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Bock of Ages: The art of the brew

McMenamins 39th birthday beer is actually an IPA, but its ingredients include a long swig of West Coast history.

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History by the glass: Mike McMenamin, Alan Sprints, Brian McMenamin. Photo: John Foyston

BOLD DECEIVER, the IPA brewed for the 39th anniversary of McMenamins Barley Mill Pub on June 25, contains no fewer than 57 ingredients – 63, actually, should you be a stickler and count barley, hops, yeast and water, the only four allowed by Reinheitsgebot, the ancient Bavarian beer purity law.

In other words, Reinheitsgenot – but a perfect example of the McMenamins ethos of honoring the history and people who have made the family-owned pub, brewery and hotel chain a beloved West Coast tradition, for every one of the added drams had a story to be heard. (Mind you, it would take a rigorous spectro chemical assay to determine the presence of the add-ins, which comprise perhaps a quart out of 200 or so gallons, and you certainly won’t taste them, but they’re there in spirit, and that’s the McMenamins way.)

The beer was brewed at an annual event held in mid-May at the Hillsdale Pub, where the McMenamins first brewed beer in Captain Neon’s Fermentation Chamber, as it was and still is called. About two dozen brewers, managers, artists, family and friends, including special guest Alan Sprints (whose Hair of the Dog brewery pioneered small-volume, high-gravity craft beers) gathered with founders Mike and Brian McMenamin to sample and vet the add-ins for this year. It was the first such gathering since Covid shut the pub down in 2020, and people were glad to be back at the long table crowded with glassware.

“We’re coming out of a crazy time,” said Mike McMenamin, “and we’re all glad to be back.” He sat at the head of the table, flanked by brother Brian and brewing operations manager Rob Vallance. Behind them sat coolers, cases and boxes full of bottles and cans. Each place at the long table was set with a wine glass, a pilsner glass, and a water glass, and pitchers of ice water were nearby.

Also vital were the dump buckets: each sample was tiny, perhaps an ounce or less, but the cumulative total during the luncheon could render the most determined sampler nearly comatose, so there was no shame in emptying the glass in the bucket after a taste.

Where that cheerful glow comes from: Captain Neon’s Fermentation Chamber. Photo: John Foyston

Although a certain blood alcohol level was salutary for the sung portion of the three-hour-long event. The late, much-loved beer writer and McMenamins inspiration Fred Eckhardt likely deserves credit for some of the songs. He died in August 2015 at the age of 89, but Eckhardt lives on in artwork at various McMenamins properties; at the recent Fred Fest at Portland’s Hair of the Dog Brewery (probably the last, damn the luck, as the brewery is closing this summer); and his irreverent spirit is a continuing presence at the anniversary brew-day event.

Especially in the choice of songs such as “(Away, Away with) Rum by Gum,” a traditional song about the Temperance movement carried to its illogical extreme. After several samples circulated around the table, and stories were told about how each wine, or beer, or whiskey, or grappa, or Pusser’s Navy Rum, or pisco, or 1985 Lanson’s Champagne figured into the McMenamins mythology, beer-stained copies of the lyric were passed around and all stood and sang:

We never eat cookies because they have yeast.
And one little bite turns a man to a beast.
Can you imagine a sadder disgrace...
Then of a man in the gutter with crumbs on his face.

The tune drifted into the sort of harmonic inspecificity that can occur when occasional singers raise voices together in a once-a-year rendition, a melodious muddle brought to earth by a brisk Boom-chucka-chucka-Boom-chucka! percussion break with added glassware-on-the-tabletop embellishment.

Weird? Nope: tradition, and hereabouts, that counts.

***

ANOTHER TRADITION BEGAN the event at 9 a.m. at the Barley Mill Pub, where many in the group convened to grind the malt for the day’s brew. Brewers malt is generally malted barley delivered in large bags full of what looks – and tastes – very like Grape-Nuts cereal. To make beer, those barley kernels have to be ground into a coarse meal, and the pub is named for the hulking, brightly painted antique grist mill that occupies pride of place in the center of the pub.

(Unsurprisingly, there’s a bit of history there, because the mill, originally used to grind kitty litter, was rescued from Oregon’s first microbrewery, Cartwright’s, and installed with some effort shortly after Mike and Brian McMenamin bought the former Fat Little Rooster tavern in 1983.)

It now gets used but once a year, for this brew. But in the beginning days of brewing at McMenamins, after the passage of Oregon’s brewpub law in the early 1980s, brewers had to start their brew days by bringing bags of malt to the pub and grinding it in the old mill. Each of the two dozen current McMenamins breweries now has the means to do the chore on site, but tradition is tradition, and so each participant – Mike and Brian McMenamin not excepted – found him-or-herself on a short stepladder pouring a five-gallon bucket of malted barley into the roaring maw of the mill.

It used to be harder, because the mill was a cranky old beast, prone to slipping belts and mechanical conniption fits unless the barley kernels were poured in at just the right rate. But on this May morning, the mill eagerly digested its fodder. “The motor was only one horsepower or so,” said regional brewery manager Graham Brogan, who is rebuilding a vintage VW convertible as a hobby.  “So I went to Graingers [Industrial Supply] and got a bigger motor and replaced the vee belts with the proper thick belts and now it runs fine.”

