R Roots

Rainier: A Beer Odyssey Is a Film about Seattle’s Soul

It’s not just beer commercials. It's the city that made them.

By Eric Olson May 14, 2024

Mickey Rooney as a Mountie (left) in one of the Rainier Beer ads, obviously.

Like the precocious 1970s advertising team it depicts, the Tacoma-bred documentary Rainier: A Beer Odyssey began with a kernel of an idea and flowered into something far more expansive. Director Isaac Olsen initially imagined the film as a carefully spliced, mostly unnarrated string of old Rainier Beer advertisements, a kind of foamy nature documentary. Instead, he wound up with a historically inclined work of art that will captivate audiences beyond the Northwest.

“My nightmare,” says Olsen, “was that the movie would feel small, that it would just be about a bunch of ads and why people like them. I wanted to make the story bigger, to allow it to be bigger.”

Rainier: A Beer Odyssey screens May 13 and 16 at the Seattle International Film Festival. Through the lens of an unconventional 1970s ad firm, the film uses a decade’s worth of beer commercials to identify the creative juices coursing through down-on-its-luck, Boeing-busted Seattle. The movie tells a meaningful story about our region. Furthermore, it amounts to a masterclass in brand promotion and product loyalty.

Olsen set off down the redbrick Rainier road in 2019, when a grainy television image caught his eye in the back of Tacoma’s Peterson Bros. 1111 Bar. Twin brothers Justin and Robby Peterson founded the establishment in 2012 and four years later converted the rear alcove into a small museum for Rainier Beer memorabilia. “We’ve always been collectors,” says Robby. “You can go to any antique store in the Northwest, there’s always beer stuff in there.”

The film takes viewers behind the scenes into the making of the iconic commercials.

The Petersons had been working with Olsen on a documentary about Tacoma surf rock band the Ventures. Their meeting that day took a turn when Olsen keyed into the nearby television, on which a DVD looped vintage Rainier commercials.

“I knew the ads were out there,” says Olsen. “But until then, they’d never taken up any space in my mind.”

The advertisements, which ran from 1974 through the mid-1980s, were bizarre and playful, gonzo filmmaking with the sensibilities of Terry Gilliam. A motorcycle zooms through a wide-angle shot, motor churning “raaaaa…neeeeer…beeeeer.” Frogs ribbit the beer name as if placing orders at a marshy tavern. Rainier bottles with legs cross a forested road, run through Pioneer Square, and graze on an open plain. The actor Mickey Rooney makes multiple and increasingly unhinged appearances. The TV spots produced a variety of knee-jerk cultural reactions. They had little to do with beer, but they were nothing if not memorable.


Olsen knew that these ads were responsible for the Northwest’s love affair with Rainier. But how precisely had they come about? And what had happened to them?

From that spark of an idea, a series of coincidences began to unfold. A natural archivist, Olsen had been volunteering on film-related projects at the Washington State Historical Society. Ed Nolan, the WSHS head of special collections, asked Olsen about his projects, and Olsen offhandedly mentioned the Rainier Beer commercials. Nolan said, “I’ve got some stuff that might interest you.”

Olsen didn’t think it would be anything major. As it turned out, it was everything.

In 1999, Nolan had taken a trip to the old Rainier Brewery on Airport Way, set to close after Stroh’s Brewing Company sold the label to Pabst. Brewery staff told WSHS that they had some historical material lying around. Nolan arrived at the facility, saw the labeled film canisters, and realized that he’d stumbled upon the complete physical archive of those quirky 1970s and ’80s Rainier advertisements, the ones that so captivated the Northwest. Fearing its destruction, he stashed the uncataloged material for future use. It would be 20 years until Olsen got his hands on it.

“I spent maybe a month previewing everything,” says Olsen. “The film was in amazing condition. It was exactly like when Ed got it in 1999. More than that, the film documented the actual making of the ads.”

Director Isaac Olsen (front) and the Peterson Brothers.

Ecstatic about the discovery, Olsen and the Peterson brothers began a fundraising campaign to catalog, restore, and digitize the film. After a KING 5 TV spot, donations poured in. Justin Peterson says, “People were very interested in the project right away.”

Still, Olsen’s directorial mind churned with questions of scope. The ads were giants of their time. But even in their remastered state, they were just ads. How could he communicate their stature and what they meant to the region?

