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Monday, October 17, 2011

Beer Tales: St Johns, Portland

Last Friday night, Sally and I drove out to the St Johns Theater to catch the 7:30 showing of 50/50. We drive out to St Johns for movies because (1) it's not a Regal-owned cinema, which means we don't have to pay a premium to be assaulted by ads, (2) it's a nice theater and I like to support independent businesses, and (3) they have several tasty draft beers. So there we were, tix in hand, surveying the tap handles. One was a beer called "Clutch," in what appeared to be the New Belgium font. I inquired. The server told me it was a sour brown ale--which provoked the guy in front of me, departing the counter with a full pint of IPA, to groan with regret. Turns out it's a Lips of Faith series beer, and the theater had scored a mighty coup to get a keg.

All of this probably seems like an average Friday night to those of you who are unfamiliar with the neighborhoods of Portland. But St Johns, while it does boast some interesting culture (Plew's Brews, Vinyl Resting Place), is a place studded with far more old-school cigarettes-and-Hamm's bars like The Wishing Well and the Bluebird. Of course, the smokers are now on the sidewalks, sometimes in clusters larger than those still inside.

It's geographically separate from the city, located about ten miles north of downtown Portland, in the peninsula formed by the convergence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. At about the 6700 block, a large, tree-lined rail line bisects north Portland ("the cut"), and it seems as definite a marker of place as the two rivers that mark the other boundaries. It's far poorer than most neighborhoods (23% of the population live below the poverty line) and the median price of a house was $180,000 last year--compared with $319,000 in the heart of the Beermuda Triangle (SE Portland, Buckman neighborhood).

To give you a sense of the kind of place it is, before the movie, Sally and I popped into Du's Teriyaki, which was manned by a single guy. He took the orders, went back and cooked the food, then served it and bussed the tables. At a little after 7, a buddy of his dropped by and he turned off the "open" sign so he could take a break and eat himself.

All of which is to say that, walking into the theater, I'm always pleased to see several great craft beer choices. They rotate seasonally, so you might get a nice pilsner in the summer and stouts in the winter. But one of the primo kegs in Portland? I wouldn't have expected it. But there it was, at $4.25 a glass, same as all the others. The market for good beer continues to spread further and further out, well beyond the upscale crowd in the inner core. It's not a yuppie tipple. (Roscoe's, out near 82nd in the other direction, is another case in point.) I couldn't be happier. In fact, it was such an unexpected surprise that Sally and I went back the next day to catch a showing of The Guard.


  1. So what did you think of "Clutch"?

  2. St. Johns residents are pretty happy to be St. Johns residents. :) I love that theater - it's the only one I go to. I also love being walking distance. There are definitely downsides to living so far out on the peninsula, but we have a lot of awesome things popping up lately. We just need a little brewpub of our own (obviously the McMenamins, while necessary for the occasional tots craving) to make things really awesome.

  3. Kaplan, right. It's an interesting beer that perhaps recalls old London porters more than the browns of Flanders. The base beer is a black ale that produces an amazingly thick, lasting head. It's creamy and just a bit roasty. Then comes the brett sour, mostly a mild touch--funky more than lactic or acetic. The roast and the brett aren't the best match, but they could easily come into harmony with a little age. It was a unique beer, though, and one I had to go back and try again.

    Amy, I love the Johns, too. It's definitely my kind of place. Beyond the culture and vibe, the contrasts are exhilarating--Forest Park looming above the South end, the bridge like a tiara over the river, the parks and green spaces, all with the industrial expanses and constant thrum of heavy trucks rumbling down Lombard. Plus, it's a neighborhood where you can feel the history. Great place.

  4. St. Johns and (to a lesser extent) all of North Portland are pretty underrated. St Johns Twin Cinema is the only place I actually want to see a first run movie at not only because of the beer but also due to the cost ($4 before 6, $6 after). Another good pre-movie option is Proper Eats right across the street (decent draft selection and other bottle options).

  5. Clutch is a dark sour, in fact, it's a sour/stout blend. About 80% chocolate stout to 20% wood aged beer. Rich with dark malt tones and just enough sour to brush the palate clean. I think the sour is most present in the nose, but also sharp enough to come through in the end. Glad you went back for a second...

  6. Have you been to the tap room at Occidental Brewing Co under the bridge? I haven't made it yet, but I want to.