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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