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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Review - The Mash Tun

2204 NE Alberta St.
Portland, OR 97211

Hours: Mon - Fri: 4pm - midnight, Sat - Sun: noon - midnight
Prices: 20 ounce English-style pints: $4.
Other info: Seasonal outdoor seating (with awning); kids and smoking allowed
Beers: A range of NW-style ales plus seasonals.

You can trace the evolution of brewpub fashion from the Barley Mill through the Mash Tun. Originally, they were converted bars and they looked a lot like: bars. Into the light they came, however, and in the next phase they had windows and transparent (that is, not cigarette-blue) air. Along about the time they became restaurantized, we saw the emergence of the chain brewpub--BJ's and Rock Bottom, not McMenamins which are uniquely unchainy--which took them yet a further step away from their saloony forebears. By my reckoning, we're right around 1997 as this all happens.

Came then the backlash--hipsters eschewed the brewpub scene and found little windowless haunts with blue smoke, pool tables, and Pabst (never Hamm's, alas, always Pabst). Fortunately, the Lucky Lab had opened already and offered the promise of grit and blue collars as well as the delight only 85 BUs of Chinook hops can deliver. The Lucky Lab, perhaps not singlehandedly--though this is a blog, so who's going to hold me accountable?--saved brewpubs from suburbanization.

Now their ethos defines the newer generation of brewpubs, the ones founded by those erstwhile mid-90s hipsters who went to the Lab and dreamed of owning their own pubs: Roots, Amnesia, and now the Mash Tun, which I visited for the first time this weekend. (Yes, that's an embarrassing admission, but it's the price I pay for being an introverted lair-dweller with a beer blog.)

Cast in the classic Lucky Lab industrial style, it has more than a little of the Alberta/Mississippi aesthetic to make it unique. The drinking/dining space wraps around a tiny brewery that's visible beyond the attractive bar. There's a patio out back (covered with a sheet of translucent corrugated plastic), with a big beer mural; the walls inside have local art dotting them. The space feels like it's been there forever--it is comfortable and inviting and has a lived-in quality. And, as if to highlight the ethos of the place, directly in front of the bar is a pool table; on the afternoon we visited, it attracted the kinds of kids Pabst had previously attracted. One for the good guys!

As with the Lucky Lab, beer isn't the overwhelming strength at the Mash Tun. I tried four of the five beers they had on tap (skipping, for obvious reasons, the Hunny Blonde), and one was good, two were so-so, and one was a failed experiment. None were bad, though, and they were certainly better than Pabst. It's worth noting that as a new brewpub, it could be things will improve. There are no off-flavors or anything, just recipes that don't quite rise to the highest echelon.

Most people will try the IPA first and stick with it, and they will therefore think the Mash Tun has great beer. Do that.
  • Alberta Pale - Nothing sings about this workman-like pale, but it's all right. It has a nice grapefruit nose and plenty of hop interest on the tongue, but it's a one-note beer in terms of hopping. It has a slightly grinding quality that may be from too much crystal malt. Whereas a good pale need not be a transcendently complex beer, the best are usually clean and direct. This one has a slightly muddled taste. Rating: C+
  • Mr. Rosewater Porter - This beer was being brewed at the moment the brewer heard about the death of Kurt Vonnegut. As an ode to the great author, he added rose hips to the boil and came up with a funny porter that I originally thought had an excess of fusel alcohol. Turns out it was the sharp notes from the rose hips. It also thinned out the body, making the beer disappear in the mouth. A good try and a nice ode, but not a great beer. Rating: C-
  • Portside IPA - The IPA is a mid-range variety--neither too strong nor too hoppy, which makes it a reasonable choice (you can have a couple without needing a Segway to get out the door). The balance between full, rich body and hop bitterness was perfect. The hops were unfamiliar to me; they had a soapy/lavender note and finished with a bit of black pepper. Rating: B
  • Inclusion Amber - This is an amber in the Full Sail style and not a bad way to go, either. It is also nicely in balance, with a strong caramel malt base and fresh, green hops. A good choice for a session beer. Rating: B-
Give the Mash Tun credit for putting thought into the menu. It is expansive, with two pages of dishes: appetisers, soups, salads, and sandwiches, burgers, pita pizzas (?), wraps, and the usual pub standbyes. Where possible, they buy their food fresh, local, and organic, including local beef. They feature quite a large range of veggie options, too, including tempeh and tofu dishes. I had a brat (locally made) with McMenamins-style thin-cut fries and was pretty much perfectly satisfied. Sounds great, right? Read on.

Sally's View
My lovely and talented spouse, who knows a lot more about food than I do, offered a few observations as I was taking notes, and it occurred to me that, in the interest of multiple perspectives, you might appreciate a differing view. Here's what she said (from my notes):

"It's nice they have veggie options, but what that means is you have tempeh and some veggie burgers, but everything is heavy and there are no fresh vegetables. Nor original salads, particularly--just the stuff you'd expect in a pub like Caesar salad. Everything comes with fries, no substitutions. It's very pubby--everything's breaded and fried."

So, take your pick: perfect and satisfying or heavy and caloric.

Final Analysis
The Mash Tun won't win any awards for its beers (yet), but it would be on a short-list of places I'd recommend for its very inviting ambiance and characteristically Alberta feel. The food, while heavy, continues the theme of place and locality. It's only been open a short while, but I think it is well on its way to being a classic Portland brewpub.


  1. Love the Mash Tun, nice review. Too bad you didn't go last July when they were pouring their Ford Prefect Porter - it was superb.

  2. Ghost Dog brings up an important point about brewpubs--most of them have at least one rotating beer, and sometimes they rotate most of their beers throughout the year. It's really worth visiting a pub a few times over a few months to get a sense of brewing style and so you have a chance to catch them at their best and worst to get a sense of what the range is.

    I'll go back to the Mash Tun often, and will update this post as I learn more.

  3. yeah, I like the Mash Tun quite a bit, the folks there are great, atmosphere is great, beer is fine, food is okay.