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 Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
With the explosion of craft beer, so too has come an explosion in beer writers who are celebrating the industry through the publishing of books, articles and blogs. One of those beer writers is Fred Eckhardt, who started tackling the subject when the founders of the craft beer industry were still homebrewing. His "A Treatise on Lager Beers" was published in the early 1970s, followed by books on beer styles and sake. His extensive career also includes writing for The Seattle Times and The Oregonian as well as magazines like All About Beer.
Before he began his writing career, he was in the Marines and one of the impacts the Bay of Pigs invasion had on him was to make him ponder life after a nuclear holocaust. According to an interview with John Foyston, Fred said, "I realized that if you could brew alcohol you would be welcome in whatever shreds of civilization might remain after a nuclear war, so I took a good homebrew recipe and made my first batch of beer." Whether he was being entirely serious or not, his early forays in homebrewing were the beginnings of a career that would impact the craft beer world for decades.
Since those early days, beer writing has gathered steam with technical books like Fred's to ones telling the stories of the folks living their brewing dreams. The stories behind how each person came to be a beer writer are as varied the number of beer styles. Brian Yaeger, who wrote "Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey," didn't know he was going to write a book until he announced it to a classroom during the pursuit of his master’s in professional writing. Once it was out of his mouth, he couldn't take it back. And before he knew it he'd secured a media pass to the Great American Beer Festival. From there he embarked on a six week road trip across the country. He describes the book as being "about the people, less so the beer."
Brian knew he'd write a second book but it wasn't until his publisher proposed "Oregon Breweries" that he knew what it would be. As luck would have it, he had already created the outline for it during the road trip that brought him and his wife from California to their new home in Portland. After retrieving the handwritten journal, he began two years of work during which the number of breweries in Oregon was growing exponentially. In the end, he had gathered the details on 190 breweries and brewpubs and was even more qualified to show visitors around, one of the things he loves most about being a beer writer.
Pete Dunlop, author of the 2013 book "Portland Beer: Crafting the Road to Beervana" started writing for the daily paper at Washington State University during graduate school. He went on to teach high school journalism and then had a career in marketing communications before going freelance. As opposed to Brian's books that are more contemporary, Pete's book is primarily historical in nature, no doubt influenced by his master’s in history.
When asked about his favorite part of being a beer writer, he replied that, "Beer people are easy to talk to," noting as well that he enjoys being able to write about the good in the industry (and sometimes bashing AB InBev). On the flip side, he noted that making money as a beer writer can be challenging. For him, publishing articles and authoring a beer blog were steps that led up to the realization that getting a book published was an important next move to make progress in this career. He's found magazine work easier to come by after publishing his book and is looking forward to writing a second historically based book.
Newer to the craft beer world is Steven Shomler, author of the just-released "Portland Beer Stories." Before 2007 he was not a beer drinker, having tasted the "crap beer" his dad drank and hating it. It wasn't until he was filming a hop harvest that he experienced what he described as "a life-changing experience." Smelling the hops in the field, during processing and in the drying room, opened his eyes and "stupid palate" to a world he didn't know existed. Later that day, he tried his first triple IPA and a whole new world opened to him, a world that he was able to write with a newcomer's perspective. However, he was new only to craft beer, as this would be his second book, following one about Portland's food cart scene. The realization that he was not going to be able to do a comprehensive piece was his biggest challenge so instead he focused on a mix of the old (McMenamins and Widmer) and the new (PINTS and Culmination). Finding stories to write about was easy as the brewers made themselves accessible, a sharp contrast to his experience with the wine industry.
The forthcoming "The Beer Bible" by Jeff Alworth is a product of his travels during two years visiting an array of amazing breweries overseas. It wasn't something that he had planned on writing; instead it was at the request of Workman Publishing, who had turned down his pitch for another book. They were looking for a follow up to "The Wine Bible" and sent him a copy, requesting he submit a table of contents as his "pitch." It was perhaps an unconventional way of finding the right author, but Jeff "didn't have anything to lose." After all, they were approaching him instead of the other way around and so he didn't stress about it.
Workman was happy with the table of contents Jeff submitted and after more than a year in contract negotiations, Jeff began the task of researching and writing his book that is broadly divided by beer styles. Since beginning work on the book in 2011 he has accumulated countless hours of stories about brewers all over the world, facilitated largely by making contacts with importers. Some countries he could have navigated on his own, the ones where English is commonly spoken, but it was destinations like Italy where he would have struggled without help arranging visits and translating.
Unlike Steven, Jeff had been a huge beer fan for years, having downed plenty of Henry Weinhard’s back when it was big, attending graduate school in Wisconsin when New Glarus Brewing opened and producing his own beers. That background, and having written ever since he was a kid, was the perfect combination that helped him begin his writing career, which started when he took over the beer column at Willamette Week following William Abernathy's departure. He went from there to write countless pieces for other publications.
Whether you prefer shorter pieces or books, historical or contemporary topics, there's something for everyone when it comes to beer writing. The best part is that they celebrate the day in and day out work that brewers do to fill our glasses. Cheers to the pioneering writers who first took it up and those who have followed in their steps!
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