By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
It only took three sentences at the bottom of a press release to set off a frenzy of theories on Facebook.
When Thirsty Monk announced in late October that it would be purchasing a “well-known Portland beer bar,” seemingly every blogger, author and industry insider in town leapt to their social media accounts to pile onto the mound of ideas in this guessing game. Could it be Horse Brass? No way would a brewery fit in that basement. The ill-fated Tugboat? Maybe, but rehabilitating the fire-damaged building made it a longshot. Produce Row? APEX? Blitz Ladd? The debate eventually fizzled after a few weeks came and went without a leak, an official announcement or a correct answer.
“I was reading what everybody was speculating and it’s amazing how everybody always assumes that it’s the bar that’s not doing well, you know?” said Hilda Stevens, owner of Bazi Bierbrasserie, the well-known Portland beer bar in question that no one suspected was up for sale. “Where people should really think about, like, maybe there’s a bar that is doing really well but they have a business plan and they have some priorities.”
What few people knew was that Stevens’ priorities had shifted with time and that she actually never intended to remain at the helm of the business that’s become a Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard headquarters for Belgian-style ales and soccer-viewing parties.
“When I opened this place, I knew it wasn’t something that I was going to do the rest of my life,” Stevens explained, which might sound like a friend just broke it to you that they weren’t really in it for the long haul. It’s all too easy to get attached to our favorite bars, and Stevens admits she’s become synonymous with Bazi, another factor that likely contributed to the surprise surrounding the announcement Thirsty Monk would take over in mid-December.
“I didn’t realize that I had become as much of a brand of this place,” Stevens described. “It’s like, I’ll go to place and people might not remember my name, but they remember Bazi. They associate me with the brand.”
That’s due to six years of cultivating relationships across the bar and around the neighborhood through her involvement with the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association. Bazi has become her home, its kitchen filled with kegs and living room overflowing with rowdy soccer fans watching a match on any given day, and her home is conveniently located just blocks from Bazi. The bar was a result of Stevens’ conservative planning, but even the most thorough proposal can sometimes benefit from a boost due to fortuitous circumstances. Those happened to take the form of a layoff from Stevens’ well-paying job in the tech industry, the arrival of Major League Soccer in Portland and the space Bazi opened in suddenly becoming available. Stevens also points out that the business ended up filling a need few realized existed at that point in the city’s beverage scene.
“I love the fact that we were the first Belgian beer bar to come into Portland in a time where people were like, ‘What is she thinking? A Belgian beer bar isn’t going to make it in hop-centric Portland,’” Stevens said. “It was all about catering to the right community and knowing our audience — knowing there’s a lot of people in this town who have traveled all over Europe and really appreciate Belgian beers.”
Stevens had a target: Bazi’s fifth anniversary. If she could build a clientele and become successful by that milestone, it would then be time to challenge herself once again by either expanding or selling. And when that five-year mark arrived, Stevens wasn’t ready to let go. The search for a second location was underway until, much like the founding of Bazi, unexpected factors intervened. Last March, the neighboring bicycle shop that shared storage space with the bar, which was primarily occupied by hundreds of empty boxes that once contained the two-wheeled rides, vacated the premises. Even before the clutter of cardboard was cleared, however, Stevens had envisioned the perfect purpose for that site.
“Nobody knows that there’s all that space unless you have worked here. And people who have worked here know that,” Stevens said. “And they know that I’ve always joked around and said if the bike shop ever moves out, a brewery needs to open up here.”
But the decision to look for someone else to acquire the business was solidified when Stevens realized it was simply time to go home. On Bazi’s fifth anniversary, her parents’ residence in Houston flooded, which would happen again when Hurricane Harvey pounded southern Texas with record-breaking rain, and Stevens couldn’t help. The distance during their crisis still pulls tears from her eyes; the ease with which she’d talked about Bazi suddenly halts as her voice grows unsteady and laden with sadness.
