked."

There is also the taste. Some fans and detractors describe Rainier as sweet; Smith, at Al's, calls it "despair streamed through a dirty sock." Others say Rainier's power comes from a flavor so nondescript that it requires little mental effort, doesn't distract from conversation or pool and makes the ideal chaser for other, stronger drink.

"There's nothing that gets in the way," said Joe Swieboda, who was chasing house bourbon with a Rainier tallboy at Al's on Wednesday night.

And the fact that this inoffensive brew is no longer available in the city of its birth somehow only adds to its allure.

Sitting at the bar at Al's, not far from the dry Rainier tap, Caleb Warner, 30, worked on a tallboy and said he looked forward to the return of his preferred Rainier draft. But Warner admitted that he's almost as curious to see how long the shortage lasts. "I'm just interested to see where this goes."

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