Early Portland Craft Brewers Were a Fine Lot
Recently, I was invited to participate in one of those wonderful McMenamin’s “drink tanks.” Once or twice a year, Mike and Brian McMenamin gather their friends, workers, and other assorted followers together to participate in ceremonial rites to formulate one of their very special brews. This one, held at the Portland’s Hillsdale Pub, was for the Barley Mill Pub’s 20th anniversary.
The Barley Mill Pub was the first McMenamin pub to open, way back in July 1983, and each year the McMenamins have brewed a new and different beer for the pub’s anniversary. These have all been magic brews, and none are reproducible. All were brewed with strange and exotic (even weird) ingredients. All have been brewed at the Hillsdale Pub brewery, McMenamin’s and Oregon’s first brewpub.
This year’s brew was an amber ale, but the 20-odd guests contributed some 90 or so “additions,” including Brad Angus’s Irish Pipes rendition of “Tap It Off” (circa 1820) and an almost continuous series of additional tunes of like nature throughout the whole ceremony. The guests added, one at a time, a good selection of McMenamin’s fine Edgefield Wines, a Grateful Dead ticket stub (May 29, 1995), samples of most of Hillsdale’s current draft beer selection, various flowers and herbs from McMenamin gardens across the area, and readings from a variety of sources, including my “Magic Beer” article (All About Beer September 1992).
We all sang the “Starvation Army Prohibition Song”:
We’re coming, we’re coming,
Our brave little band.
On the right side of temperance
We now take our stand
We don’t use tobacco because we do think
That the people who use it are liable to drink.
There was hard liquor, too, including McMenamin’s Edgefield Whisky barrel sample, and some Johnny Walker Black to toast Mike & Brian’s granddad, Charlie Wentworth.
Leading a New Movement
This friendly drinking scene set me to musing about the McMenamins. Mike and Brian had long dabbled in the new brewing movement, before they created one of the largest brewing chains in the United States. The McMenamins lobbied diligently to get a brewpub bill through the state legislature in mid-1985. This was the nation’s most liberal brewpub law, with ample allowances for a brewer to dispense his own beer on premises. It allowed a brewer to choose between self-distribution and opening a pub brewery.
Mike originally started by opening several pubs, only to find that a decent selection of draft beers was impossible to assemble. In 1980 he sold most of the pubs and instead opened a beer distributorship specializing in fine imports and the early craft brews as they came into existence. It was an ill-starred venture—well ahead of its time—folding in three years, leaving him holding $300,000 in debt. That was when he and brother Brian opened the Barley Mill Pub, their first joint venture.
The brothers’ innovative approach to brewing and inn keeping has done much to change the very nature of those industries in these parts. This is especially noticeable when they renovate lovely old hotels and stately buildings such as the Edgefield (a former county poor farm), the Kennedy School (an inner city school), and the Grand Lodge (a former Masonic retirement home in Forest Grove, OR).
Mike and Brian are great to hang out with, because much of what they do is designed to be fun for them. They are clearly entrepreneurs who don’t slave at business. Fun is high on their list of good life practices. Their happy demeanor and laid-back approach are obviously important factors in the success of their business plans.
They now operate well over 50 establishments including pubs, brewery pubs, and bed-and-breakfast inns in conjunction with their other ventures. These latter also include a winery and a distillery. Their enterprises are spread over a wide area, from Bothell, WA, in the north, to Medford, OR, in the south. Each operation is distinctive and family friendly, or as the brothers like to put it, “a place where our mom can go and feel comfortable.” That’s exactly what they are, well lit and low key. Crazy artwork is one of the few characteristics that would identify any of them as a McMenamin operation.
Winemaker Turned Brewer
Oregon’s first successful craft brewer was Dick Ponzi, a winemaker turned brewer (“it takes a lot of good beer to make a good wine”). Ponzi and his brewer, former winemaker and University of California-Davis brewing school graduate, Karl Ockert, gave new life to brewing when they opened the BridgePort Brewing Co. in November 1984.
