By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Higgins Restaurant and Bar
It’s all too easy to get seduced by the hottest new restaurants in Portland while longtime favorites are taken for granted. Like an old, comfortable relationship, we just assume they’ll always be there when we need them. And at more than 20 years old, it doesn’t look like Higgins is going to up and abandon you when a warm corner bistro is what you’re looking for in the heart of downtown. But February might be the perfect time to renew that spark with the farm-to-table establishment, though not a brewery it has always boasted an impressively long beer list. Forgo the white tablecloth side of the house and slide into a well-worn, high-backed booth enveloped by floor-to-ceiling dark wood paneling. It’s a little cozier among the beer handles, cask engine and hurried keg traffic that crosses the bar floor every time one empties. Beyond the 12 taps are dozens of bottled varieties, including more than 40 Belgians on a recent visit. And if you need to impress that special beer geek in your life during a night out, Higgins has you covered with a $326 bottle of 2001 Chimay Grand Reserve. However, a $10 pour of Chimay Cinq Cents White Label will probably hit the spot, too.
1239 SW Broadway
Kells Brew Pub
If all you think of when you hear the word “Kells” is the Old Town location known for its slotted ceiling stuffed with dollar bills, raucous St. Patrick’s Day celebration and proximity to bro nightlife — blocks teeming with clubs for 21-year-olds looking to blackout the day they can legally drink — then you’re missing out. The original Portland site can be a hell of a good party on a Saturday night, but it’s not necessarily the most romantic venue — at least in the traditional sense. However, the Brew Pub, which opened on Northwest 21st Avenue in 2012, offers a more intimate experience with its oversized cobblestone fireplace and booths with hinged doors that provide you and your date unparalleled dining room privacy. Those secluded seats could be hard to come by since they’re kind of like a VIP section — everyone wants in and you can’t help but wonder what’s going on inside those wooden partitions. Ornate details also help set the mood: stained-glass windows stamped with a green clover, wrought iron-style chandeliers and even a handful of throw pillows in each enclosed area should you find yourself in need of a cushion mid-embrace while waiting for the check. In the case you can’t score a booth, sink into one of the supple leather sofas positioned next to the glowing hearth. There’s a view of the brewery in back as you share a sampler tray of Kells’ house-made beers. And if the fire isn’t enough to ward off that winter chill, nothing beats a hearty Irish dish like the velvety Shepherd’s pie or crispy Fish and Chips. You can also rely on the warmth of your lover, but don’t get too handsy -- St. Patrick is watching from the bar.
210 NW 21st Ave.
McMenamins Kennedy School
Admit it — as an adolescent you always dreamed of someday making out with your crush under the bleachers on campus. Well now as an adult, you can actually get past first base inside the school’s walls. McMenamins should hold a special place in any Pacific Northwest resident’s heart because of the franchise’s dedication to restoring historic properties. And of all the Portland locations, Kennedy School is the best because the story of its unique past is prominently displayed throughout the building and the array of rooms offer a unique drinking experience as you explore the sprawling property. Start your night in the now-unrecognizable cafeteria adorned with funky, mismatched pendant lights and mahogany booths. No miniature cartons of milk here. Just think how much more entertaining fifth period math would’ve been had the lunchroom come equipped with a bar. Although you may think you’ve experienced all the McMenamins beers — from Ruby to Terminator — don’t forget that each brewer has the freedom to create unique recipes that are only produced at that particular site. Do your homework and be sure to sample those offerings in The Courtyard Restaurant. After dinner, grab a pint to-go and roam the long corridors that have been transformed into a museum dedicated to mosaic art and the history of the school, which was founded in 1915. Then have fun discovering what kind of student you are. Skipping class and smoking? Head to Detention. Teacher’s pet with a penchant for opera and subdued debate? Honors Bar is the place for you. Remember: if the date goes really well, Kennedy School has overnight accommodations.
