Magic Beer—The Annual McMenamin Drink Tank
Portland brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin have built themselves a modest empire of wondrous proportions. They operate some 56 (mostly historic) establishments. They include about 23 breweries and brewpubs, a vineyard, a really good winery and two excellent distilleries (one—Cornelius Pass—built in a barn, using age-old, traditional construction and distillation techniques). There is even a single malt whiskey, aged in bourbon barrels!
Did I mention the nine theaters? There’s at least one golf course; and eight hotels, most with bread and breakfast, in locations ranging from above Seattle, WA, on down to Roseburg in central Oregon. My favorite McM establishment has to be the legendary White Eagle on Portland’s N. Russell Street (nicknamed “Bucket of Blood” from the fighting there in the old days). Two Polish immigrants originally opened this place in 1905, offering recreation, poker, liquor and beer and a boarding house for young Polish immigrants, featuring an opium den downstairs and a brothel upstairs. Now how can you beat that for genuine historical?
The breweries reference over 200 recipes and maybe more than 500 different brews. Each brewer is expected to make all of the major McMenamin beers. They are also given artistic freedom to invent their own. Artistic? Well, yes! Mike told me, in one conversation, that he considers his brewers to be artists. And why not? This is an organization that has a company historian, Tim Hill, and a number of paint artists, all of whom are also given great creative license.
The most distinctive and interesting beer they make is the annual anniversary brew to commemorate the 1983 beginning of their first (combined brothers) venture, the Old Barley Mill Pub, here on Portland’s East side Hawthorne Street. Each year’s brew created for the July 26th anniversary is unique and distinctive.
These anniversary brews are certainly fascinating, not so much for their taste, which is great, as for their method of design. They are designed by what can only be called a Drink Tank. Drink Tank? Well, what else could we call an assemblage of people (usually 30 to 40 folks), each of whom brings a strange and exotic (or even weird) ingredient or feature to add to the current anniversary brew? Magical brews indeed!
Lunch is served and the meeting convened at a secret location—usually, as this year, at their first brewpub, South Portland’s Hillsdale Brewery and Public House. The genial Mike McMenamin chairs the activities.
The wort for the base beer will have been started and will be at a full rolling boil by now. Each Drink Tank participant brings a favorite libation or herb to add, or poem or article to read, and there is usually a musician there to contribute a musical selection from time to time. The various libations, usually including many McM beers, wines and spirits, will be sampled by all at the table. Then the remaining liquor is poured into the offerings vat, which contents will be added to the finished brew as “dry” hopping (added at the beginning of the ferment, but kept separate, after adding their essence, to be discarded early in the fermentation process).
I remember the 1989 brew best: Wisdom Ale, with Fig Newton cookies, rosemary, thyme, sage, peaches and sunflower seeds. There was also ceremony: irises were laid on the cover to the brewery’s open primary fermentor. There are always reading from wise books of the ages. The herb selections were from Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. That beer had a magical effect, because after the first sip I felt wiser, though my newfound wisdom was gone by day’s end.
There was the very old Longevity Ale (1990) and that was even better—now I could live longer. That effect has lasted to this day: I’m still alive.
In 1991, there was Invisibility Ale. I have a hard time remembering that one, because I may have turned invisible. The herbs were designed to make one scarce to the eye, a non-problem to one’s neighbors, and totally invisible (amaranth, chicory, edelweiss, mistletoe, poppies and some other secret stuff). Did I mention Grateful Dead music (“Stella Blue” by Jerry Garcia)? It may have been a week before I became visible again.
The 1992 Hallucinator Ale was downright scary, as was the ingredient list. The first sip set me to giggling. Suddenly I felt older, wiser, slightly invisible—and giggly.
All at once, I knew the secrets of the universe, but I forgot them immediately and decided to bark at the moon. It was high noon and I was completely discombobulated. Some of the herbs: althea (protection, psychic powers), angelica (protection, healing, visions), lavender (love, longevity, happiness, peace), mint (love, money, psychic powers). Well, you get the picture. That was a rich (but filtered) marinade to add to a beer.
When Pat McNurney, Edgefield grounds manager (who had collected the herbs), actually sipped from the marinade, Mike McMenamin tried to protect him. But his cry, “Pat, stop. Don’t drink that. You’re too important to lose,” was too late. McNurney recovered in a few weeks time, but I still feel giddy.
For the first eight years, there had always been a bottle from a case of Lanson “champagne for connoisseurs only,” acquired from an old brewmaster of the now long-gone Blitz-Weinhard brewery, in France, in 1945, just after WWII had ended. The ‘45 was a banner year for that champagne and we may have consumed the last of that great vintage on the planet in 1996.
My notes from the 2012 meeting are unreadable, but I think that confab featured something like 73 additions, including samples of more than 30 McM and other brews, and many, many wine samples and distilled beverages. One had to be very, very careful that day.
But that wasn’t all that went into that beer. Tiny printed copies of an ad were added to the tub: “Beer is Not Alcohol.” I like that one. There were various other additions including songs, poems and who knows what all.
My contribution? I led the congregation in the Prohibition-era Starvation Army 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 likely to drink!
Away, away with rum by gum…the song of the Salvation Army!
We never eat fruitcake, because we do think
That the people who use it are likely to drink.
Oh, can you imagine a sorrier sight
Than a man eating fruitcake until he gets tight!
Away, away with rum by gum…the song of the Salvation Army!
We never eat cookies, they’re made with yeast
And one little bite turns a man to a beast.
Oh, can you imagine a sadder disgrace
Than a man in the gutter with crumbs on his face?
In conclusion, let me state that “Sanity is for sissies; a he-man needs another beer!”
Fred Eckhardt lives in Portland and carries a card with his name and photo on it so he can remember who he is and where he lives. At age 86, he’s always amazed to see his face in the mirror each morning.