The answer lay in the creators themselves. “We learned, hey, all these people are still around,” says Olsen. “They’re great on camera. And all this stuff they have to say has been bottled up for so long.”

Most of the film's talking heads are former employees of virtuosic advertiser Terry Heckler, a demonstrably gifted artist who happened to work with brands instead of museums. Heckler gained notice running offbeat ad campaigns for Vashon Island ski brand K2. But his breakthrough came with a much more storied product, one of the Northwest’s oldest: Rainier Beer.

Rainier was first brewed in the Seattle area in 1878. It’s changed hands a number of times, and the brewery shifted north after Prohibition shuttered the original Georgetown factory. But the name remains, as does the telltale scarlet “R” logo, drawn in an instantly recognizable calligraphy style. The logo held such regional sway that, when Emil Sick bought the brewing company in 1935 and the Seattle Indians baseball team three years later, he changed the team name and logo to match that of his prized lager.

By 1970, the brand had lost ground to national competitors. Mirroring Seattle at large—anchored by a beleaguered Boeing and the canceled supersonic transit (SST) contract—Rainier did itself no favors with a number of failed sales campaigns (including the hilariously misguided, three-pronged approach of Rainier Light, Rainier Light-Light, and Rainier Not-So-Light). That’s when marketing director Jim Foster, after seeing Heckler’s work with K2, handed over the advertising portfolio. The brand would never be the same. Heckler turned it inside out in a matter of months.          

There's a reason the label hasn't changed much.

As Olsen and the Petersons traveled the state, interviewing members of Heckler’s old marketing team, a number of narratives took form. One involved the impactful six-year lifespan of Seattle magazine (1964­–1970), where art director Heckler first began working with writer Gordon Bowker. The former told the latter that, when naming his new coffee shop, he should channel Melville’s Moby Dick and try the name “Starbucks.” A second, larger story involved the cyclical booms and busts of Seattle, and the creative fertility of a 1970s cityscape that at times felt abandoned. But the most important story—the one that united all the others—involved a scrappy advertising firm and a beer brand with nothing to lose.

It’s easy to call Heckler’s work ahead of its time—Budweiser would flagrantly, and famously, steal the frog idea—but it was equally outside the spectrum of known advertising, a singular product of a wild imagination. With a light narratorial hand, Olsen emphasizes Heckler’s pursuit of levity and originality, at one point depicting a brainstorming method in which the advertising wizard repeated the brand name like a mantra—“Rainier…Rainier…RAINIER…”—as delirious images rushed through his mind.

Heckler sums up his strategy by saying, “The human reaction to novelty is to smile.” Over that decade of oddball ads, smiles abounded in the face of Seattle’s economic malaise. The commercials kindled a generation of loyalists and ushered Rainier Beer to new heights. Upon the brewery’s sale to Australian tycoon Alan Bond in 1987, Heckler & co. got the boot. But their job was done.

Today, Rainier is owned by Pabst and brewed in Irwindale, California, but brand director Sean McKillop notes that the entire Rainier marketing team still lives and works in Seattle–for that matter, in the old brewery. “I use the past to inform the future,” McKillop says of the brand image. “We keep that jester vibe.”

One of Terry Heckler's original storyboards.

Olsen and the Peterson brothers plan to air their film at area theaters in the months following SIFF, appeasing the myriad Rainier faithful. After a downturn in sales after Pabst’s purchase in the late ’90s, the brand has made market strides. It appeals not just to grizzled barflies but to transplants searching for a certain Northwest mystique. Steve Luke, head brewer at Cloudburst and an aficionado of beer history, became a fan in 2010 when he moved to Seattle and chanced upon Rainier’s immense pre-Prohibition brewery in Georgetown.

“I have to compartmentalize when I drink,” says Luke. “I can’t stop my sensory perception. For brewers, there’s a switch you can flip for some mass-produced beers. With Rainier, I can accept it for what it is and turn everything off.”

That’s the thing about this entire exercise: Heckler’s ads aren’t about a great beer. They represent a frame of mind. Kathy Cain, an early Heckler hire and a frequent face in A Beer Odyssey, puts it plainly. “People loved Rainier because they loved the ads,” she says. “We all knew the beers were pretty much the same.”

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