5736 NE 33rd Ave.
Occidental Brewing Company
Who says sausages aren’t sexy? Occidental’s Wursthaus may not be an obvious pick for a date since it lacks many of the amenities associated with the typical night out: dim lighting, table service and at least some seclusion from other diners. Instead, the space that opened this past summer has walls bathed in a bright shade of canary, wursts served six ways that you order at the counter and a long, narrow dining room with sturdy bench seating — but no booths. Now if you’re a couple with kiddos, this is actually the perfect place to get out of your house for a few hours when the babysitter falls through. You’re likely to find toddlers squirming away from their parents’ grasp since the place allows minors, unlike Occidental’s Tap Room across the parking lot. Urban Germany Grill, long a popular vendor at beer festivals and farmers markets, now provides a menu for both kids and adults at the Wursthaus. However, even if it’s just you and your partner, the sweeping view of the city’s most romantic span is reason enough to visit. Order some hot, melted cheese in the form of fondue and head to a table near the back wall covered in German beer signs. The gothic arches of the St. Johns Bridge suddenly come into view, with one end of the road disappearing into the rolling hills covered in pine trees across the river. A patio that runs the length of the second-story business awaits nicer weather. It could be the perfect spot to plan a wedding ceremony at Cathedral Park, which sits under the beloved bridge.
6635 N. Baltimore Ave.
Old Town Pizza & Brewing
It’s reportedly the site of a murder and the victim still haunts the space where she took her last breath. Sounds romantic, huh? Old Town embraces the scandalous past of the building it inhabits, and the possibility of running into a ghost is a draw for many customers as well. There’s that and the perfect date night pairing: pizza and beer. If anything, a haunted taproom is reason to hold onto your partner a little tighter, so take a deep breath, stay alert and walk through the low-clearance dining room toward the back of what used to be the Merchant Hotel. You’ll find a seating area partially enclosed by a brick wall. This is the former elevator shaft where the body of an enslaved woman was found. Legend has it that two missionaries tried to help her out of a life of forced prostitution in exchange for information about her captors. However, the woman named Nina was pushed to her death before the planned escape could take place. Fortunately, the scene there now is far less grim. Get comfortable on the red velvet couch (if you can) and as you wait for your pie from the kitchen, search for her name carved in the wall nearby. If the glowing crimson table lamp happens to flicker while you’re there, it’s probably just a coincidence…
226 NW Davis St.
Tyler Craven, owner and creative director of BeerQuest PDX, is shown here leading a haunted pub tour through Old Town Portland. In addition to stops for craft beer at two locations, participants get to learn about the city’s sordid history and supernatural experiences. Photo courtesy of BeerQuest PDX
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Portland’s Old Town is the kind of area where you’d expect to find 20-somethings lined up outside of dimly lit clubs bumping along to the same incessant electro-beats, bar tops packed as tightly with people as the dance floors and even an increasing number of craft breweries. You might’ve even had the experience of stumbling around some of those cobblestone streets during a 21st birthday or other booze-fueled party.
Old Town has certainly sealed and even embraced its status as an entertainment district. But that reputation is anything but new. A cursory glance of the setting reveals brick buildings, fountains and roads that are more than a century old — and these landmarks have seen their fair share of raucous drinking throughout the years. In fact, today’s scene might look downright tame compared to the activities that used to define the city’s nightlife. You can, in one sense, experience the history of Old Town almost anytime you’d like through walking tours hosted by BeerQuest PDX. And while they’re offered year-round, the Halloween season might be the best time to go because you not only learn about the questionable characters who inhabited old Portland; you also hear stories of some of the spirits who continue to visit their stomping grounds today. Sound a little spooky? Not to worry. The crawl includes plenty of beer to take the edge off.
Tyler Craven knows what it’s like to take Portland’s history and beer for granted. The owner and creative director of BeerQuest PDX grew up in West Linn and didn’t really have much of an interest in Portland’s past. In fact, Craven, who still leads many of the tours and conducts all of the research that goes into them, didn’t even major in history, despite your likely expectations. He got his degree in biology at Creighton University in Nebraska. But that’s also what helped spur his interest in craft beer. Like many an undergrad, Craven downed plenty of Coors Light and similar domestic lagers lacking in flavor. Moreover, craft brewing options in the Midwest were notably bleak. It was only when he’d returned to Oregon that he began to take notice of the burgeoning beer culture. The science behind the production, yeast’s role in particular, also intrigued Craven. He then started trying out every brewery he could in Portland.
