Hopped Up

Meet PNW, Seattle’s New Cheap Beer

The story behind the tiny, locally-owned company that’s competing with big beer.

By Stefan Milne January 16, 2018

Pnw 2 o7mbch

Beer on a log. 

Beer culture, perhaps more than any other drink category, loves to draw battle lines. You have local and everything else. You have cheap beer, made by AB InBev or MillerCoors or Pabst, and craft beer, made by the neighborhood brewery. Generally, the divide is clear and adherents to either side verge on dogmatism—or so certain marketing teams would like us to believe. 

The reality is, of course, more complicated. I love craft beer, but I’ve drunk Rainier more than any other beer. While you can get Bud Light and PBR at bars all over the city, if you care about beer but want something cheap, chances are you’re drinking Olympia or Rainier. They’re not only a part of Washington culture—with ads that have seeped into the local subconscious, and the big glowing R beside I-5—they’re part of regional identity. Of course, their only connections to the state are now nominal and nostalgic: They are owned by Pabst, and brewed in California (with the exception of this digression, but can we all admit that was a failure and move on?). If you grew up here, or even if you’re a transplant, you likely drink Rainier or Olympia not because they taste a great deal better than Miller Highlife (they don’t), but because it’s what you do

Now there’s a new option. In the last year or so, cans of PNW—emblazoned with an antiquated-looking stag—have popped up in bars and restaurants: at North Star Diner, at Tornado, at the Sovereign. They’re cheap ($7 for a six pack at PCC); they’re tallboys; they’re 4.3 percent ABV (the same as a Bud Light). They’re called Premium Northwest Lager, but don’t let that fool you. Pour it into a glass and you’ll recognize its wan straw color and thin head: it looks like any big-brand brew. When you sip, the flavor slips away before it full registers. It’s so aggressively inoffensive and light that it reminds you more of an elevated Bud Light than even the slightly more flavorsome Rainier or PBR. 

PNW is owned and operated by Warren Hellman and Toshi Kojima, two Washington-native beer industry veterans. Kojima is currently the VP at Orcas Distributing, a company that distributes beers companies like Machine House and Mollusk, as well as sake and cider. Kojima and Hellman figured that it was time the northwest had cheap beer (they call it “a crushable easy drinking premium lager”) that’s locally owned.

“I used to dream of opening a craft brewery,” says Hellman, “but I felt like what the northwest needed was not another craft brewery—there’s one on every corner. When you start seeing $20 six packs, it’s nice to get back to that $7 easy drinking tallboy.”

When they started searching the area for a place to brew, though, smaller breweries turned them away because their tanks were already full, while bigger brewers saw them as competition. So to start off, and keep their prices competitive, they currently brew in Wisconsin. 

It’s easy to scoff at the irony here—taking on of the big conglomerate by using the same model as the conglomerate. Of course the realities of any brewery actually being local are less transparent than they seem. While Washington grows plenty of hops, lots of local craft breweries still import their malt from big out-of-state operations. And as the big brewers like AB InBev buy up more independent operations—Ballast Point, Elysian, 10 Barrel, Goose Island, Lagunitas are all surreptitious Big Beer now—the lines between craft and crap get fuzzier.

Hellman and Kojima are quick to point out that they aren’t trying to take down Pabst, and see PNW as a passion project. “This isn’t really a David and Goliath situation,” says Hellman. “But we wanted to have a fun alternative." 

Having a beer is a simplifying act—something to mollify the day’s stresses, make a joke just a skoach funnier, wash down a taco. Of course for those of us aware that each beer, just like each bite of food, has ethical, regional, economic, and political reach, a two-man company violating long-held battlelines is something worth checking out.

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