I’m sitting in a dark bar on a beautiful fall day in Portland, paralyzed by a situation that has come as a complete surprise. I’m breaking out in a cold sweat, rivulets of perspiration beading on my forehead, my cheeks flushing, and my gut clenched for what is to come next. Spit or swallow?
It’s my fault really, it didn’t feel especially courageous to accept the generous offer of a steak and kidney pie and a pint from the owner of the bar while we talked about all things beer. Yet here I was, acutely aware that the kidney and I were definitely not going to “get along and play nice”. I found myself faced with a choice, I could just swallow, followed by several gulps of the beer that was in front of me, ignoring every bit of the somatic wisdom my body was busy screaming at me, or I could spit it up right there on the spot, potentially saving myself hours or perhaps even days of physical anguish, and insulting my host and his generosity. I swallow. To this day I wonder if this wasn’t some sort of sadistic joke that Don Younger, owner of the HorseBrass Pub, liked to play on unsuspecting neophytes to traditional English Pub fare. I imagine him watching his prey like a spider watches a fly coming closer and closer until it’s finally ensnared in the web, watching it struggle helplessly. Spit? Or Swallow?
Don was already a but of a legend in Portland in 1987. Eccentric, passionate, generous and opinionated would be a common list of adjectives associated with this bedraggled old hippy. As owner of the Horsebrass, he was a fierce advocate of “real ale” and a card carrying member of CAMRA. As a pub, Horsebrass was the only place I knew of to get a cask pull of any number of great English and Northwest beers. You could have a Bass, Watneys, or New Castle draught, and compare them to Portland, Grants, Pyramid or Bridgeport. Don was a great lover of English pub culture, and strove nightly to create a pub any Englishman, expat or otherwise displaced, would be proud of. The Northwests gray and rainy winters were well suited to pubs, dive-bars, and coffee shops. Places where one can forget the sometimes oppressive monotony of the ever present unstructured gray drizzle, and the Horsebrass felt warm and inviting in an almost timeless way.
In the late fall of ’87 and most of ’88 I worked a morning brewery shift, and in the afternoons, visited existing and potential draught accounts for BridgePort, talking to bar tenders, bar managers, and bar owners about replacing one of their 3 or 4 existing tap handles with a BridgePort one. Most often I was shooting for a Pabst handle, or a Henry’s Blue Boar. Bud lite was blitzing the nation with frogs and bikini teams advertising, and its sales were ridiculous. Coors had finally penetrated the Northwest, and Oregonians were enamored with “Banquet”, and the hometown favorite, “Hanks”, continued to be a mainstay. That didn’t leave a lot of options for a newcomer to break in, and there was a race between all the small NW breweries to be the one “novelty tap” in any bar or restaurant.
I found the classic dive bars and pubs of Portland to be the place where dark-lit and dusty opportunity lay hidden. If you kind of squinted your eyes, and looked just beyond the large jar of pickled eggs, one might glimpse a chance to convince a bored bar owner to try something different. The bottom line however, was there were few available draft handles open to being changed, and little brand loyalty in the bars willing to throw a curveball to their audience. Often, an opening for a new account would result in the dreaded “rotating tap”. BridgePort might be on tap this week, and in a follow-up visit, I might find Widmer, or Portland or Pyramid. It was constant game of Cat and Mouse, and it was in this game that I learned the dirty little secrets that beer delivery guys would use to ensure their beers remained on tap and others went away.
With meager opportunities for new accounts in the mostly blue collar working class town of Portland in the late ’80s, the unthinkable amongst the struggling craft brewers of the Northwest occurred. Redhook of Seattle, which had developed a cult following with its beer purportedly brewed with a Belgian yeast that “strained” the limits of conventional acceptability as far as “beer flavor” went, decided to cease production temporarily while they installed their new German brewhouse in their Trolleyman pub and production facility. We collectively gasped in horror just before leaping into frenzied action to poach all available Redhook accounts, snatching up their tap handles in a feeding frenzy that was both exciting and short lived. It was short lived for 2 reasons, the first being that Redhook didn’t have that many accounts to begin with and competition grew fierce, and the later being that Redhook enjoyed a new kind of novelty when they started up again, abandoning their old flagship and creating a new line-up of beers, my favorite being Ballard Bitter. Ya sure ya betcha! People forgot how weird the old Redhook was and embraced the new line up with a bizarre sense of nostalgia.
Dons’ take on Redhook’s moves? Remember Don? Paul (Shipman, the founder and owner of Redhook) figured out they were never going to make it with that crap they were brewing, so rather than try to fix it, they just let it go and started over. A skeptic, and a dreamer, a cultural critic bordering on cynical, and a vociferous supporter of a vision we could both get behind, Don always challenged my assumptions, and at times upended the notion that I had any idea of what the hell was going on or what might happen next. He was one hell of a guy, and many say his ghost is still haunting the bar, and perhaps loitering around the dart board at the Horsebrass. As for me, his spirit lives on in the visceral memory of steak and kidney pie.