The path from beer fan to beer tour guide is neither straight nor simple. Freshly armed with his academic credentials in 2009, Craven once again found himself having a similar experience as many in his cohort, just this time as a new graduate. He didn’t know what he wanted to do next. So he worked for a summer and decided to travel abroad. That led to a volunteer year in South Africa where he taught English and worked at a rural medical clinic. It didn’t take long to fall in love with the culture, so Craven extended his stay another year. During this period, he got his first experience leading people on tours. He wasn’t talking about beer quite yet. The subject matter instead revolved around the animals at a game reserve in Swaziland. The background in biology certainly helped him flesh out all of those random facts about zebras, giraffes and water buffalos. But perhaps more importantly, Craven discovered a strength.
“That’s where I kind of learned that hey, I’m really good at telling stories and people are really interested and just kind of honed my craft as far as that goes,” explained Craven. “And then when I got home, I just kind of applied the same thing to beer in Portland.”
While combining his two passions — entertaining crowds and craft beer — seemed natural, not all of Craven’s initial business ideas took off. He laughs now when admitting there were actually a lot of failures. That the original plan, a beer scavenger hunt, didn’t work is somewhat of a surprise. When you consider the adoration for events like the adult soap box derby, it seems like you’d have to crochet bomb quirky Portlanders to street signs in order to keep them away from signing up for a beer scavenger hunt. But popularity can be a problem. Too many moving parts and not enough experience were overwhelming.
“I really got pretty far into the development of it,” said Craven, “but at a certain point I decided that I needed to do something that I was better at myself and with less people. Five-hundred people is a lot. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Craven reached the point where he wasn’t sure whether starting a business would work and even began looking for jobs. But a conversation with a friend on the East Coast turned everything around. He happened to know some guys behind a ghost tour company in Washington, D.C. Craven got in touch with one of the men, who didn’t know much about Portland, but encouraged him to look into it.
And so the research began.
If you’ve ever taken the haunted pub tour, you’ll know that this isn’t some surface-level, brochure-style lecture. The stories are detailed, vivid and engaging. And Craven has certainly done his homework. The Oregon Historical Society has been a primary resource from the beginning.
“They keep basically every Oregonian [newspaper] that’s ever been made, which is really cool. So I would learn about a character, learn about someone in Portland history, and go back and read the original articles about it or look at some of the photographs,” Craven described.
He also worked to find a consensus among sources when accounts of certain events would vary. And as far as digging up material for the tales of the supernatural, Craven tries to talk to the bartenders and servers at Kells and Old Town Brewing Co., where the tours pause for beers, on a regular basis. The guides, of which there are now four, appreciate being able to mix things up a bit to keep their talks fresh.
While internal startup costs may seem like they’d be minimal — because, after all, it was just one guy walking people around town — there actually were expenses Craven had to deal with. The website and logo were two important elements that didn’t come cheap. A Mercy Corps matched savings grant ultimately helped propel the business forward and Craven quickly noticed that he had a hit on his hands.
“We started Halloween night three years ago, and it was just sold out, like, every night. So I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got something here,’” Craven recounted. “And just kind of kept it going and figured, ‘Why not? Maybe people will keep signing up.’ And they did.”
Before performing for paying customers, Craven practiced in front of friends and family. That first run clocked in at a longer time than Gilligan’s scheduled boat tour. Four hours’ worth of material was simply too long to endure, so Craven found that he ruthlessly had to cut some of the stories he loved. One of his favorites, though, is about notorious shanghaier [and drunkard] Jim Turk. He owned a boarding house in both Portland and Astoria, kidnapping unsuspecting sailors and teenage boys to then sell to ship captains looking for extra laborers. He was so conniving, Turk ran a scheme where he would shanghai his oldest son Charles, and just as the ship would leave Charles would jump overboard and swim ashore, splitting the earnings with his father. Eventually, their plot did backfire, adding yet another interesting twist to Portland’s history.