“And it was really hard, you know, not being able to be there. And … that’s, that’s the part — that’s the part that’s really hard to talk about,” Stevens said. “I can talk about the business side, no problem. But my family, it hurts. And watching how much they slow down, and you’re always missing out.”
The decision was easy at that point. It was time to pull out of the expansion plan and find Bazi a good owner so that Stevens could move back to Houston after nearly two decades in Portland. She put the business up for sale in July and quickly drew the interest of multiple companies. That included Thirsty Monk, an Asheville, N.C.-based brewery that uses Belgian yeast in all of its beers — from the more traditional tripels and wits to the somewhat unconventional combination of Northeast IPAs or chocolate stouts. CEO Barry Bialik said he put Bazi under contract nearly as soon as he heard it was available and without even seeing it, flying out a few weeks later to meet with Stevens and take a tour. That personal touch was impressive and helped her feel confident about entrusting what she’d built to Thirsty Monk.
“Definitely the fact that it was the CEO was the one out there looking for the location — that in itself says a lot about an organization,” Stevens added.
Bialik also wanted to be involved in making the announcement to the team at Bazi and remained tight lipped about the deal with media until they knew.
“We’re so sensitive to that and how we talk about news and how we share it to make sure we deliver it right,” he said. “There was no other way to even think about it. Of course I wanted to be there to share with the employees. I want everyone to feel comfortable that, yeah, their jobs are safe. They’re going to be part of the transition and we’re all going to help this grow together.”
The CEO had been scouting out possible sites in Portland earlier this summer, but found the perfect match for the company’s ethos in Bazi. The way he describes it, the two could’ve been set up on a beer bar dating app and there wouldn’t have been a more complementary partner out there.
“What was so great about walking into Bazi for the first time is it felt just like walking into a Thirsty Monk,” Bialik recounted. “It had the same kind of energy, it had the same kind of community, it had the same kind of family-pub feel. And they’re on the same top 100 beer bar lists we are. They specialize in Belgian beer just like we do. It just felt like such a natural fit.”
There won’t be many immediate changes—the Bazi name will stay in place until Thirsty Monk’s Denver brewery can supply the Portland spot with its beer. Even then, they’ll stay true to Stevens’ model of offering a wide variety of Belgian-style offerings, with about half of the taps reserved for a rotation of other producers. Bialik’s brother Opus is in the process of moving his family from Seattle to Portland to serve as the new general manager. And as for that storage space housing a brewery, it’s still too early to tell. Architects need to survey the room to determine if a small system could be installed. If not, Bialik said he will either purchase an existing brewery elsewhere in the city or contract brew with another business. Either way, Thirsty Monk will eventually make beer in Portland. Until that happens, Bialik is focused on the ownership change and grateful for Stevens’ assistance.
“I’m so happy that Hilda is going to have the time to stay around and help as long as she’s available to help Opus with the transition and to learn about the community she’s created there and how we can honor and continue that.”
It’s a legacy she hopes will be remembered each time a crowd gathers there to drink Belgian beer as a soccer match plays on the business’s big screen.
Kyle Hollingsworth, keyboardist for The String Cheese Incident, played a show at Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House in April as part of the Craft Brewers Conference events. He regularly tours the country and serves as a guest beer maker at several breweries when not producing suds on his system at home. Photo by Emma Browne
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Fans of “This is Spinal Tap” will be familiar with the phrase, “These go to 11.” The lead guitarist says the line while explaining to the rockumentary’s director that all of his amplifiers’ knobs go one level above the zero to 10 setting on standard equipment. Turning it up to 11 expresses maximal effort — going above and beyond to create an extraordinary experience. It’s not surprising, then, that this saying is often uttered by the keyboardist with The String Cheese Incident, Kyle Hollingsworth. He uses it to describe both the passion he puts into his music and enthusiasm he has for craft beer. Hollingsworth, who lives in Boulder, Colo., was in Oregon in April for a performance at Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House as part of the Craft Beer Conference. His unique ability to travel the country while on tour has allowed him to become immersed in geographically distinct craft beer scenes, gain access to a number of breweries as a guest beer maker and learn how his skill set gained through collaborations as an artist cross-applies to the brewhouse.
