Tapping into Bellingham’s history

A brief history of Bellingham’s love of beer

Story by KRISTINA RIVERA
Photos by KELLY PEARCE

Bellingham is a playground for beer drinkers from enthusiasts to casual fans. With 15 craft breweries in Bellingham and Whatcom County, it feels like there’s a brewery on every corner. In fact, Bellingham has twice the amount of breweries per capita as Seattle. In 2018, these breweries collectively won 44 awards at national beer competitions.

Clearly, Bellingham takes its beer seriously.

But how did it get this way? It all started with the Bellingham Bay Brewery.

Part of the Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen’s “Brew Team” work next to fermenters inside the brewery on July 18th, 2018.

Before there was Wander Brewing, Chuckanut Bay Brewery and Boundary Bay Brewery, there was the Bellingham Bay Brewery, also known as the 3-B. The 3-B was one of the first major breweries in Bellingham when it was founded in 1902 by Leopold Schmidt. The since-demolished brewery operated on what’s now Ellis and Ohio Street.

Railroad, Holly and North State Street have always been hubs for saloons and bars, historical researcher Kolby LaBree said. Kolby conducts the research for the Good Time Girls tour, which provides guided historical tours through Bellingham and Fairhaven.

In 1905, Bellingham had 62 saloons. Two dozen of those saloons lined Holly and State Street, which was originally Elk Street.

Back then, saloons were more than just places to drink — if you were a man. Saloons before Prohibition typically had cafes, cigar stands, card rooms and pool rooms. They were often referred to as “gentlemen’s paradises.” Sometimes saloons operated in tandem with barbershops and shoeshine shops, Archivist and Historian Jeff Jewell said. Jeff has worked in the photo archives at the Whatcom Museum for 25 years.

On December 31, 1910, Washington voted to become a dry state in 1916, which forced breweries out of business. Shortly after, Prohibition started across the nation. That’s when Bellingham took its alcohol underground.

Underground alcohol establishments referred to as speakeasies, but in Bellingham, they were called blind pigs. Blind pigs featured drinking, gambling and sometimes prostitution. Underneath the series of hotels on what’s now Cornwall Avenue were rumored to be illegal card rooms, brothels and bling pigs. All these rooms were connected with a wiring system so they could warn each other of government raids.

The illegal selling of alcohol, also known as bootlegging, was a lucrative business during Prohibition. Smugglers sometimes ran alcohol in cars and trains, but most booze running was done on water because it was the hardest to police. Kolby said Bellingham got most its illegal alcohol from Canada or England.

After Prohibition ended in the 1930s, beer parlors gained popularity. Among the beer parlors that opened were the Up & Up Tavern and Cap Hansen’s Tavern, which still operate today.

It wasn’t until the 1980s when craft beer started to become popular around the country and in Bellingham; the same time Mari and Will Kemper started their craft brewery.

A beer keg is stacked in front of fermenters inside the Chuckanut Brewery in downtown Bellingham.

Mari and Will Kemper began their brewing journey with the Thomas Kemper Brewery on Bainbridge Island in 1984. The Thomas Kemper Brewery was one of the first craft breweries in the Pacific Northwest, alongside other Seattle-based breweries like the Redhook Ale Brewery and Rainier Beer. From there, Mari and Will moved to the east coast where they set up breweries in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. Eventually, the couple opened up the first brewpubs in Monterrey, Mexico and Istanbul, Turkey.

In 2008, they opened Chuckanut Brewery on East Holly where they stayed true to their goal of making the best European-style ales and lagers.

“I’m so proud to be part of this whole community,” Mari said with a smile on her face.

Mari and her team often meet with other brewers in Bellingham and says the way all the breweries support each other is what makes the beer scene in Bellingham so successful.

Co-owner of Chuckanut Brewery Mari Kemper holds a freshly poured beer from the tap behind the bar.

Kolby thinks beer scene is successful because Bellingham is a college town and has always been a do it yourself kind of city. Jeff also thinks the love for local craft beer came from the do-it-yourself culture in the 60s.

Wherever this love of Bellingham beer came from, you can find it on every corner.

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