Individuals are often drawn to the underbelly of a city, delighted by the sordid details of drinking, killing and sex. Beer played a big role, especially in a city like Portland where sailors were ready to party after months at sea. A culture of brewing was growing even back then as beer halls and saloons became popular places to socialize. On the tour, you’ll even learn that the longest bar in the world was once located in Old Town, along with what was also probably the longest urinal since it was a trough that ran along the bar. Learning about the old way of life is undeniably fascinating and actually spending physical time in that space helps the history come to life.
“Walking around and thinking back to that old mindset and seeing the city the way it used to be and imagining the horse-drawn carriages and imagining sailors running around — I think that hits home with people,” Craven said. “And, you know, knowing that, like, it hasn’t always been this way and we’ve evolved over the years and kind of seeing the past in the present is a fun thing to do.”
During October when the leaves burn vibrant shades of orange and red, when you start to first notice your breath leaves a cloud in the chilling air and when the nights grow longer — the haunted part of the tour tends to be the biggest attraction. More locals sign up whereas tourists dominate during the summer. Craven said that unknown factor is a big pull — empirical proof doesn’t exist when it comes to the supernatural, but it becomes more and more difficult to deny the mounting number of shared experiences. Even as a man of science with a degree in biology, Craven has now heard and seen enough to shake his skepticism.
“Just too many things for it to be a coincidence,” he explained. “And we go to the same places over and over, so we kind of know what it usually is like and we know when something’s really different — there’s just a different energy to it.”
Now the tour isn’t all ghost stories and ghoulish history. The atmosphere tends to get quite festive as costumes are encouraged and also worn by the guides in October. Halloween, of course, will be the busiest day for the haunted tour. Last year, BeerQuest PDX held four different start times for the crawl and all of them were booked.
A good storyteller knows how to weave an anecdote in such a way that you’ll remember the plot and main characters. Certain details will fade with time, but others should be unforgettable because of the level of description and animated delivery. Craven and his team help ensure that quality stories are told about Portland and its past, which is one thing he hopes people take away from the experience.
“I always really like the locals because they’re really interested and really surprised with all the history that is in Portland, in their backyard, that they never knew,” Craven said. “And they’re always really excited they know these stories now, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I can tell my friends all about it!’”
In addition to knowing what shaped Portland, Craven wants participants to gain a strong appreciation for all of the hard work that goes into making the beers they enjoy along the route. And, in the end, the tour is not unlike brewing — Craven has worked to find the perfect balance among differing elements that help define the city.
“You get a greater appreciation for a lot of these places and the history behind them and how old the buildings are, you know, how the brick has been there since the 1800s,” Craven described. “You know I always say, if the walls could talk, the stories they could tell about the olden days around Portland would be pretty dang good.”
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
You’ve likely passed by Preston Weesner dozens of times and never realized it if you’ve attended a beer festival in this state. It’s because you won’t find him standing still very long. If someone is having a problem with a keg in one area of the event, he’ll be there to check on it. If there’s an issue with beer delivery on the opposite side of the venue, he’s rushing to put out that fire as well. And if Weesner is lucky, he’ll have a moment to pause for a bite of festival food before the next emergency.
The former construction worker clearly has a knack for building things, whether they’re underground tunnels for TriMet’s light rail or beer communities that seemingly appear overnight. Weesner is currently the general manager for the Holiday Ale Festival, which takes place in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, and runs the production company Peerless Management. But his involvement with beer celebrations doesn’t end there. He has roles at the Spring Beer and Wine Fest, the Oregon Garden Brewfest, the Bite of Oregon and still finds time to lend a helping hand to any organizer who asks. This list is actually pared down from a time where he was working on 12 or 13 events. But grueling schedules are still a part of his life. Come Holiday Ale Festival time, he’ll clock in 20 hour days for nine days straight. Weesner is so drained by the end of the project that he always swears to his wife he won’t do it another year. Luckily, the months that follow are enough time to help him forget the pain, the lack of sleep and the breaking point. He keeps coming back because the memory of the rewards last longer.
