Burlingame was a small market much in the vein of a Plaid Pantry at the top of Terwilliger road in SW Portland. It seemed like it should have gas pumps outside but it didn’t. There was a barber shop, or an auto mechanic attached to the end of it like a dangling chad, and it had all the charm and character of a suburban DMV. In 1987, it had recently changed hands, and the new owner, Tom Calkins, hired me, my roommate Pat, and a number of other young and directionless youth to stock the shelves, and run the cash register. It would have been a seriously temporary stay for me, if it hadn’t been for Tom’s plans for the store, and the curiosity I had to see what came next.
Tom was a beer buyer for a big beer and wine distributor in Portland, and he knew the ins and outs of the 2nd tier of the beer business. He tore out half the shelves in the place, replacing the personal hygiene and school supplies, the pet food and magazines with rows and rows of wine racks, filled with local wines from the burgeoning new wine scene of California, Oregon and Washington vineyards. French wines and Champagnes that seemed impossible to find elsewhere, showed up on our shelves, and within 3 months time, Richard, a slightly barrel chested good natured bloke with a soft and unidentifiable English accent came on as a full time sommelier.
But what really caught and held my attention in this time, was what Tom did to the beer cooler in the back of the store. A lowly 4 door cooler was expanded to 12 doors, and the selection inside became a beer drinkers dream which eventually boasted 400 varieties. In a time of dwindling options, when the House of Heileman was gobbling up regional breweries like pac-man, and Labatt, Heineken and Lowenbrau dominated the import scene, the Burlingame beer cooler seemed like wonderland of choices. Of course there were all the regional favorites, Lucky, Rainier, Olympia, Hanks and there were a slew of regional beers that were rarer, Leinenkugel, Yuengling, August Schell, Hibernia, Saxton, Genesee, Augsberger, Val Blatz, Joseph Huber, FX Matt, and a slew of newer craft brewery offerings, Chinook, Boulder, Thousand Oaks, Pete’s wicked, Sam Adams, Hart, Sierra Nevada, and Yakima. The Imports were incredible, Pinkus, Samuel Smiths, Ayinger, Lindemans, Fullers, Ringwood, Thwaites. If a Brewery had a special release, or only shipped a small quantity of beer, Tom would attempt to buy it all and it wasn’t unusual to have a pallet of some beer we’d never heard of arrive at the front door.
Access to so much variety propelled my home brewing and drinking endeavors to another level and I began to taste beers with much more intention and curiosity. Pat and I picked apart malt profiles, hop characters, and ester contents with earnestness and a weak vocabulary supplemented by our sommelier Richard. Hours were spent extolling the virtues of Pinkus and Hibernia’s rich maltiness while admiring the tang and butteriness of Bert Grants Yakima brews. We began trading a frightening portion of our paychecks for single bottles of high end brew. This was, unfortunately exactly the wrong direction financially, but in the name of furthering our own education, we persevered. At the store, Pat and I took it upon ourselves to act as “beer sommelier” to those customers that would peer into the glass doors with a sense of overwhelmed wonder and awe, guiding the curious to try something outside their comfort zone. It was during one such interaction with a customer that I found my beer knowledge appreciated, but completely outclassed.
I had seen this guy before, he was maybe a couple years older than me, and unlike many of the pro sports heroes or wing tipped office geeks we were starting to see, he was casual in a rumpled t-shirt and blue jeans. We seemed to hit it off, and I pushed him to divulge the source of his beer acumen. His name was Karl Ockert, the brewmaster at Columbia River Brewery in the industrial district of NW Portland, and I petitioned him for a job on the spot. Washing kegs, scrubbing floors, or what ever else might need doing, part time, full time, it didn’t matter I told him. He told me to come to the brewery next week and we would talk about it. I walked home after my shift at the market without touching the ground, not realizing at that moment the tremendous turn my life would take.