Photo of Mari Kemper courtesy of Northwest Beer Guide.
Women have been a part of beer’s history from the very beginning. In fact, it was women who were the first to brew, the first to introduce hops to the process, and were the sole driving force behind the creation of beer. Over the years, however, women were pushed out of the limelight of beer, slowly turning the industry into a male-driven one.
This series on the Tap Trail fights for women to take back the spotlight. Bellingham is filled with tons of kick ass, beer-loving ladies, and it is time for the community to know their presence and their story.
Mari Kemper is widely known in the industry as “the mother of craft beer.” She and her husband Will are the founding owners of Chuckanut Brewery – Will being the Brewmester and Mari overseeing the brewery and restaurant operations. While Mari and Will have been operating Chuckanut, one of the most highly decorated breweries in Washington since 2008, their role and power in the craft beer industry dates a whole lot further back.
In 1976, Mari and Will first decided that they wanted to own a brewery someday. Will was a chemical engineer and had taken up homebrewing as a hobby, but it quickly grew into a more serious passion.
When Mari and Will moved to WA State from Boulder, CO they decided to start their own brewery. Will met Andy Thomas at an environmental consulting company where they both worked. In 1984 Mari and Will decided to invite Andy and his wife Laura to join them in creating a micro-brewery on Bainbridge Island where the Kempers lived. For the name they decided to combine both last names to create Thomas Kemper Brewery. They quickly outgrew their first building and moved the brewery to an old meat packing plant in Poulsbo, WA.
Sadly, things got a little messy between the owners over time, as sometimes happens in partnership arrangements. It was decided that Will and Mari would separate themselves from the situation and the company. Because of a non-compete agreement, Will was forced to find brewing work outside the Thomas Kemper territory (basically outside the western US). So Will began his own brewing consultation business working on the East Coast first with Weeping Radish Brewpub in Durham, NC then onto Dock Street Brewpub in Philadelphia, Capital City Brewpub in D.C., and Lowell Brewing in Massachusettes. Meanwhile Thomas Kemper Brewery developed their sodas and sold the company to Pyramid. Pyramid then marketed the Thomas Kemper sodas more and sold the business to Thomas Kemper Soda Company, who then marketed it further and sold it again. Thomas Kemper beer has not been brewed since the 90’s, but the soda company continues to flourish!
After moving east, Mari decided to take a break from owning a brewery.
“I was upset at the beer industry,” Mari recalled. “It was a good ole boys club and it frustrated me. I had to do my own thing for a while.”
While Will worked at breweries, Mari was always right there beside him; drinking and talking beer with everyone she met. This became their life for a while – planting breweries like little seeds, building breweries for groups, helping them grow more established, and then moving onto the next project. They planted everywhere, from Mexico to Istanbul where they helped establish the very first brewpub and craft brewery in Turkey.
All along the way, Will and Mari were learning, growing, and preparing for their own next big project – Chuckanut Brewery. Owning their home on Chuckanut since 1995, they were anxious to return.
“The biggest thing we were looking at was sustainability,” Mari explained. “We didn’t have a lot of money to work with and building a brewery is expensive so working with old things and making them new again was a major focus.”
Eventually, the two found their perfect waterfront building, and opened the doors to Chuckanut Brewery in July of 2008. But when sourcing hops for the project, it was very difficult to find a US hop grower to work with them. Instead, they decided to continue with the boutique hop dealer in Germany who supplied hops to the Turkish breweries. “That’s why we do European style of beers,” Mari reasoned. “And our focus is to make very drinkable beers.”
Two months after Chuckanut opened, 2008’s financial crisis occurred and brought a lot of difficulties for Mari and Will to tackle, but they survived. In September 2009, Chuckanut was able to enter the Great American Beer Festival walking away with National Small Brewpub/Brewer of the Year 2009 award! They won this prestigious title with all lager beers, a first in the history of the festival. Then, they did it again in 2011 as National Small Brewery/Brewer of the Year, this time with two lagers and two ales.
Mari is a woman who favors taste over trends. For her, it’s about educating people on all the other styles of beer available rather than what people are used to. Opening up to all the options for what beer has to offer is her focus.
“The northwest is filled with IPAs, we give people a chance to try something different,” Mari relayed.
Far and wide, Chuckanut is absolutely known for their lagers. The problem with lagers: they’re expensive to make. Typically, lagers sit in the tanks three or four times longer than an ale, slowing down the process of turnover for the brewery.
“That’s why fewer brewers make lagers, but it’s also the reason why we make ales too – so we can make more beer and balance out the cost of the longer aged lagers,” Mari explained. “We make fantastic ales, like our British IPA, but it’s only available at the brewery.
For Mari, educating someone on a different style of beer is what gives her joy. She loves representing Chuckanut at beer festivals, and giving them “a break” from IPAs.
“Someone comes up to me and asks for the hoppiest beer we have, I just move them right along,” Mari shared. “Back during Thomas Kemper days, the biggest challenge was getting people to try something other than the Budweiser, Pabst, Miller, etc. Nowadays, it seems like the biggest challenge is getting people to try something other than an IPA.”
If you think settling down was in the books for Mari Kemper, you’d be painfully mistaken. Things are only just beginning for Mari and her career in the craft beer industry.
In case you missed it, Chuckanut Brewery is opening a second location right in the heart of Skagit Valley’s Innovation Zone. The brewery itself will be right down the street from Skagit Valley Malting Co., and the entire “zone” will center around agriculture and sustainability in Skagit. The amount of freedom and creativity that will come from Mari, Chuckanut, and the entire Innovation Zone project will be something that you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for.
Somehow, in the chaos of establishing a second brewery, Mari is still finding time to support some incredible events for Belligham Beer Week. In addition to helping host Chuckanut’s Annual Oktoberfest on September 1oth, Mari will be assisting with the production of the 3rd annual FemAles in Beer event happening on September 14th.
FemALES: A Celebration of Women in Beer takes place every year at Boundary Bay and is a night filled with support, appreciation, and admiration for all the incredible women who work in the beer industry. In preparation for the event, women from all components of the Bellingham Craft Beer scene, including Mari, designed and executed a collaborative beer that will be released during the grand event. These are powerful women who are taking back the industry as their own.