Below is my interview with Weesner, which was edited for length:
Q: When was your first beer festival and what was the experience like?
PW: I think it was, gosh, had to be 17 or 18 years ago. It was the Holiday Ale Fest. Backing up a little bit, it was the end of the summer I’d gone to a friend’s house for a barbecue and I was big into NorWester’s Raspberry Weizen. Think what you will, but it tasted better than the Bud I was drinking at that time. At the barbecue my friend gave me one and afterwards asked if I enjoyed it. And I said ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘I made that.’ And I was like, ‘No you didn’t.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I did!’ I’m like, ‘You can make beer?’ It seems innocent enough, but at the time that wasn’t something that was really talked about. I was more perplexed — like, you can make beer? I just figured it came out of the silver faucet on the wall or the bottle, right? He told me he’d gotten the kit at F.H. Steinbart, so my wife actually went and purchased a kit for me and I read the book in a day. I think I was homebrewing the next weekend.
That winter I was at Steinbart’s buying ingredients and someone at the counter said, ‘Well are you going to go to the Holiday Ale Fest?’ ‘Well what is that?’ ‘Well, it’s a beer festival.’ Again, I was perplexed there was a festival for beer. Went to the festival; was enamored. I walked up and asked instantly, ‘Hey, do you need any volunteers the next day?’ And they did. So I volunteered the next two days. It was an amazing experience to see that many people coming down in a tent in the middle of winter and rain, drinking beer and having a good time.
Fast-forward a couple of months, I heard about the Spring Beer Fest, volunteered there. Oregon Brewers Fest, volunteered there. I started asking friends in other cities, like ‘Hey, what beer fests do you have?’ And they’re like, ‘What’s a beer fest?’ It was something very unique to Portland.
Q: Can you take the average reader of OBG through planning something like Holiday Ale Fest?
PW: In regards to Holiday Ale Fest, I’m literally planning next year’s event a year in advance and specifically at the event. Each year I’m writing down notes, I’m making connections, I’m talking about how to make it better this year. Sometimes my staff gets on me. They’re like, ‘We’re in this year right now and you’re already talking about next year?!’ But if we don’t think about and remember it now, then we won’t be able to make preparations.
I always would say I could probably throw a great barbecue with a week’s notice. I could probably throw a pretty darn good party with a month’s notice. But if you’re looking to throw an event — a wedding planner would be a good idea. A wedding planner starts working six months before the wedding for about 200 or 300 friends. You start involving the public and the numbers start climbing into the thousands, you really have to have a team of people. If you’re not working on it a year in advance, or at least nine months in advance, you’re maybe not running the most efficient or effective show.
Q: Can you think of something you learned last year that you’re going to change this time around?
PW: I don’t particularly have something for next year, but I’ll give you an example from two years ago. We’d always use beer trailers from the distributors and we’d park them as far against one wall as we could. Well, the problem with the trailers is they actually displaced more room than they held beer. For years I thought, you know this is the middle of winter. Average temperature is 45-50 degrees. Why are we killing ourselves with these trailers? Guys are hitting their heads. We’re getting back injuries from lifting kegs. I mean, it was a nightmare! We used to have to bring in a special crew in the morning just to change the kegs because the event staff was beaten and flogged from changing kegs during the event.
I’d talked to several draft technicians in town and I was like, ‘Why can’t we set [the kegs] outside? We’ll wall it off and blow some cold air on it from a unit we took off a semi-truck.’ And he looked at me as though I were speaking in a foreign language. And he said, ‘That would never work.’ I’m like, ‘What history do we have to prove it?’ ‘Well, we’ve never done it before.’ So I just vowed the next year, I’m going to try this. All the draft guys, all the distributors stood there with tools in hand, ready and willing to cut things apart … and it worked. We were able to then go from 30-40 breweries to 55 breweries because we could hold more beer on site.
Q: How have you seen festivals in Oregon evolve since your involvement with them began?
