Updated: Jun 30
The Winter of 1986/87 was, in true Pacific Northwest style, cold and grey and wet. The year had already witnessed Chernobyl and the Challenger’s demise, the Unabomber gleefully mailing his malice and polishing his manifesto, and Ronald Reagan in hot water for selling arms to Iran in exchange for Cocaine for Contras. Having recently graduated from a small liberal arts school in Portland with a degree in business and a minor in art history, I was feeling the ambivalent aimlessness so many young college grads struggle with and the abrupt lack of structure was both liberating and ominous. I set about the job of figuring out what to do with my life by learning to survive while rudderless. I taught swimming lessons at the Y, lifeguarded at a fancy private club, and checked groceries at a small local super market. The home budget was based on the most severe economic austerity measures, and I stopped paying car insurance so I could buy a new commuter bike. Ramen, tuna, and beans and rice were the foundation upon which most every meal was based, and collecting bottles and cans for deposit was the way we afforded our beer. Even though a 1/2 rack of Rainier Pounders could be had for $3.99, we soon realized that we either needed another source of revenue to continue our habit, or we needed a much cheaper beer. And in that moment, the idea of homebrewing was rekindled.
Upon initial investigation, much had changed in the few years since Bach’s beer had found it’s place on the shelves of the supermarket. Charlie Papazian’s book, The Joy of Homebrewing had made it to print, and I found a copy at Powells famous book store. Another startling discovery was a shop in SE Portland dedicated to home brewing and vintning called FH Steinbart’s, helmed by John and Mary Kay DeBenedetti. John was a wealth of knowledge as well as a well of patience for what I’m sure was a barage of ignorant questions. It was a wonder to me at the time, when resources were so difficult to find, and it felt like I had discovered the dragon’s hoard of brewing supplies. My roommate Pat Meyer and I began brewing in earnest in the kitchen and garage of our cheap rental house on Palatine Hill. Although Steinbart’s was a treasure trove, much of the supplies were still very basic, mostly extracts and freeze dried yeast with a small smattering of specialty malts. The equipment was rudimentary, but included dial thermometers, hydrometers, Cornelius kegs and the ubiquitous “wine thief”.
Portland in the 80’s still had the feel and character to me of a blue collar working class town. The the air was always sweet with the smell of boiling wort from the Weinhardts brewery and the DIY attitudes that created punk and grunge permeated the underlying artistic culture. Most bars and taverns were of the “dive” variety, where a dusty jar of pickled eggs held nightly vigil over a continuous procession of laughs and lies. Pat’s and my adventures in home brewing continued to evolve as we experimented with the numerous recipe examples in Charlie’s book, and then found Greg Noonan’s newly published book, Brewing Lager Beer. We made pilgrimages to Henry’s, Olympia, and Rainier to see the “real” operations and meet “real” brewers. And, as our brewing passion and acumen evolved, we began to meet like minded mad artisans, less like the industrial brewers of Olympia, and more like the Grateful Dead versions of Willy Wonka. I have especially fond memories of the earliest days of Oregon’s first brewpub, the Hillsdale Pub with Mike and Brian McMenamin, Conrad, Keith, and John Harris all conspiring to put psychedelic twists on whatever constituted “standard brewing practice”.
As for me, I was hooked. All I needed was a way in. It felt like I finally had a pair of oars to row with and a rudder to guide me, now all I needed was a boat! This world I craved entry to was still so underground and obscure, how was I to find my way in? As I pondered what ever steps might take me closer to my newly all consuming passion, I never could have foreseen that the one opportunity that would crack the door to entry into the world of craft brewing would be bagging groceries at the tiny Burlingame Market.