By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Thousands have embarked on a Cosmic journey with a McMenamins passport, which also includes rewards of merchandise, food, drink and fun experiences at all of the chain’s distinct Northwest locations. While some take years to earn their stamps, others raced through the challenge and are ready to complete it again. Either way, the idea has engaged customers in a unique fashion using a method that grew out of the DIY way patrons would use McMenamins brochures to check off locations they’ve visited.
“The idea was to get people to experience McMenamins,” said director of marketing Renee Rank Ignacio. “Along the way, an amazing community has grown out of it.”
There are now both official and unofficial pages on Facebook for the passport, which are the same size and color as the real deal. The number of stories of people forming friendships through the experience grows every year.
“I knew it was going to be a hit. I was surprised by the magnitude of people who embraced it,” said Ignacio.
Ignacio and designer Kevin Still spent years developing the passport. A primary concern was creating something that gave customers and staff the best experience possible. Additionally, the program needed to be manageable during crowded times.
“We had many different visions,” Ignacio said. An early prototype had a separate page for each stamp, which was too cumbersome. Finally, it started clicking. “The goal was to get people out to explore all our places and to enjoy the experience along the way,” said Ignacio. With that in mind, there are several experience pages with stamps for activities like attending a History Pub presentation or playing a round of golf.
The official passport launch date was Oct. 31, 2013 for employees and Nov. 5, 2013 for the public. “We want our employees to learn about all our locations. All our customers want to know about the history of our places and we want our employees to have that information,” said Ignacio.
The initial 10 customers and 10 employees to complete the passports received special prizes. Catherine Buck, who is now the Edgefield sales and events coordinator, was the first employee to finish. “It took some solid planning to make sure I could hit every McMenamins while it was open as fast as possible,” she said.
She started her adventure on a Friday when she got off work and planned to complete it that weekend. But a bad snowstorm on Mount Hood kept her from traveling to Bend. Instead, she headed south on I-5 to hit McMenamins locations in Salem, Corvallis, Eugene and Roseburg. The next Monday, she took I-84 to Highway 97 and made it to Bend’s Old St. Francis School.
“1,600 miles and four solid days later, I had every stamp but one,” she said. At that time, Bagdad Theater was closed for renovation until November. Determined to be the first in line when it opened, she decided to camp out Friday and Saturday before the official opening on Sunday. “I’m a very competitive person,” she said. The prize also proved to be a strong motivator: free admission to all concerts at the Crystal Ballroom and Lola’s Room for a year.
Scott Bassett, from Salem, was the first customer to finish and took his place in line at the Bagdad behind Buck. “It was cold and stormy on Hawthorne. I brought a heater and some propane and Catherine and her mom were kind enough to hold my place in line when I wasn’t there,” he said.
Bassett, a loyal McMenamins fan, learned about the passport and competition for first finishers four days after he retired from a career in state government. “I decided to go for it with encouragement from my wife,” Bassett said.
He headed out in his Prius for a quick tour of the Northwest. Bassett’s longest day started at the White Eagle at 6 a.m. He hit all the Washington locations, then headed to the coast by crossing the congested Lewis and Clark Bridge connecting Longview, Wash. to Highway 30 in Oregon. It was a race against the clock to get to the Pot Bunker Bar on the Gearhart property before driving to the Lighthouse Brewpub in Lincoln City and home to Salem 16 hours later. His prize was a $600 party at the Thompson Brewery & Public House that ended up doubling as a fundraiser for a nonprofit.
Bassett said, “I’ve traveled the kingdom four times and I’ve been lucky enough to go to four of the five Cosmic Tripster parties.”
Buck is thinking of completing another passport with her boyfriend. “But my plan for the next one is to do it slowly and enjoy the experience,” she said.
Since the passports were first “brewed” up, there have been five Cosmic Tripster parties. The first one was in the jail at Edgefield. “It’s the place where we store the artwork for our properties,” said Buck. “They cleaned it up, put the artwork out for display, and had tasting stations and food pairings in various parts of the building. There were about 500 of us at this event.”
The second was a pre-opening of the Anderson School in Bothell, Wash. With about 2,500 attendees. “It was an opportunity for our staff to practice and to get feedback and suggestions from a friendly crowd,” said Ignacio.
Impact on business has been tremendous, however, the program is costly as it includes giveaways. Since 2013, more than 5,000 people have become Cosmic Tripsters and Ignacio estimates about 80,000 passports have been sold.
“Because of its popularity, we’ve had to change our parameters,” she said. Originally she envisioned one party annually, but now plans them on an as-needed basis, trying to manage the attendance so people can still mingle. The limit for completed passports is two a year. And the passports are continually changing. If a new location opens, passport holders must get that stamp and “just-for-fun” stamps are always being added.
