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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Beer Cred

Beer is a working-class beverage. Drinking beer is a working-class activity. Oregon brewers, who until '99 had Henry's as an example, got that. In the 80s, as brewpubs started opening up, they had a gritty look. Breweries were located in Portland's industrial Northwest (part of which has been overtaken by the Pearl). Tap handles for good beer appeared in working-class bars. It is my suspicion that one of the reasons Oregonians took to microbrewed beer was because it retained it's blue collar ethos.

In other parts of the country, this wasn't the case. The 80s were a time when Boomers were rediscovering all things artisinal, abandoning the 70s facination with pre-packaged cardboard food. Out went the Velveeta, in came the goat cheese. Boomers adopted Chardonnay, sun-dried tomatoes, and sea salt. And by the late 80s, microbrews. In other states, where there wasn't a long brewing tradition (you know, places where rail cars bearing the title "corn syrup" didn't pull up in front of a large, brick city brewery) micros were part of a middle- and upper-class culture. In places like California and Colorado, "boutique breweries" appealed to this group (and again, I just play a cultural anthropologist online) , but the mass of drinkers were left cold.

I mention all of this because a week or two ago I referenced the Rock Bottom Brewpub in a positive light. Although no one commented, behind the scenes, I took some heat. I get it; Rock Bottom is the opposite of gritty. It is chain-restaurant smooth, all the rough edges of personality and locality worn off by corporate flacks. It also carries with it the Colorado aesthetic, which embraces the homogenized and slightly upscale and eschews the funky and original.

All of these things are true, and I don't like to go to Rock Bottom. After getting taken to task, I did revisit the place, just to clarify. The food was tasty, if a bit overpriced, but the ambiance was still deadening. Except for reproductions of historic logging photos on the wall, we might have been anywhere in the country. The clientele tended toward a population I imagine don't spend much time thinking about beer.

But the proof's in the pint glass, and Van Havig's beers were excellent. We tried a porter, and excellent IPA, and a beer that was designed to suggest a hefeweizen (familiar to the clientele unfamiliar with good beer), but which was actually closer to a Belgian wit, with coriander and ginger. Stealth education, that.

I feel for Van, though; in terms of street cred, he suffers being at Rock Bottom. Partly because his beers will remain a mystery to a lot of folks that would otherwise love them if they were being served across the river at Lucky Lab, say. But even more because his beers are served at Rock Bottom, and it is and will remain such an un-Portland place.

(Yes, that was a random posting.)


  1. OK - I'm late adding a comment, particularly since I pointed to this post with some other thoughts.

    Anyway, you have to feel for brewers in Rock Bottom locations well beyond Portland. It's been several years since the chain gave individual brewers more autonomy. But I think many of the hardcore beer enthusiasts remember when the beer choices were much more corporate, and probably didn't back after that first visit.

  2. Yeah, if there was a point to this post, that was really it. From Van's perspective, it may not be that bad, though. He has the respect of his peers and has won plaudits from the press. In fact, he may even relish the audience he gets; unlike brewers at most other pubs, Van Havig may be able to boast a pretty high conversion rate to good-beer drinking.