On tap: 200 years of Oregon beer

The Historical Society's "Barley, Barrels, Bottle, & Brews" tells the tale of Oregon beer culture from then to now. We'll drink to that.

Oregon’s brewing industry is robust and growing, with nearly 300 breweries, hundreds of pubs and taprooms, and legions of fans thirsty for its hoppy, craft-brewed beers. But all that great beer had to start somewhere, so it’s instructive to put that pint down for a while and tour the new exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society that details the 200-year history of Oregon brewing.

Barley, Barrels, Bottles, & Brews: 200 Years of Oregon Beer fulfills its promise with a good selection of artifacts from the museum’s collections and a few high-tech twists such as the interactive brewing flow chart, the Hop AromaTron (not its real name) and the design-your-own-beer display that will interest even the non-beer-drinker ­– I mean, there must be a few out there, right? But not many, said OHS executive director Kerry Tymchuk as he led a gaggle of journos through the new exhibit. “Why should we care about Oregon beer,” he said, “because beer and brewing has always been a vital part of Oregon culture, thanks in part to the hops grown here and the fact that Oregonians have always loved their beer.”

Two hundred years of beer on the wall at the Oregon Historical Society. Photo: John Foyston

That love started early – if with a bit of orthographic diversity – with an entry from the Lewis & Clark journals: “Collins made Some excellent beer … which was verry good.” It probably wasn’t much like the hazy and brut IPAs that are the current Oregon favorites, it being brewed with Camas-root bread and all … but I imagine any beer was well received in that circumstance.

One of the earliest artifacts in BBBB is a big green, wood-stoppered carboy (brewer techspeak for a giant jar) that looks like a huge Japanese fishing float and twice as fragile, yet it made the trek to Oregon country along the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon. It’s just one of more than 100 artifacts, many on view for the first time, from the Oregon Historical Society collections and from the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives at Oregon State University. There are old beer cases, historical photos of some Oregon’s earliest breweries dating back to the 1850s, a Civil War-era photo of people drinking beer at one of the first saloons in Oregon, and part of the sign from the U.S. Brewery.

Women’s Land Army workers harvesting hops in the Willamette Valley, 1944. Oregon State University Archives

There’s also a large section on hop growing and harvesting, which includes historical photos and artifacts such as a hop basket – later in the exhibit, on the side devoted to the post-1980s rise of craft brewing, you’ll learn that some of the most innovative research into hop growing and beer brewing happens here at Oregon State University, and that the Willamette valley is world-famous for its aroma hops. And you can try your hand – sinuses? – at identifying different strains of the hops that were developed right here in Oregon on that aforementioned Hop AromaTron (still not its real name) and I sincerely hope you’re better at it than I am; with 25 years of experience smelling hops, I still never get much further that “hoppy” as a descriptor.

But that’s OK, because I know a hundred great brewers who are experts at identifying and using hops, and so do you, indirectly. It’s a bonus of living in Beervana.

It wasn’t always Beervana, nor was it all beer and skittles in the history of Oregon beer. Oregon – then a territory – first prohibited alcohol in 1844, before coming to its senses in 1845 … and then adopting Prohibition again in 1915 as the country went dry until national repeal in 1933. As photos show, it was a lean time for most breweries and dozens failed, while some of the big ones survived by brewing soft drinks – such as Henry’s Root Beer – and hop tonics. And imagine the poor hop growers, who had almost no other market for their wares, except things such as hop pillows for sleep aids … hard times indeed.

Men and women at a picnic, relaxing with beer and stogies, 1895. Oregon Historical Society

World War II triggered the demise of more regional breweries as supplies and transportation were increasingly hard to get. That situation meant that larger breweries were the ones that survived, and as tastes changed and refrigerated shipping meant beer could just as easily come from St. Louis as from West Burnside Street, where Blitz was, breweries again dwindled under the pressure of modernization and consolidation. It got to the point in the late 1970s where this country had about 80 breweries left from thousands a century before, and the MBAs reckoned that number would shrink still further as the industry became more efficient – and the beer became ever more bland versions of pilsners brewed with corn, rice and precious little barley.

Thankfully a band of pioneers including Fritz Maytag, who bought San Francisco’s ailing Anchor Brewing; Jack McAuliffe, who opened California’s first micro brewery: Bert Grant, who opened in Yakima the country’s first brewpub since Prohibition; and our own Ponzis, Widmers, and McMenamins rebelled against the rising tide of pale fizzy beer and started brewing small batches of God-fearing English-style ales and German Altbiers.

They were inspired by Portland beer writer Fred Eckhardt, whose Treatise on Lager Styles was one of the first recipe books for homebrewers, and by publican Don Younger, whose Horse Brass Pub is world famous today as the epicenter of craft brewing in the Northwest. Both gentlemen died in the last decade, but they live on in the exhibit and each has a full-size picture on the wall. I knew them both, had pints with them often, and can attest to their crucial role in Oregon brewing – and that they were both characters of the first order, bless ’em.

“End of Longshore Strike, Blue Bell Tavern Portland,” Feb. 5, 1937. Oregon Journal photo, OPS #1745, Oregon Historical Society

You can learn more about the craft pioneers by watching excerpts of Beervana, which Beth Harrington made for OPB’s Oregon Experience series. Other bits of electronic interactivity include a digital brewing flow chart where you can tap each step and learn more about the process, and the design-your-own-beer display, where you can ring the changes of color, hops, alcohol and the like to create different beer styles. Digitally, that is: Like most museums, you can’t drink in the exhibit, and that includes beer, so step two of your Oregon Beer Experience is to exit the building and walk a block south to the bar at Higgins, or 11 blocks north to Bailey’s Taproom, and order a pint of some of the best beer in the world – Oregon beer.

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Barley, Barrels, Bottles, and Brews: 200 Years of Oregon Beer

  • When: Through June 9, 2019
  • Where: Oregon Historical Society, 1200 S.W. Park Ave., Portland
  • Hours: Open seven days a week, 10 am-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sundays
  • Admission: Always free for OHS members, Multnomah County residents with I.D., and ages 18 and younger. Others $5
  • OPB video: If you want to watch the full-length Beervana (a worthwhile half-hour), click here

Thirsty? Name your poison. Photo: John Foyston

 

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