This is the second installment in our series on the history behind the local brewery buildings. What story do these buildings tell? Why did these brewers choose them as the location for their own stories? Previously we learned about Bellingham’s flagship brewery, Boundary Bay. Today we head south along the bay to Fairhaven’s neighborhood brewery, Stones Throw.
“So, this place used to be a brothel,” says Tony matter-of-factly.
Tony Luciano is co-owner and brewer at Fairhaven Stones Throw, which opened for business in April of 2016 and has grown into one of the most laid-back and welcoming drinking spots on the Tap Trail. I’m sitting in the brewery’s upstairs office with Tony and his partners, Jack Pflueger and Nadine van Niekerk, trying to get a sense of the unique space that is Fairhaven Stones Throw: part house, part garage, part patio, part shipping-container. And sure enough, Jack hands me a dog-eared copy of a book called The Brothels of Bellingham, published in 2004 by Curtis F. Smith (a local dentist).
There it is in black and white: 1009 Larabee Ave., home to Miss Annie’s Palace (which explains the reserved parking sign that’s now planted at the entrance to the brewery). Apparently in the late 1800s there was actually a sort of travel guide published, “The Sporting House and Club Directory”, that would advertise saloons and, yes, brothels. The entry in the guide reads, in part: “Miss Annie is an extremely experienced hostess, pleasant and agreeable when she entertains her guests”. At the time there was some expectation that Fairhaven would become the terminus of the Great Northern Railway (it was in competition with several other cities, including Blaine, Anacortes, Mukilteo, Port Townsend, and Seattle), which led to a period of commercial development.
For a brief moment in time Fairhaven was a boomtown, complete with its own houses of ill-repute. Eventually, of course, Seattle was selected as the terminus of the transcontinental railroad, and Fairhaven turned sleepy again. (To take just one telling example: the Fairhaven hotel, at the corner of Harris & 12th St. was completed in 1890, but by 1899 it had closed.) But Fairhaven’s 15 minutes of fame proved fortuitous for Jack and Tony, because the one-and-a-half story house with a detached garage that eventually became Fairhaven Stones Throw was zoned commercial, making it ideal for a small neighborhood brewery.
The structure that existed at 1009 Larabee Ave. when Jack and Tony found it was not the same structure that housed Miss Annie’s Palace in the late 19th century. According to records held at the Washington State Archives just off Bill McDonald Parkway, permits for the current house were first filed in 1942 by a man named Robert Frank Burns, and the house itself was built sometime in 1944 or 1945. From that time until 2015, it was a simple single-family home occupied by a string of everyday folk who would no doubt enjoy watching the sun sink into the bay from the elevated back deck.
But Nadine says that a simple single-family home is exactly what they were looking for. Jack and Tony have been friends since their days as students at Western Washington University (Jack was an industrial design major; Tony studied environmental science), and had dreamed about opening a brewery together for a long time. But it was while Tony and Nadine were teaching at an international school in Malaysia that the dream started to come down to earth. From afar Tony saw Kulshan’s successful opening, and knew that Wander and Aslan were in planning. Tony recalls thinking, “Nobody’s picked Fairhaven? That’s the spot.” He says: “So, from Malaysia I got on Google Earth and just started looking at buildings in Fairhaven.”
For financial reasons, the original plan was to buy a house with a large garage so that Jack, Tony, and Nadine could live in the house while they spent their days operating the business out of the garage. In fact, Jack told me that one of the original visions was to serve customers through a walk-up window, and just forego inside seating altogether. The house at 1009 Larabee Ave – with its commercial zoning and its easy walking distance to the heart of historic Fairhaven – seemed like a perfect fit, and that became even more clear when they took the initial tour with the person who owned the house before them. After the tour was over, and they were alone with the seller, Tony confessed that their interest in the property was because they wanted to open a brewery. For the seller, that sealed the deal. Her response: “That’s amazing! This place used to be a brothel! That’s exactly what needs to happen. I think I should sell it to you guys.”
Of course, after they started sizing up the space more seriously, the vision changed. They decided they wanted to use the garage as a taproom, but that meant that the brewhouse would have to go somewhere else. And that’s how Fairhaven Stones Throw became the first commercial project in Whatcom County to use shipping containers. Jack and Tony demolished the original deck that connected the house to the garage, dug a big hole in the backyard, and hoisted four shipping containers (each 8 ft. x 20 ft.) into the property’s backyard. Three are side-by-side right behind the house: two of them house the hot-side brewing equipment, and the third opens into the backyard. (It’s the only one that had to be drywalled and insulated because it houses the bathrooms.) The fourth container is elevated above the backyard patio and is home to the grain mill and the fermenters.
The shipping container concept allows Stones Throw to have the best of three worlds. They’ve got the industrial ethos of a working brewery inside three of the shipping containers, but the taproom and patios are much less forbidding, and encourage the beer drinker to slow down and stay while. And on top of that: now that the brewery is up and running, the trio has moved out of the adjoining house, which is now for rent online as an Airbnb unit. On the site it’s listed as “Cozy Microbrewery”, and it currently has 111 reviews, giving it an average rating of 5 out of 5 stars. At just under $100 per night, who wouldn’t love the experience of being immersed in a working brewery, steps away from a pint, just a few more steps away from the heart of downtown Fairhaven, and a stone’s throw away from a whole panoply of outdoor adventures? It sounds like the quintessentially Northwest experience.
Of course, operating a brewery out of a garage and some backyard shipping containers does present some unique challenges. For example, having a 7-barrel brewhouse inside two conjoined shipping containers doesn’t exactly leave a lot of breathing room. As Tony puts it: “One of the challenges is just trying to find a rhythm, and a schedule. It’s really a 1.6 man show in the brewhouse because the space is so small.” Also, because there are so many discrete areas in the brewery – front patio, taproom, back patio, brewhouse, rooftop patio, office, house – and because you can walk around the whole place without retracing your steps, it’s easy for Jack, Tony, and Nadine to chase each other around without ever finding each other.
Having the space chopped up into chunks makes for other sorts of inefficiencies, too. Jack elaborates: “I feel like I touch things – like garbage – like four times before they leave the property. It’s not efficient at all. But because we’re in a small space, we just don’t have space for all this stuff. If we unpack a box of growlers, it goes into one pile, and then on garbage day we have to repack it and put it into another pile, and so on. It’s a little more handwork than an efficient industrial space would have.” In this way, it’s more like living in a proper house, which makes sense, since, well, that’s what it is.
But the inefficiencies of the residential layout are made up for in other ways. “I really love that it feels like home,” Nadine says with a sincere smile. “All three of us have lived here at one point. There’s a real connection to the space, and the place. I also really love how the neighbors have gotten behind the brewery, so this is an extension of their backyard.” The block parties surely help with that feel, too.
The unique layout also means that newcomers to the brewery get to experience several layers of surprise as they walk through the place. “People don’t really understand what they’re getting into when they first walk in,” Jack explains. “And then as you keep going through the property, getting to the back, it just keeps getting better and bigger and more wonderful, and it’s really exciting to see someone walk out the back door and just be like, ‘What?!’. To bring joy to people just gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
In his book, The Architecture of Happiness, author Alain de Botton reflects on how the places where we spend our time influence our mental stability. He says: “In essence, what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of visions of happiness.”
I don’t know about you, but one of my visions of happiness is sitting on the back patio at Stones Throw on a warm summer evening, pint in hand, laughing with friends and family. Let Seattle have its railroad and its bustling downtown; as for me, I’ll be having a quiet beer in Fairhaven’s backyard.