There are people who enjoy drinking beer and, perhaps, even exploring by sampling styles outside of their comfort zone. But then there are individuals who exhibit a deeper interest in the beverage — they seek out knowledge on the history of the craft. They want to know the ins and outs of the process and remain on top of developments in the field. Hollingsworth exhibits that deeper commitment to brewing. But his initial interest didn’t necessarily stem from such principled reasoning. He recalls getting into homebrewing around the age of 18, a time in life where motivations can be dubious.
“My brother had been homebrewing a couple of years before me, so, of course, I was like, ‘Cool, I’ll do what he’s doing! He’s listening to Grateful Dead, I’ll listen to that! He smokes pot, I’ll do that!’” Hollingsworth laughed.
He also admitted it was handy to be able to make something that ferments in the basement and then get a little buzz from consuming your experiment all before turning the legal drinking age. But brewing still took significant effort. Hollingsworth, who grew up in Baltimore, Md., didn’t have access to a wide array of brewing equipment. Decades ago, there certainly wasn’t the same sort of homebrewing boom that has been seen in recent years. Hollingsworth said there was pretty much just one homebrewing shop in the area that was run by an old guy with a big beard. While it sounds like some things haven’t changed in the realm of homebrewing, there clearly are advances he’s now grateful for. Hollingsworth would rely on this sole outpost to buy his homebrew “kit.” And in those days that simply meant cans of malt. Therefore, his attachment to the hobby was more about its inventive nature.
“I think the first thing that attracted me to it was the process for sure — the creativity that can go into the process, the ability to create something new out of three or four different elements that can become something else after it’s fermented,” he described.
Years of experience have allowed Hollingsworth to graduate to a 10-gallon Ruby Street homebrewing system that he uses in his backyard. He cites the advances in technology as allowing him to fine-tune things. And similar to the way that The String Cheese Incident’s sound is kind of funky and unique, Hollingsworth brings that style to his recipes. One of his favorite concoctions included sassafras gathered on his property. He cut up the roots and essentially used a “tea of sassafras” as his wort.
Hollingsworth readily admits he’s a better musician than he is a homebrewer. But the two roles have plenty of overlap. Musicians know that once they master the fundamental elements, it allows them the liberty to move beyond the basics and break the conventions. This describes much of what Hollingsworth’s sound has evolved into — when not playing with The String Cheese Incident, he’s holding jam sessions with other artists, often from other genres. There’s an element of risk involved as there is with any impromptu performance. A note could fall flat. Things could get out of sync. But not knowing whether something could go wrong makes it all the more thrilling, and a successful execution results in a more rewarding experience. Hollingsworth said the same idea applies to brewing. Once you get the technique to make standard styles, the freedom to “riff” becomes possible.
“And you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen,” Hollingsworth said. “You throw in sassafras root or you’ll try an orange peel or something or really weird adjuncts that you never thought would really work. And sometimes it turns out to be the best brew you’ve ever made or the best jam you’ve ever played. And out of that comes joy, in my mind at least. The joy is part of the grand experiment — it’s what’s going to happen when all of these things, all of these elements come together.”
He also pointed out that music and beer need proper balance. In a band, for example, it’s important to make sure the guitarist and lead vocalist aren’t 10 times louder in the mix than everyone else. Similarly, Hollingsworth said that if you’re drinking a beer and notice the malt bill is over the top or the hops are overpowering, the combination of ingredients needs adjustment. He added that sometimes the industry as a whole needs to check its balance. In the way that music fans flock to iTunes and download the hits, creating demand for similar-sounding music, breweries also encounter a certain beer or style that will have a surge in popularity, such as an IPA. Over time, that could compromise quality and lead to homogeneity. Hollingsworth said his hope was that a willingness to experiment would counteract that trend.