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“It does take a little of the drama away,” Brogan said. “I was thinking we should’ve figured a way to run it with a horse out in the street and those flat leather belts – this thing is old enough.” As a reminder that this was a McMenamins gig, the new motor immediately popped circuit breakers until he ran a heavy extension cord from a 40 amp plug behind the bar …

But back to that long table in the closed-in sun porch at the Hillsdale Pub. Brewers Tristan Hunter and Tim Proctor were back in the brewery, slaving away over a hot mash tun as they used a paddle to stir grist and hot water together to form the thick mash that’ll be the heart of this IPA. The group at the table starts the afternoon with a glass of Hazy Hammerhead, a fresh spin on a McMenamins classic beer.

The industry of the art of brewing: McMenamin brewers Tristan Hunter, left, and Tim Proctor mash in at McMenamins Hillsdale Brewery. Photo: John Foyston

Unsurprisingly, there’s a bit of history here, too. In 1987, iconic Oregon brewer John Harris (then a recent McMenamins hire, now owner of Ecliptic Brewing, and missing guest at the table) helped convert the recipe to all-grain, instead of using  syrupy homebrewer malt extracts as did the earliest McMenamins brews. After all, they had a perfectly good – or at least OK – mill. In the process, he added more hops to create a classic still loved today.

A brace of minuscule Scotch samples was the first official course, to see if we could discern the diff between Johnnie Walker Red Label and Black Label, followed by a $100 bottle of 2005 Chateau de Fargues Sauternes. “This is the wine we gave out to 15-year employees at a couple of recent 15-year dinners,” said Mike McMenamin. “We give folks a wine from the same year that they started with the company to respect and honor all that they’ve put into the company with a great bottle of wine, and this is a great wine.”

“People are all you’ve got,” said McMenamin, looking every inch the benign patriarch in his long white beard and fedora. “The artists, brewers, vintners, distillers, craftspeople and all the folks who’ve hung in there with us over the last 39 years, we want to thank them for what they’ve helped us build.”

Lanson Champagne came around soon after, a perennial ingredient ever since the McMenamins discovered an unopened case of 1945 Lanson at a Hillsdale estate sale along with brewing books and equipment. Needless to say, when that case was gone after a decade, there was no way to replace the vintage. But Lanson Champagne – 1985 in this case – remains an important ingredient in the beer and the mythos.

***

NOT ALL THE ADDITIONS WERE ALCOHOLIC. One was an old tin of granular green cannabis that was discovered in the rich archaeological digs of the Olympic Club in Centralia, Wash. “They never threw anything away – including their garbage,” said Mike McMenanmin. “There were five basements full of junk and things people had traded for rooms or drinks, including that police sidecar now on display in the pub. We had a real time pulling (company historian) Tim Hill out of there…”

Regional brewery manager Graham Brogan with the vintage tin of cannabis found in the basement of the Olympic Club in Centralia, Wash. Photo: John Foyston

Some more additions:

  • #10: 2018 brut Blanc de Noir from Edgefield.
  • #18: Stratoblaster double IPA from the Roseburg McMenamins: “The beer may change, but we’re keeping that name,” Brogan said, “It’s a great name for a beer.”
  • #31: Hair of the Dog Don, a rich double barleywine aged in barrels 4-8 years and named after legendary Portland publican Don Younger, founder of the Horse Brass Pub. It’s a perfect example of the labor-intensive, beautiful big beers that Alan Sprints specialized in at his small brewery.
  • #35: 1993 vintage port from Edgefield. “Port is a rock,” said Mike McMenamin. “You have to have a port every so often when you’re drifting through all these samples. It may not be in the right order for a proper tasting, but this is not the day for rules.”
  • #39: Edgefield cherry cider.
  • #47: 2010 Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary Grand Cru XXX ale.
  • #52: Whiskey barrel-aged Samoa Cookie Stout from the Kalama, Wash., McMenamins.

Much, much more than the old Bavarian receipt of barley, hops, yeast and water: a hand-scrawled list of ingredients for this year’s Bold Deceiver special brew. Photo: John Foyston

The stories and songs went on while drinks circulated around the table and – upon reaching the end –  a bit of each bottle or can was decanted into a container at the head of the table, the tangible part of all the stories and history that transpired on this long afternoon. As guest of honor, Alan Sprints was detailed to pour the additions into the brew kettle for the boil.

“Being invited to the anniversary brew was a real treat for me,” Sprints said as he tipped the bucket into the brew kettle in which the McMenamins brewed some of Oregon’s first commercial craft beers. “Taking Fred’s place and being a part of such a huge tradition makes me feel really special.

“Plus it’s full circle for me, because my first exposure to Oregon beer was from the McMenamin brothers and the Barley Mill pub. It was close to my house and I enjoyed hanging out there and filling my growlers with their beer to enjoy at home. Weddings, birthdays and concerts, I have celebrated many special occasions at  their locations over the years, and become friends with many of their employees. It’s like they have always been a part of my life.”

***

If you go:

McMenamins Barley Mill Pub 39th Anniversary

  • 1629 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland
  • 11 a.m.-midnight, Saturday, June 25
  • No cover, all ages welcome, food and beer available for purchase
  • Old Yellers: Noon-3 p.m.
  • Garcia Birthday Band Duo featuring Scott and Peter: 4-7 p.m.
John Foyston was an arts reporter at The Oregonian for 20 years, and wrote about pop music, local blues and Oregon craft brewing. He now  fusses with vintage Ducati motorcycle engines, volunteers, makes a few oil paintings and continues to research Oregon beers.
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