PW: Certainly the attendance has gone up. That means there’s not just an increased passion for beer; there’s also an increased knowledge of beer. People are wanting to try new beers. There’s the potential to have beers or breweries you’ve never heard of at the event. It’s not just about going and getting a beer for the weekend; it’s really changed into more of a beer geek kind of thing where you’re looking to go there and you’re hoping to find something you’ve never heard of. They’re looking for Easter eggs. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt for good beer.
Q: People would probably say you have a dream job. But there have to be struggles. What’s a failure from the past and how did you overcome it?
PW: Well there’s failures every year, whether it’s failures to meet a deadline and how to recover from that, there’s failures in implementation — you know, if the beers don’t go on from the tap list we’ve promoted, how do you rectify that and get it back on track? Those are all little hiccups. But here’s a great failure: I think it was five years in to when I started stewarding the festival I was looking around at other great beer events — the St. Patrick’s Day events. It’s like, wow, if you want to go stand in line for two hours to maybe get into Kells and then have five frat guys dump your drink on you — we should just have a little craft beer festival. People can come by and maybe get a beer, hand out, relax — go down to Kells and then come here. It was called the Shamrock Ale Fest.
We had no intentions of it being something big and special. We just wanted to give an opportunity for those who didn’t want to wait in line to actually get a beer. So we worked with 10 breweries who each did two beers. It didn’t do well financially. When I had to explain to the board of directors how it had actually not just lost some money but a lot of money, I was personally on the hook for that because it was my idea to do it. I never thought that because Holiday Ale was successful that I could do an event anywhere at any time. I guess the reality was just because one thing works doesn’t mean that everything’ll work.
Q: You’ve mentioned a lot of things that you like when it comes to your work. Would you have anything you’d cite as your favorite?
PW: Well I’m a builder. I like to build things. I’ve always been a fan of the underdog. Being told it can’t be done just empowers me more. Being told, ‘Well, it’s never been done before,’ just lets me know that somebody else didn’t succeed. I’m going to try.
I like to see the festivals come together — the chaos of all the parts that are mingling around and coming together suddenly gel and the team pulls and suddenly the boat surges ahead toward the finish line. It’s always nice to see the culmination of something, especially when it’s a long, arduous project to make it happen. But to see it truly recognized and appreciated — there’s no money involved there. That’s just a personal thing. To see people enjoying it. That’s a huge reward.
Q: So if you had to advise a newbie and give them the nuts and bolts, what makes a successful event?
PW: More planning. More planning. Just when you think you’ve got enough, do more planning. Lay out a schedule — a timeline — and work the timeline backwards from the opening and allow extra time. For things that should take 30 minutes, allow an hour. You want good PR. If you’re 90 days out trying to plan an event, it’s probably going to be a rough event. There’s probably going to be a lot of hiccups. There’s probably going to be a lot of heartache and crying and pain, but you’ll learn something from that.
There’s untold things that can go wrong and you need to have backup plans for everything. What happens when your mugs don’t arrive? What happens when your tickets don’t arrive? What happens if your wristbands are the wrong color? Because if it can go wrong, eventually it will.
Q: Festivals are fun. You get to drink beer. But what larger role do you think these events play in terms of facilitating a sense of social connectedness of community identity?
PW: They’re a community that didn’t exist and they only exist for the festival. And the anticipation for the community to spring back up is there all year long. As an example, at Holiday Ale we would always say it’s the worst time of year. Everybody’s running out of money. The holidays are coming. You’ve got to buy gifts not only for people you care about, but for people you’re only going to see once a year. You’re racing around; workload is heavy. You’re trying to get your workload done so you can go to the Christmas party, go to your mom and dad’s house. Everybody’s working extra hours trying to squeeze in all this stuff. It’s like, wait. Hold on. Take a second for yourself. Come down to the festival. Arrange to meet a friend there — even if you’re doing it in between shopping trips, just take two seconds, have a beer, catch up with some friends and then go back to your credit-laden plans to ruin yourselves for the holidays. The community aspect is just that. The festivals are a microcosm of community and people are coming together to support the event but also just to see each other, to talk.
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