Thirty-six – I counted ’em – 36 different Northwest brews tickled Joe Sixpack’s polished tonsils last week.
Others would call that a binge. I prefer “fact-finding mission.”
The scene was Portland, Ore., which – with all due respect to Philly, Denver and San Francisco – is the undisputed craft-beer capital of America. Though one-third the size of Philadelphia, the City of Roses is home to four times the number of breweries (they’ve got 28, we’ve got seven going on six). More than 40 others dot the region.
Some, like Rogue Shakespeare Stout and Widmer Hop Jack, occasionally make their way east. But the likes of Elliot Glacier Red Hill Scottish Ale or Hair of the Dog Ed demand a shlep to the coast.
I could go on about the fresh hops aroma of the award-winning BridgePort IPA, or the richness of Deschutes Black Butte Porter, or the sweet, malty refreshment of Full Sail Amber, or. . .
But that would only make you thirsty.
Instead, the more exciting revelation was Portland’s creation of a solid local beer culture.
OK, that’s a contradiction of terms – “beer” and “culture.” But in this case, I’m talking of a city population that regards its its hometown brews as a sacred treasure, where a vital, prolific brewing industry is promoted as an attraction by tourism officials, where brewers market their distinctive products by taking a personal stake in educating their patrons and connecting with homebrewers.
I’m talking about a city where half of the draft beer consumed by locals is made by micros. In Coors-crazy Philly, micros account for less than 10 percent.
Beer courses through Portland as strongly as the waters of the Willamette River. And, yet, there is nothing there that can’t happen along the banks of the Schuylkill. Indeed, if any of ’em are listening, our brewers would do well to cop a few of these ideas:
Imagine settling down to a good movie – gladiators and starlets on the big screen, a bag of popcorn in one paw and a freshly made pint of ale in the other.
Portland has a half-dozen places where a civilized filmgoer can catch a movie and a mug.
It doesn’t even have to be a good movie. The moronic “Rules of Engagement” seemed worthy of an Oscar after a tall glass of McMennamin’s Imperial Stout.
Maybe there are laws against such things in the Quaker City, but the bigger reason this hasn’t happened here is our regressive belief that it just won’t work. I’ve mentioned theater-pubs to dozens of friends, and every time the response is something like, “If you did that in Philly, they’d be throwing 40s at the screen.”
Instead of turning old theaters into pharmacies, someone should find a space in Center City – the Roxy on Sansom Street comes to mind – and open a theater-pub. Do this, and I can almost guarantee better reviews from People Paper critic Gary Thompson.
An active brewers guild
You may not know this, but there is an actual organization called the Pennsylvania Craft Brewers Guild. The next phone call or letter I get from the guild will be the first.
The Oregon Brewers Guild, by contrast, is an familiar presence in Portland, with a paid staff, a newsletter and an office. Its director, Jim Parker, is an avid spokesman for the industry, promoting its ales and organizing its members.
This might seem like inside baseball to the average beer drinker, but in fact it’s cohesive industry groups like the guild that help put a better beer in your glass. The guild’s Quality Mark program, for example, analyzes members beers to ensure they are authentic, made-in-Oregon craft brews that meet style and quality guidelines. Beers that pass its blind taste test display the Quality Mark logo on sixpacks and cases.
“The idea is that the consumer can be assured he or she is getting a beer that is free of major defects and meets its style definition,” Parker told me over lunch at BridgePort Brewing Co.
If Philly-area brewers want stronger support from consumers, they could start by resuscitating their guild. A simple, made-in-Pennsylvania logo on every bottle would encourage consumers to drink local.
Widmer Brothers, the nation’s fifth-largest craft-brewer, honors its roots at its Gasthaus Pub by serving Collaborator, a rotating flavor concocted by Portland homebrewers.
According to Parker, an area homebrew club selects a style (it was schwarzbier during my visit) and Widmer provides the ingredients – free – to members. Widmer copies the winning recipe and puts it on tap, alongside its other excellent products.
Dock Street Brasserie (18th and Cherry streets, Logan Square) offered a homebrew recipe or two a few years ago, but nothing on this scale. This idea should be a no-brainer for craft breweries: Homebrewers are your best customers. A beer like Collaborator goes a long way toward making friends.
When you arrive in Portland, the first thing you pick up is a guide from the tourism bureau. And the first thing you read in that guide is an essay on the city’s breadth of brewpubs.
You’ll also find the guild’s free, pocket-size directory – with maps – of area brewpubs.
A Philly guide is another no-brainer, especially for a city reputedly attempting to promote itself as a tourist destination.
We’ve got nothing like ’em on the East Coast. The outfit operates more than 50 pubs and breweries in Oregon and Washington, each unique and imaginative.
McMenamins Edgefield, where I hunkered down for two nights, is a 100-room inn with a brewery, winery, distillery, golf course, theater, live music and gardens. Its two massage rooms and six pubs thoroughly loosened Joe Sixpack.
McMenamins Kennedy School, meanwhile, is one of the most enlightened urban redevelopment projects I’ve encountered. Headed for demolition, the 85-year-old elementary school was saved when neighbors worked with the beer guys to rehab it as a community center/brewpub. Neighborhood groups get to use the Kennedy School’s gymnasium, meeting rooms and pool for free. In return, McMenamins’ $600,000 purchase price was waived and the brewery gets a steady customer base for its restaurant and 300-seat theater.
In a classic McMenamins’ touch, the school’s “Honors Bar” serves wine and plays classical music, while the “Detention Bar” pours whiskey, plays jazz and permits cigar smoking. The boys’ room looks just like the one where young Joey Sixpack used to sneak a smoke.
Elsewhere, McMenamins has renovated a ballroom with a “floating” dance floor, a hotel with a rooftop bar, a former Masonic lodge and a barn.
A chain like McMenamins doesn’t happen overnight, and I’m encouraged by the likes of Iron Hill, which favors old buildings (notably, Woolworth’s in West Chester), and the recently opened Dock Street Terminal at the old Reading Headhouse.
But Philly – which has more than 250 years of beer history – would do well to steal a few ideas from the upstarts in Portland. God knows, you could find 36 great, locally produced brews in our town. But with the recent misfortunes at Red Bell, Independence and Poor Henry’s, among others, it’s obvious that simply making good beer is not enough.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Wild Duck Sasquatch Strong Ale.