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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Scenes From Oregon

Amid the chaos and excitement of winter beer season, I spent last evening in a lost little corner of Beervana--the Barley Mill Pub. Earlier this year, Sally and I let our television die with the transition to digital (it still gets channel five, so I periodically tune in for a little Matt Zaffino and Joe Becker). This was fine and dandy until the fall sports season kicked in. I now have to try to find pirate video feeds online if I want to see the Blazers or catch a football game. Or, more rarely, I go to a pub. Sports pubs are always cheek to jowl, but the old Barley Mill--it doesn't attract the sporting crowd. The guys who work there are football fans, and they now recognize me as a Packer guy.

Anyway, Sally and I went in to catch that Saints-Patriots game last night. As usual, it was a modest crowd. The Barley Mill is one of the more important shrines in the Sacred Walk of Beervana. It was the first of the McMenamins Pubs, and in it resides the eponymous mill from Oregon's first microbrewery, the short-lived Cartwright. (Less famously, it's where I spent my post-college, under-employed afternoons, shooting pool and wondering if you could live on Terminator Stout alone.) I always nod appreciatively at this history before blessing myself with a pint of holy water. I wonder how many people are aware they're drinking on sacred ground.

The Barley Mill is also a museum to culture. When the McMenamins first hit the scene, they tricked out their pubs with memorabilia from the psychedelic 60s. In the early eighties, Portland was still a major holdout for this subculture, and hippies were everywhere. Over time, the pubs became more generically psychedelic, with the emphasis on folk-art painting, ultimately arriving at a distinctive McMenamins look. The Barley Mill, always geographically at the epicenter of the gradually retreating hippie subculture, has remained devoted to the original inspiration. In addition to being a shrine to beer, it's also a shrine to Grateful Dead. When you arrive, you see a floating Jerry Garcia hanging to the neck of a skeleton over the bar. He seems to welcome you, a fellow-traveler. And so it has also been a haven for the tie-dyed crowd.

As one of the graeat epochs of Portland's popular culture, hippiedom has mostly died. It was still ascendant when I arrived in the mid-80s, but within a decade gentle longhairs were fighting a lot of blowback. It was enough of a subculture that it could provoke strong antipathy, and that eco-bombing phase didn't help. Move another decade forward, though, and it's mostly nostalgia. Not enough of the old guard left to count as a huge subculture nor to provoke the ire of the majority. But it's not totally gone.

Last night, we settled down in front of the television and ordered a beer. (The porter they have on tap is flat-out great, by the way. Not respectable, not good-by-McMenamins-standards good, but great, by any standard.) A young woman--not quite a full-on hippie, but a little crunchy nonetheless--went to the juke box and dumped in a lot of quarters, and for the next hour our football played to a soundtrack of the Dead.

Like the Bee Gees and Flock of Seagulls, the Grateful Dead are unavoidably stuck in a moment in time, yet they are really an exceptional band--and a pleasant one. As I drank that fine porter, listened to the Dead, watched football, and chatted with my wife, I was aware that this particular combination was probably only possible in one state and one city and maybe even one pub. One of those moments of delicious local color.

[Note: upon re-read, I spied some clunky language and atrocious spelling and did a clean up.]


  1. as always, well put. I would add that Portland is still a hotbed of holding-out hippies, though!

  2. Good post. I don't like all the McMenamins bashing I hear around town. I don't think everyone realizes the central place they played in Oregon's beer revolution, and also how downright "Oregon" their institution is. If you just moved here and want to understand Oregon, don't jump on the wagon of tearing down McMenamins. Try hanging out there instead.

    Jeff, I believe their first pub was actually the one in Hillsdale(?) Can anyone confirm that?

  3. Hillsdale was their first brewpub. The Barley Mill was the empire's first pub.

  4. As a Packer guy, what is you position on Favre in a Viking uniform
    - setting records?
    - kicking ass & taking names at 40 yoa?

    Seems a hell of a guy to me.

    [I'm so old, I suffered the boring, Bud Grant era; oops, I repeat myself.]

  5. Jack, I have no hate for Favre. I'm a Packer fan, not a Favre fan, so when the Vikes played Green Bay, I rooted with unconfused loyalty. But if GB can't win it all, Favre leading the Vikes isn't tragic.

    It will give us a strange kind of bragging right. We can say to Viking fans: sure, you finally won a Super Bowl, but it took a Packer to do it.