Thirty Years Covering Beervana in Portland
I’ve been writing for the Celebrator for at least the past 15 of those 30 years and have been in Oregon in all but the first of the Celebrator’s 30 years, so while I can’t provide a full account of what microbrews (as they were called) were like in Oregon back then, I can get pretty close.
When we first moved to the Portland area in 1989, McMenamins Ruby Ale (first brewed in 1986 and still the brewery’s second-most popular product) was my favorite beer. As our dear friend (and official Craft Beer Muse) Portland writer Fred Eckhardt would say, “My favorite beer is the one in my hand.” Well, that was the first Portland beer I had in my hand, and I loved it. But in true Portland beer geek spirit, I didn’t stop there.
We quickly moved on from McMenamins to offerings from other local microbreweries like BridgePort, with its funky ivy-covered walls and killer pizza, and Widmer, at the old downtown location known as B. Moloch’s, a hip northwestern cuisine-themed bakery/brewpub that would still be considered cutting-edge today. Portland Brewing, Deschutes in Bend and Full Sail were also part of the scene. Irene Firmat, co-owner and founder of Full Sail, told me that when she and her husband, brewmaster Jamie Emmerson, were starting up in Hood River, they realized they were going to be the fifth Oregon brewery. And they were afraid five might be too many. To say they were mistaken would be an understatement, and I bet they are glad they were so off the mark with their concerns.
Throughout the ’90s, more breweries were fermenting and popping up around the landscape: Hair of the Dog, the now-defunct and still oft-discussed Nor’Wester, Caldera, Bend Brewing, Pelican and more, as Oregon quickly became known as the mecca for micros. Nicknames like Beervana and Brewtopia stuck to the region, and for good reason. Even then, it was not unusual to find a craft brewery or brewpub in unexpected locations around the state; from Barley Brown’s in Baker City to Rogue Ales in Newport, Oregon was home to more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the States.
The region’s tavern culture also played — and still does to this day — a very important role in Oregon’s beer culture. The Horse Brass Pub, headed for decades by Don Younger, was among the first pubs to embrace the local brewers’ wares, making them more accessible to curious locals.
Rob Widmer and Don Younger both recalled to me the days when Rob and his brother, Kurt, would travel from bar to bar around Portland and “wet sample” patrons on their weird-looking, hazy microbrews (yup, they were on the “haze craze” way before anyone on the East Coast). Younger was among the first to put Widmer Brothers’s beers on tap. The brewery credits Oregonians’ pioneering spirit (it is the final stage of the Oregon Trail, after all) with making them amenable to trying Widmer’s funny-looking brews when all that was available at the time was nearly clear, fizzy industrial brews.
“We still wet sample in bars whenever we enter a new market,” Rob Widmer told me a few years ago. “You’d be surprised how many people in other parts of the country actually turn down free beer! That never happened in Oregon.”
There truly is always something — if not a whole lot of somethings — going on here in the world of beer. It has been and continues to be a fun ride.
A few years later, Younger, who had caught the craft beer bug, helped his friend Joy Campbell start Belmont Station. Back then, it was a small space right next door to the Horse Brass Pub, and it was among the first “craft” beer stores in the country. Belmont Station had representative bottles of each beer positioned on a shelf. You’d point at what you wanted, and the one clerk on duty would go to the back, where there was a very big walk-in cooler, and fetch your requested beers. Younger and Campbell weren’t quite sure whether they could make a go of it with selling only beer, so they also offered hard-to-find British foods for the ex-pats and a lot of breweriana — shirts, hats, signs and such. That stuff was just displayed out in the store area, and I always wondered why nobody ever would send the clerk off to get beers and then run out the door with an armful of beer-related items. But apparently, nobody ever did. It was definitely a different era.
The Bier Stein in Eugene took the original Belmont Station bottle shop model and improved it, creating what is now a standard beer store/beer bar combination around Oregon and in many other states as well. Shortly after The Bier Stein opened its doors as both taproom and beer store, Belmont Station changed ownership, with Carl Singmaster moving from South Carolina to take control of the daily operations. The tiny store was moved one full city block north from Belmont Street to Stark Street into a stand-alone building that accommodates both taproom and beer store, where it still stands to this day. (Full disclosure: I became managing majority owner of Belmont Station about five years ago.)
While all that was going on, more and more breweries opened across the state. A few also closed, but most are still going strong: Double Mountain, Laurelwood, Hopworks, Boneyard and Fort George, to name just a few (and definitely not in that order!). Along with those openings, more bottle shops and beer bars began to spring up as well, and eventually even restaurants began to add extensive beer lists to their menus.
Today, a continued stream of new breweries keep opening in Oregon, making it hard to find a place where a brewery doesn’t serve the local community. Just recently, Madras, Ore., in the Cascade Mountains of Central Oregon, which doesn’t yet have a local brewery, made it clear that it would actually assist a prospective brewery in getting settled in that town.
Currently, Oregon continues to be one of the world leaders in craft beer, with more than 230 brewing companies operating nearly 300 breweries across the state. To say that living in Beervana is exciting for any beer nerd, new or “vintage” like myself, is an understatement: There truly is always something — if not a whole lot of somethings — going on here in the world of beer. It has been and continues to be a fun ride.
So there you have it, a very brief history of the past three decades in Oregon beer history. I might be off in dates and a few facts, but as Don Younger used to say, “If we’d known we were making history, we would’ve written it all down!”
And that’s one fact on which you can rely.