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.
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Like many of us, Hilda Steven's journey into the world of craft beer has been one with many twists and turns. Hilda is the sole owner of Bazi Bierbrasserie in Southeast Portland, a Belgian beer bar and official Portland Timbers and Thorns partner. Raised in Texas playing street soccer and eventually drinking the default beer, Shiner, her first career was in the software industry. She spent a good deal of time on the East Coast, and Philadelphia in particular, where Belgian beer bars are plentiful and she enjoyed blonds and wits. It was during a tour of French wine country, however, where her future took a fateful turn by way of a conversation with a couple that suggested she visit Bruges. Not having been there before, she took the recommendation and subsequently fell in love with the history, character and appreciation of beer she found there.
Back in the U.S. during the course of completing graduate school, Hilda put together a business plan, influenced by her travels, for a European bistro. But before it was more than a plan, she asked herself why there were no Belgian beer bars in Portland. Sure, this was 2009 and Upright Brewing was the only local producer of Belgian-inspired beer, but she had heard rumors that five more breweries were in the works to make similar beers. That information, combined with her love of the beers and desire to "find a niche and fill it," eventually led to the May 2011 opening of Bazi.
It was a fortuitous time in Portland for Belgian beers, with Beetje Brewery becoming The Commons Brewery, Logsdon Farmhouse Ales opening and Upright's beers gaining in popularity. Additionally, it was a booming time for soccer as the Portland Timbers joined Major League Soccer and the Rose City also played host to the Women’s World Cup just two months later. The latter event was a trial by fire for Hilda and her staff since a standing-room-only crowd gathered at Bazi to watch the semifinals. They crew survived (making a few tweaks before the final match), but more importantly, the turnout showed Hilda that in addition to filling a beer niche she had created a community gathering place for soccer fans, something she had observed and admired abroad.
Bazi serves up both imported Belgian beers and local interpretations with the authenticity of the imported beers being maintained by Hilda's regular visits to Belgium. Her most recent trip was in January 2015 and it was not just to enjoy the beer. Hilda’s other mission was to collaborate with Jef Goetelen at 't Hofbrouwerijke, a nano brewery northeast of Brussels. The two met a couple of years ago, and late in 2014 she approached him about working with her to brew a beer to celebrate Bazi's fourth anniversary. Jef loved the idea and together they created a recipe for a traditional Belgian tripel with a U.S. spin. Besides being a beer Hilda wanted to drink, she felt that a tripel was an appropriate "goodbye" to Bazi's first three years in business and a welcome to the beginning of year four. She spent a week in Belgium and a full day brewing the anniversary beer on ‘t Hofbrouwerijke's 9-barrel system.
Hilda returned to the U.S., leaving the beer with Jef, which he recently bottled. The majority of the 2,000-bottle batch of Bazi 't Hofbrouwerijke Tripel will soon be making its way to Bazi, with Jef retaining some of the bottles to be poured at festivals they attend. The 750-milliliter bottles will be available at Bazi with a release party taking place Wednesday, May 27. Timbers fans will recognize that as being a match night and in the planning of the event it was something Hilda kept in mind. They'll do a cake cutting, with cake made by neighboring bakery JaCiva's, and complimentary toast at 6 p.m. to allow people to attend the party and watch the action. In addition, Bazi taster trays will be offered.
As Bazi continues to mature, Hilda is looking forward to volunteering more and deepening her involvement with the community. Most of the Bazi crew has been in place since day one and that stability has allowed Hilda to take on projects like last year's Kick Kick Score, a nine-hole fut-golf event. She worked with the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association and took the lead on writing the grant that funded the event. It involved many businesses along and adjacent to Southeast Hawthorne, an area she's called home since moving there in the early 2000s. They received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the event and Hilda is hopeful they'll be able to secure sponsors to do it again this year.
The future is bright for Hilda, Bazi, beer lovers and soccer fans alike. She's been asked by loyal customers who commute across the river about opening a second location on the west side, and while she's not ruling it out she's also mindful of pacing herself. As someone who has experienced her energy and passion for craft beer, I have no doubt she'll be seeking to fill another niche as she's done so masterfully with her Southeast Portland gem.
[a] 1522 SE 32nd Ave., Portland
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