Saved by the brew

Craft Beer Is a Small Town Success Story

How does a struggling small town draw tourists without fine dining or fancy attractions? Pour ’em a pint.

By Allison Williams Photography by Brooke Fitts March 11, 2021 Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Seattle Met

Taps at the Pitchwood Inn and Alehouse in Raymond. 

Raymond was a logging town, the logging town of southwest Washington. Its timber glory days, when almost 100 million board feet of wood were processed every year at the mouth of Willapa Bay, have long since faded. Now only a single mill remains, its stacked logs lining the lazy Willapa River. But Raymond, along with the even smaller South Bend next door, is slowly building a new identity: craft beer central.

Local pours dominate the taps at Pitchwood Inn and Alehouse, a beer-minded bar whose large patio faces downtown Raymond. Here this blue-collar town embraces hoppy IPAs and experimental porters, and “local” means everything from Wild Man Brewing 200 yards away to Long Beach’s North Jetty Brewing an hour southwest. Willapa Brewing cycles through, as does a beer from one of the two makers in the gritty city of Aberdeen just north. Georgetown and Bud Light tap handles feel like outsiders.

Downtown Raymond has throwback charm.

Ryan Porter was just a kid in the 1980s, when the timber industry’s colossal bust gutted Pacific County. A 1985 Seattle Times article painted a grim picture of a region abandoned when global lumber prices cratered: “Some local residents liken the area to a Third World nation, an underdeveloped colony whose resources are removed by ‘foreign’ corporations.”

Porter came of age in a community with little opportunity for the young and ambitious. “All the area has is a lot of lumberyards, and doesn’t have a lot of those anymore,” he says. In 2019, he turned his homebrew hobby into Wild Man Brewing downtown. “It’s not a great area to start a business,” he admits—Raymond offers fewer than 3,000 residents as a local customer base. But he considers the employment he can provide, even as he drives an hour each way to his own unrelated day job.

Kaley Hanson, who Porter knew from high school days, built the Pitchwood Inn and Alehouse from a 1930s motel and the aged Top Notch Tavern, which had served loggers for just as long. Midcentury minimalist furniture and reclaimed wood panels replaced faded ’70s decor at the hotel, with pan-fried oysters and goat cheese pizza on the restaurant menu. The original clientele might have called it fussy, but Pitchwood’s hospitality clearly embraces the twenty-first century.

Wild Man Brewing company founder Ryan Porter (front) and partners.

Like pizza, beer is stubbornly regional despite its ubiquity. Local flavor infuses every recipe, literally and subconsciously. A brewery can make bad beer, sure, but it’s hard to make inauthentic beer on a small scale. What brand-new brewery is not a passion project? There are always—even in towns decimated by dying industry, even here—easier ways to make a buck.

Four miles away, the five-year-old Willapa Brewing taproom sits across the street from a faded sign that reads “Welcome to the Oyster Capital of the World.” Owner Kevin McMurry launched the business only when retirement from state government work guaranteed stability, and still brews out of his own rural Raymond farm. The South Bend taproom captures tourists on their way to Long Beach’s kite festivals and cottage rentals, and like Porter the older brewer chases more than hop refinement or festival glory. “We wanted to create employment and get people to stop here,” says McMurry. “It’s considered a depressed area for employment.”

In erecting the taproom menu, McMurry painted beer names on hangable handsaws, a salute to the lumber days of yore. His son-in-law solicited old tools from the community but received so many he eventually had to put up a notice halting the flood of saw donations. The locals may be few, but they are faithful.

So Willapa’s offerings could only come from this place: Buck Saw Brown Ale, and a hazy Skunk Cabbage IPA named for Washington’s memorably fragrant plant. The Bone River Oyster Stout uses bivalves from Goose Point Oysters down the road, dunked into the last 15 minutes of the beer boil so the oyster nectar leaches into the brew. The briny tinge balances the stout’s creamy sweetness (lucky McMurry dishes the leftover beery oysters in butter and garlic for his own dinner).

Besides beer, local attractions lean to the quaint and classic. Raymond’s Carriage Museum displays a few dozen buggies, sleighs, and wagons; the nearby Willapa Seaport Museum is adding a new wing during Covid shutdowns. A rails-to-trails project transformed the train route that once trafficked record lumber loads into a 56-mile paved bike path from South Bend to Chehalis, the Willapa Hills Trail.

Willapa Brewing owners Kevin and Cathey McMurry.

Downtown Raymond itself could be a multipurpose movie set of small-town America, its main block anchored by a historic theater that opened in 1928 with a screening of The Jazz Singer. Across the street, an American Legion and the Elks Club. And down the block a relic somehow more archaic than the theater’s original Wurlitzer Organ: an honest-to-god video rental shop.

Porter admits that “If you want to make a bunch of money, it’s not the best place to go.” But in less than two years, even under Covid, Wild Man had to grow its mead production by 1,000 percent to meet expected demand. His downtown location, with brew tanks stacked next door to that American Legion, survives on low overhead and friendly landlords: “Everyone wants you here.”

When Wild Man launched, Porter named one New England–style IPA Five Years from Now after a beer dream that always seemed just over the horizon. He quickly had to add a hazy, fruity ale to the lineup with a matching moniker: The Time Is Now IPA.

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