There was a time not so long ago when Engine House No. 9 was the entire beer scene in Tacoma, Wash. Until Harmon Brewing Company opened in 1997 on Pacific Avenue downtown, this firehouse-turned-brewpub in the city’s North End stood as the single source for locally made ales, eventually paving the way for a brewing renaissance about a decade later. In May, the brewery side of the business—rebranded as E9—officially began the next chapter of its history by premiering a new taproom and a much larger production facility on Fawcett Avenue. Open to adults 21 and over from Wednesday to Sunday, E9 joins a growing Brewery District in Tacoma that now includes Harmon, 7 Seas, Sluggo, Wingman, and Black Fleet.
Occupying the former home of Tacoma Radiator and Fender Works, the 9,000 square foot space encompasses a 15-barrel brewhouse built by Portland’s Pinnacle Stainless, a much larger fermentation cellar, warm and cold rooms, several blending tanks, a sizeable collection of barrels, 9 new horizontal foeders, 2 old cognac foeders acquired from Seattle’s Holy Mountain Brewing Company, and, separated by floor to ceiling glass walls, a taproom with seating for about 40 people.
Next to the taproom, a small fenced-in patio outfitted with plastic Adirondack chairs provides additional seating and, on slower days, just enough room for a friendly game of cornhole. Food trucks, like Sirius Wood Fired Pizza, will supplement a DIY charcuterie menu that includes cured meat from Salt Blade and Olli Salumeria and cheese from Mount Townsend Creamery, Mountain Lodge Farms, and Beecher’s. Engine House No. 9 will remain in operation, but plans for the former brewing space adjacent to the restaurant haven’t yet been finalized.
“The goal—if everything goes right—is to get a tavern license,” says Donovan Stewart, who handles sales and marketing. A tavern license would give Todd McLaughlin, the new taproom manager, more flexibility in terms of the mix of wines, beers, and ciders that E9 could sell.
In the meantime, the focus is making more beer, and getting it into the hands of a customer base that has come to appreciate the wide variety of offerings, particularly wild, farmhouse, and mixed culture ales, produced by head brewer Shane Johns. According to Stewart, keeping up with demand for the sought-after beers that require many months of barrel aging has been a challenge of late. Then, in February, the company decided to switch to self distribution when its western Washington distributor folded. Last year E9 sold nearly 1,000 barrels of beer. With the expansion, the company expects to come close to 1,500 in 2019, but the long term plan isn’t a continuous growth model. “I’d like to see us cap out around 3,000,” says Stewart.
A new canning line for hoppier offerings like Black Helmet IPA and Pogo Stick IPA and a pneumatic cork and cage machine (previous bottling runs have all been done by hand) for popular Belgian styles like Nefelibata, a Flanders-style red ale, and Farmhouse Deux, a saison, should quickly make a difference, as will the ability to dedicate a fermentation vessel to lagers, a luxury that was impossible in the cramped space on North Pine Street. Additional capacity and extra breathing room in the new facility will also enable Johns to slot a number of collaboration brews into his production schedule. A barrel-aged imperial stout with Oregon’s de Garde is already in the works, as are plans to do more with Holy Mountain, another brewery E9 has collaborated with in the past.
“This is all Shane-centric,” explains Jeff Paradise, co-owner, along with John Xitco, of X Group, which purchased Engine House No. 9 in August 2011. “He’s the guy. I didn’t realize how far people would travel to get a bottle of beer.”
Johns is eager to experiment with his expanded array of tools, and lights up at the mention of step mashing on the new steam-fired system, a process his old 7-barrel brewhouse couldn’t handle. Paradise, on the other hand, talks about how the second location will allow the company to better serve the North End restaurant, a spot he remembers from his youth. As much as he admires the direction Johns has taken E9’s beer program, Paradise is glad to be able to provide a more balanced menu at Engine House No. 9. In other words, plenty of fruited, barrel-aged, Brett fermented creations for the geeks, and no shortage of Rowdy Dick Amber for the people who have been supporting the City of Destiny’s first craft brewery since 1995.
“We’re pretty excited,” Paradise says. “We have a bit of an inferiority complex here in Tacoma, but I’m a big Tacoma guy [and] this is something we can be proud of.”
Author of The Great Northeast Brewery Tour and a contributor to The Oxford Companion to Beer, Ben Keene has judged beer competitions across the United States and frequently speaks at industry conferences and conventions. He lives in Seattle.