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Rainier beer: A delicious saga

When you drink it, it’s hard to taste the ingredients of what made Rainier Brewing Company one of the Pacific Northwest’s most recognizable brands. It took grandiose costumes, extravagant sets and hilarious scripts.

Oh, and lots of performers in tights.

“They’ve been called the Raindeers, Rainbeers, the grazers,” Sean McKillop, brand director for Rainier said of the companies most famous mascots that appear in many of their famous TV commercials: oversized Rainier bottles that made their way around on their human legs.

“But the wild Rainiers is the most common name.”

The humanoid characters were the stars of a trailblazing marketing campaign to release some of the most out of the box print and commercials ads ever seen by consumers, according to McKillop.

In addition to the Budweiser Clydesdales, there were the wild Rainiers. And before the Dos Equis’ most interesting man in the world, there was Mickey Rooney.

The star of the 1939 film, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Rooney was cast in Rainier commercials as an opera singing Canadian Mountie and again as a woodsman who stalked the trophy wild Rainiers high in the Cascade Mountains. He was armed with nothing but an oversized bottle cap on his back.

“People don’t like to admit it, but there’s very little difference between domestic lager beer,” he said. “They use the same ingredients and similar processes. What really defines a brand is how people can relate to it – and we’ve never had Super Bowl money.”

Craig Johnson, author of western mystery novels had the beer company’s humble beginnings in mind when he chose his main character, Walt Longmire, to be a loyal drinker of Rainier.

“I decided that would be Walt’s beer when they were trying break into the Inland Empire,” Johnson said. “I remember when I started drinking it, a six-pack was what, $1.50? And I didn’t figure Budweiser or Coors needed my help.”

Today, Johnson and officials at the company have partnered on different events. They will again on an upcoming event May 28th when Rainier will sponsor a talk about his new book, “First Frost.”

But before Johnson thought up the series, Rainier beer gained recognition by the commercials.

The iconic ads were made by a trailblazing marketing agency, Heckler and Associates. The scrappy, creative team were hired by Rainier officials and came up with hundreds of Rainier beer ads that defined the company, McKillop said.

“The agency did incredible work with original ideas that really set out to entertain and because of those ads, Rainier saw a surge in popularity,” he said.

Heckler also made ads for Starbucks, Jansport, snowboard and ski company K2, and New Balance.

“The Northwest has a certain quirkiness. We’re the people that invented socks and sandals and the obsession with Sasquatch,” he said. “I think that the way that the brand is marketed. Instead of making the typical ad, we set out to appealed to the sort of the different, sort of, not take ourselves too seriously, kind of nature of people.”

But the most popular ad made for Rainier, McKillop hypothesized, was perhaps the simplest.

The scene was set with long shadows that stretched across the asphalt of a lonely backroad. A man driving on a motorcycle came into view. He quickly gained speed as he approached the observer.

The groans of his motor grew louder and quieter as he progressed through his gears. But instead of a typical, rhythmic tone of an engine, voices were heard instead.

“Raiiiiii-nieeeeeer,” they sang, each syllable sounding off as the bike reached a higher gear.

As the motorist sped past, he hit his highest gear.

“Beeeeeer,” the voices said in a low tone.

He left the picture as Mt. Rainier came into view. And so does a pack of Rainier on the back of the bike.

“Mountain Fresh To Go,” the screen reads.

Heckler and Associates and their legendary beer ads are the subject of an independent documentary released earlier this month at the Seattle International Film Festival.

“Rainier: A Beer Odyssey” gave new life to the old ads.

After Rainier fell victim to the consolidation of large national brewing companies, its advertising department was nipped – including its relationship with Heckler, according to the film’s director Isaac Olson.

Film from Heckler were given to the Washington State Historic Society where they sat untouched and unseen for decades, according to Olson. Then the documentary creators, he and brothers Robby and Justin Peterson, got their hands on them.

“We spent our own film budget and did the work to catalog, digitize, and restore the ads,” Olson said. “This is the first time anyone has seen the classic commercials as they were originally supposed to look: crisp images and vibrant color.”

Much of the footage has never been seen before, he said. It includes behind-the-scenes shots, outtakes and evens films made for the sales team.

“Sales films were shot every year, which were full parodies, just like the commercials, but they were only ever shown at corporate events,” he said. “Now everyone can enjoy these as well.”

All three grew up in Tacoma, according to producer, Justin Peterson. Because of this, he said, they were connected to the ads.

“Growing up here, you hear about family members that were in them or people that worked on the commercials,” he said. “And people still talk about them – it’s a part of the culture.”

As a film industry insider, Peterson developed a great respect for workers at the Heckler company as he and his colleagues sifted through hundreds of hours of film.

“They were a small, local company at the time. What they pulled off with their advertising, and the lasting effect they had on the Northwest is so impressive,” he said. “I mean, everyone loves that stuff still. They were ahead of their time for sure”

After viewing the mountain of footage, and after years of showing the commercials on loop at he and his brother’s Tacoma bar, 1111, Peterson said his favorite ads are the ones that take place in the woods.

These include bored fisherman being surprised by giant beer cans acting as wales, spraying water from their blowholes as they surface.

Another outdoorsy commercial showed wild Rainiers being chase by motorized hunters. Instead of a four-wheeler or motorbike, the huntsmen are instead sitting on their couch which is propelled by their motorized living room.

Brand director, McKillop disagrees. His favorite commercial takes place in the city.

“It was shot in Pioneer Square and it’s like the theme of the running of the bulls, but instead it’s the running of the wild Rainiers,” he said. “There’s thousands of people on the streets of Seattle, being chased after these running cans with legs.”

After sharing a laugh, he said, “It’s so epic.”

Despite being purchased multiple times since the historic ad campaign, is a vital time in the roughly 150-year history of the company that is still looked to by officials, according to McKillop.

“We still reference the past ads to inform the future of the brand,” he said. “So much genius work was done before me that I don’t have to recreate the wheel.

“The important history starts about the same time when those ads came about. That’s the Rainier we know.”