The microbrew movement’s island roots

I had the chance to talk with former islander and microbrewery pioneer Will Kemper last week.

I was working on a story (read it by clicking here) about Kitsap County’s beer brewing history, which apparently had its start with Port Orchard’s Silver Springs Brewery in the early ’30s. After Silver Springs was purchased out and shipped away, Kitsap was brewery-less until Kemper teamed with the Thomas family of Seattle to form Thomas Kemper Brewery on Day Road in 1984.

Now best known for its old-fashioned sodas, the Thomas Kemper brand was one of the first of the microbreweries to sprout up in the 1980s. Only Redhook, Hale’s Ales and Hart’s predated Thomas Kemper in Washington state.

“We all got going around the same time – Red Hook, Hart’s, Hale’s,” he said. “When it all opened up we had more microbreweries than any other state. Then California went hog wild and surpassed us by far.”

A chemical engineering background gave Kemper the confidence to experiment with brewing at a time when most would-be homebrewers could find little information about the craft.

After years of trial and error in his Bainbridge kitchen, Kemper was ready to go pro. But Bainbridge wasn’t ready for pro beer brewing.

“We basically couldn’t find a site that was conducive for beer production,” he said. “The place we had didn’t even have floor drains.

By 1985, Thomas Kemper was a Poulsbo operation, having moved the brewery into a former meat packing plant.

Thomas Kemper’s exit from Bainbridge calls to mind the more recent moves of two island-born coffee roasters: Grounds for Change and Bainbridge Coffee Roasters. Both couldn’t find adequate facilities in their price range, and were forced to move to Suquamish and Poulsbo to thrive.

Kemper left the brewery in 1989, shortly before it was purchased by Kalama-based Hart’s and folded into what would eventually become Seattle-based Pyramid Breweries. The Thomas Kemper Soda Co. remained separate for a time before joining with Pyramid, which eventually sold it to a Portland investment company.

Kemper hit the road, working as a consultant and helping to start several breweries in Seattle, Portland, Denver, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and several other U.S. cities. He also helped establish a brewery in Monterrey, Mexico and two breweries in Turkey.

He recently returned to Washington to start his own brewpub and eatery in downtown Bellingham.
Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen, which opened earlier this year, offers six different brews and a menu that borrows from his travels in Mexico and Turkey.