Hollingsworth is certainly driven to explore with his beer making. That’s led him to become a gypsy brewer, of sorts, and perhaps the envy of every craft beer aficionado out there. He’s made special collaboration brews with the likes of Stone Brewing Co., Boulder Beer Company, Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery and Ska Brewing Co., just to name a few. Of course, his involvement in the music industry opens a lot of doors that the average beer lover wouldn’t be able to access. But Hollingsworth’s fanatical approach to the projects probably helps as well. What really gets him weak in the knees isn’t encountering big-name rock stars — it’s meeting the elite of the beer world.
“I play with a lot of famous musicians, from Paul Simon to Zac Brown. And when I hang out with them I’m like, ‘Oh hey, how’s it going?’ And I’m not really that star struck,” he explained. “But when I see, like, famous brewers, I’m full on like, ‘Oh my God! That’s Mitch! That’s Mitch from Stone! I don’t know what to say. Should I say hello? Should I go up?’ I get all stammered, you know?”
One of his wildest brew dreams came true when he got to make a beer at Stone with fellow musician Keri Kelli, hard rock guitarist who used to play with Alice Cooper. Head brewer Mitch Steele wanted to produce a musician-inspired beer and he certainly ended up with two artists whose sounds are wildly different. Their approaches to the project were as well. Hollingsworth said he wasn’t really sure what type of beer he wanted to make, so was open to suggestions and experimentation. Kelli, however, came in and nixed that right off the bat. He was determined to do a double IPA. Hollingsworth, who loves the style, was immediately on board and the Stone Collective Distortion IPA was the result. To add some of The String Cheese Incident, hippy vibe to the beer, Hollingsworth had the head brewer play around with different herbs and spices, such as chamomile, lavender and sage. But elderberry and coriander won out in the end.
Now a brewing day with two musicians and no music just wouldn’t have been right. The experience ended up wrapping with a giant jam session that included the Stone production line. Hollingsworth estimated there were some 19 guitar players and 11 drummers. Working with new people, both in music and brewing, forces Hollingsworth out of his comfort zone and provides fresh perspective, since it’s easy to get used to the styles of those you’ve spent years with.
“For me, collaborations always bring out — not always — tend to bring out the best in everyone,” Hollingsworth said. “I feel like everyone kind of shows up to a collaboration bringing their A-game, so in a lot of ways the sum is always greater than the parts.”
Hollingsworth took pause when asked what he gets from brewing that he doesn’t from music (besides the obvious drinkable end product). Ultimately, he landed upon the satisfaction of consistency in what seems to be a life filled with constant change and improvisation.
“Even if I have a composed piece I’m playing the same every time, it’s always a little bit of wiggle room. It doesn’t always sound the way I want it,” he described. “But in some degrees with brewing, once I get good at it, as I talk to people who have more experience, I can make a good beer twice in a row versus I can’t make a great jam twice in a row. And once you get the elements together, you’ve kind of followed through on it. I feel like you get the consistency out of beer that I don’t always get out of music.”
In the near future, Hollingsworth will keep playing music and making beer. His touring is sure to bring him back to Portland as well. He sees this region as sort of the grandfather of the craft beer movement that will eventually help ground emerging markets like Asheville, N.C. He’s entertained the idea of starting his own brewery, but admitted it sounds like a lot of work. His thoughts then drifted to creating what sounds like the ideal hangout for any beer lover.
“I just kind of have this vision of a wooden bar with 15 of my favorite tap handles,” he shared.
There would be one saved for his own creation along with space for The String Cheese Incident and other acts to play in the back. Lucky for the people in Boulder, Colo. if Hollingsworth makes it happen. In the meantime, though, you can be sure that whatever he does, it won’t stop at 10. He will be turning things up to 11.
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