In March of 1986, they had more success with the opening of their now-famous BridgePort Brewpub. Ponzi has returned to winemaking, and the company is now owned by Texas Gambrinus Co., but smiling Karl Ockert is given pretty much of a free hand in his brewing ventures.
Karl is one of our friendliest brewers, always willing to share a beer and a story with friends and customers. He has been remarkably successful in the introduction and promotion of cask-conditioned ales at the pub. Lately, he has been winning a number of international awards for his fine brews. Last year, BridgePort installed new storage tanks and expanded production capacity by 25,000 barrels. They are now Oregon’s fourth largest brewery.
In 1984, Kurt Widmer, at 32, had found his job as an IRS agent oppressively dull, but he enjoyed homebrewing. With the help and encouragement of family and friends, Kurt, brother Rob, and their father set about putting together equipment to open their German-style brewery at a cost of $60,000 in April 1985 at 1405 NW Lovejoy, a block away from BridgePort. They made Widmer Brewing an astounding success. There are three breweries now. One is Gasthaus (brewpub) featuring one of Portland’s oldest artifacts: a beautiful wooden bar shipped around the Horn from the East Coast in the 19th century.
The innovative brothers have connected with Oregon’s homebrewers by Collaborator series of brews, each designed by a homebrewer after a club competition. Widmer selects the beer style, and then various homebrewers enter a beer in that style, using ingredients furnished by Widmer. The winning beer in each competition is brewed at Widmer’s Rose Garden Brewery by brewer Ike Manchester, in small nine-barrel batches. One such brew, Widmer Collaborator Milk Stout, won a gold medal in the sweet stout category at the Great American Beer Festival last year, the only GABF gold medal ever awarded a “homebrew.”
The Collaborator was designed by a trio of homebrewers, Jeff Brinlee, Jeff Langley, and Ken Bietschek. Widmer was also named mid-sized brewery of the year, and Kurt Widmer, mid-sized brewer of the year. They are now Oregon’s largest brewery, out producing cross-state rivals Deschutes, in Bend, with 140,905 31-gallon barrels last year.
The Widmers were followed by Fred Bowman and Art Larrance, who opened their Portland Brewing Co. on March 26, 1986, offering Grant’s Scottish Ale under contract from Bert Grant’s Washington-based Yakima Brewing. Grant had always had trouble getting his beer to Oregon, and he welcomed the opportunity to have his beer brewed there. The beer helped Portland Brewing to a successful start as a craft brewing operation, which has survived well beyond the two-year stint with Grant.
Bowman and Larrance also began brewing a line of their own brews before moving to larger digs, a fine brewery and pub in northwest Portland. Fred Bowman is still a beer enthusiast and vice president of Portland Brewing. Art Larrance, no longer with the company, now has his own fine Raccoon Lodge and Brewpub 5 miles southwest of Portland on the road to Beaverton.
Portland Number One
It is a joy to see our early brewers, who risked so much for success in a very uncertain industry, hewing their way to personal and company success. Today there are no less than 30 breweries inside Portland’s city limits, among some 70 located all across the state—as I recently wrote our governor, urging him not to let our state legislators increase Oregon’s beer tax by 1372 percent:
This makes Portland the number one brewing city in the world. People move here and tourists come just to drink our now legendary brews, and attend our world-renowned beer festivals. Our brewers are leading a new revolution to save the world’s ancient beer styles. This is not ordinary beer, not by any stretch of the imagination. Our wonderful beer has it all: unlike wine, it is both varietal and seasonal, strong and weak, and sometimes roasty. Oregon brewers produce over 50 different styles. You can cook with it in some astounding ways. In every aspect, it is the equal of, if not superior to, our great wines.
Our beers are the good taste of Oregon, as has never been seen elsewhere in all of our state’s history.
Fred Eckhardt lives in Portland, OR, and drinks any good beer he finds there and across the country when he travels.