“We feel it’s a great value and connection to our customers that’s very special. We have three historians on staff. When we come into a place, we want to connect with the community,” said Ignacio. “And we want people to have fun. Those are the core values of Mike and Brian McMenamin.”
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The McMenamins experience is one that is simultaneously unique and connected to the cosmic center that holds together the magical collection of quirky brewpubs. Its celebration of the fall hop harvest perfectly illustrates the company’s originality.
In early September, McMenamins brewers make identical batches of Thundercone Fresh Hop Ale on the same day. Then about two weeks later, they release the Thundercone, again on the same day, at all brewery locations. The same beer plays out a little differently at each spot. The process of making Thundercone was aptly named the “Running of the Brewers” by Brian McMenamin when the beer was first introduced seven years ago.
“When fresh-hop brews became popular, we decided to try one,” said Rob Vallance, brewery general manager. “And Northwest fresh hops are the grandfather of all hops. My predecessor approached Doug Weathers, the owner of Sodbuster Farms in Salem,” he said.
Sodbuster is a family farm that grows more than 14 varieties of aromatic and bittering hops and has been cultivating the crop since 1958. They sell hops to many local breweries and were happy to add McMenamins to the list.
Vallance said, “Cascade hops were the most popular and best known, so we decided to go with Cascade hops that first year.”
A team of brewers known as the Recipe Development Squad decided on a style and ingredients. “They didn’t want an IPA,” said Vallance, “so they went with an American pale ale with Pilsner and Carastan malts. Nothing has changed. The base is still the same. The hops may vary from year to year.”
Hop harvest in the Northwest traditionally begins the first or second week of September. As that time approaches, the Thundercone team preparation gets into full swing.
“We start planning in mid-August,” said Jessica Standley, brewery administration, public relations and social media. “We can’t over-plan. We usually get a three-day notice before the harvest day. That’s part of the unique quality of the Running of the Brewers.”
Weathers, the hop expert, maintains close connections with his brewing partners and determines the harvest date. He chooses the variety that looks best each year. Last year it was Simcoe. This year the hop variety will be Cascade. “We are shooting for a harvest and brew date of Sept. 7,” Vallance said.
The brewers at the 21 breweries make sure they have all their other ingredients on hand, prepare the mash bill and prep the wort so they can drop the fresh hops in the brew the minute they arrive. (No easy feat, to be sure.)
On harvest day, brewery managers show up at the farm early in the morning. The hop bines are cut, the cones are separated and the sticky, green hops are put into 30-pound burlap totes.
Then the fun begins. The delicate flavors of fresh hops are diminished by time and temperature. The Running of the Brewers helps ensure the temperamental flowers are quickly and safely delivered to 21 different breweries. “We all take varying routes and full totes of hops, and within hours they will be going into the brew,” said Standley. “We go in completely different directions. We have eight or nine routes with multiple stops. The largest route has six locations.”
Vallance coordinates the assorted vehicles and drivers. “So far we’ve been lucky enough not to have any major last minute catastrophes,” he said. The brewery that’s farthest north is McMenamins Mill Creek, some 235 miles from Sodbuster. The north Washington brewery manager takes the hops to that location and makes stops in Olympia and Bothell, which is home to the new Anderson School. The southernmost deliver goes to McMenamins Roseburg Station and Pub. Lincoln City’s Lighthouse Brewpub is a stand-alone delivery. Although McMenamins has numerous locations throughout Oregon and Washington, 65 in all, most of the breweries are near the I-5 corridor, meaning they are situated just hours from the fresh hops.
Justin Azevedo, the Wilsonville brewer, will be making Thundercone for his third year. “We all have the same brew sheets and the same grains. The hops might change from year to year. They are a late kettle addition. We want to preserve all the delicate flavor.” Azevedo continued, “The neat thing from a brewing perspective is the similar concept to terroir with grapes. The hops are right out of the field; the fresh hops preserve all the flavors of the fields.”
Azevedo feels fortunate that Wilsonville is so close to Sodbuster, and he’s one of the first locations to receive the hops. “This is one of our biggest events,” he said. “Everyone gets ready for when the hops come in. It’s a fun, seasonal treat.”
Standley tracks the exact time that hops arrive at the breweries, the distance traveled and other fun stats, like how many cups of coffee were consumed during the Running of the Brewers. All this information, plus photos, are posted online at mcmenamins.com/Thundercone.
Vallance said that all the brew houses receive the same amount, about 30 pounds, with two exceptions. The new Anderson School will receive close to 50 pounds and Edgefield will get about 100 since these two sites have bigger systems.
The Running of the Brewers is organized chaos over one day, leading to the release of Thundercone Fresh Hop Ale several weeks later. “It’s usually all gone within a couple weeks, a month at the most,” said Vallance.
Start looking for it mid-September and order it as often as you can.
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