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.”
McMenamins recently reached a milestone by producing 1 million kegs in July. The Pacific Northwest institution is well-loved because of its unique properties. You can visit all 53 in Oregon and Washington, including seven historic hotels and eight theater pubs, during your travels. Photo by AJ McGarry
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
On July 2, McMenamins began Oregon Craft Beer Month with a unique milestone: one million kegs. The millionth keg, the raspberry ale Ruby, was racked at 11:39 a.m. at the McMenamins Queen Anne pub in Seattle.
“It is an interesting milestone for us, this whole ‘Keg Million’ business,” says John Richen, Chief Brewery Administrator for McMenamins. “It was crazy. It was daunting. And ultimately, just a huge amount of fun.” But he keeps perspective: “It is a symbolic milestone. There isn’t anything substantially different about keg one million from keg nine-hundred-ninety-nine-thousand, other than the gravitas of what it stands for to folks inside our brewing ranks.”
The Oregon and Washington chain of more than 50 pubs, breweries and hotels began brewing in 1985, initially releasing 5.5 kegs of Hillsdale Ale at the Hillsdale Brewery & Public House in Southwest Portland. The first year of production reached 83 barrels, or 165 kegs. Five years later in 1990, production had leaped to 12,813 barrels (25,625 kegs). By the turn of the century, McMenamins produced 173,427 barrels in 2000, or 346,853 kegs — more than 30 percent toward one million.
Five years ago, in 2010, production was more than 75 percent of the way: 395,692 barrels, or 791,385 kegs. Now, as of July 15, McMenamins has officially brewed 1,001,806 kegs. While 24 percent of that was produced at the Edgefield Brewery in Troutdale, 76 percent was brewed at “small house” breweries, such as High Street in Eugene, Lighthouse in Lincoln City and Spar in Olympia, Wash.
Of the one million kegs, 89 percent were kegged in Oregon and 11 percent were kegged in Washington. But not one used “kegging robots, automated golden gate fillers, racking line programmed replicants or Amazon drones,” says Richen. “We filled them all ‘the hard way.’”
Early Experiments, Today’s Favorites & Yesterday’s Disasters
Hillsdale Ale gave rise to other standard McMenamins beers enjoyed today, such as Terminator Stout, Hammerhead and Ruby. Originally brewed as extract-based recipes, the ales were switched to all-grain malt bills starting in March 1987. Early experimentation set a precedent that continues — but the brewers are glad that there have been equipment improvements.
“McMenamins pioneer brewers were a rugged breed,” explains Richen. “The brewers’ day started by driving to F.H. Steinbart to pick up their bags of malt. They would then drive to the Barley Mill Pub to crush the grain through the functional malt mill, which serves as the pub’s namesake. After cleaning up the mess and loading the resulting grist back into their vehicles, they would return to the Hillsdale to begin the brewing process. There was great rejoicing when a simple plate mill was purchased and installed in the brewery.”
In 1985 McMenamins released their first fruit beer, named simply Batch No. 2 and made with blackberries growing in the parking lot. The first Terminator Stout (Brew No. 12) was brewed Nov. 19, 1985 and the first Hammerhead (Brew No. 37) was brewed Jan. 25, 1986.
While first year production focused on original standards — Hillsdale Ale, Terminator Stout, Crystal Ale, Hammerhead and Barley Mill Ale — by November 1986 the fledgling brew operation had produced 40 batches of fruit beers between the Hillsdale, Cornelius Pass and Lighthouse breweries. Early fruit batches also included Brew No. 67, a raspberry ale brewed on March 21, 1986.
Today we know it as Ruby.
Despite the regional popularity of bitter beers such as IPAs, Ruby and Hammerhead remain two of the company’s most popular beers, with Ruby alone comprising 21 percent of total output.
Not every experiment has paid off, though.
“We’ve had great success with incorporating fruit, coffee and spices into styles both traditional and untraditional,” says Richen. “Forays into the worlds of garlic, Mars Bars, Cherry Garcia Ice Cream and wormwood were not as successful, which, to be honest, is a tremendous understatement. They were unmitigated disasters.”
With 24 breweries in two states producing more than 70 batches of beer each week, it’s no small challenge to balance brand consistency with freedom to experiment.
“There is so much that has been learned, much of it the hard way,” says Rob Vallance, general manager of McMenamins Breweries. “Most importantly is the big-picture concept of how every facet of the process affects the beer that goes into every glass. You have to be ever-vigilant.”
However, Vallance notes that McMenamins brewers have an “unprecedented amount of freedom with recipe formulation.” Instead of locking down specifications across all the breweries, some beers — such as a standard McMenamins IPA — actually have no official standard recipe.
“Brewers have different philosophies and skill sets in our system,” he explains. “With the standard and seasonal recipes, it is very difficult to create consistency across so many breweries across such long distances with so many hands on so many paddles.”
This creative freedom also reflects simple practicality. “Water tables can be so different,” says Vallance. “Each brewery is its own unique ecosystem. These are neighborhood breweries. We have to accept that our methods will breed some inconsistencies, and it has always been, and always will be, our most daunting challenge to try and minimize those inconsistencies. The goal is always production of a quality end product with a nod to the stamps the various regional factors place on a beer.”
Creative license, though, does have limits. “We’ll let our brewers try pretty much anything,” says Vallance. “Once anyway.”
The Path to 2 Million
“Having worked in this craft beer business since 1987,” says Richen, “I was unexpectedly moved seeing the listing of the 195 names of folks who put the beer into those million kegs since 1985, many of them in batches with a number of kegs you could count with the fingers on two hands. I pictured faces of people I hadn’t seen or even thought of in years.”
Now as they look ahead, Vallance and Richen wonder what the path to 2 million kegs looks like.
“It certainly won’t take us 30 more years,” says Vallance. “Probably between 15 and 20.”
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