An Ale Tale
My local, my corner pub, the place I pop into once a week and sit down and flop open the newspaper and am handed a pint of glorious dark gold ale, my tiny shaggy pub where in summer I sit in the garden out back and absorb the holy and nutritious sunlight spattering through the sycamore leaves and contemplate the burbling sparrows in the throbbing ivy, my pub where for more than a year a pair of shoes dangled on the telephone wire outside and an friend wrote a poem about the shoes and pinned it on the wall of the pub, my pub where I have had a thousand happy passionate arguments about whether Ken Kesey or Beverly Cleary is the greatest Oregon writer ever, my pub where one time I counted more than a hundred knickknacks pinned to the walls, my pub, what a lovely phrase, a neighborhoody parade of words, my pub, where the barkeeps do not feel the need to strike up cheery empty tinny shallow conversation but simply nod hey and send over a pint, well, my pub creates, on its tiny premises, in the redolent back room, in huge tuns, the best ale on this bruised and blessed planet, and I will tell the tale of this ale, for its story is, in a nutshell, or in a hop husk, the story of how Oregon came to be heaven for the hoppish.
Elsewhere you can find the story of how a young dental student from Utah came unto the Red Hills of Dundee in 1966 and there planted the pinot noir vine and so began the roaring story of the Oregon wine industry that today means four hundred wineries and thirteen thousand acres of vines and two million cases of wine and fifty million dollars in wine sales annually. And yet, with total respect for Oregon wines, which are lovely earthy muscular swirling sensual things at their best, things on which even unlearned and untutored I have committed a book like an inky venial sin, it’s a moment twenty years later that grabs me.
It is January of 1987. A young man named John Harris is peering into an enormous copper kettle and stainless steel fermenting vats in Hillsdale, in a building that had been a burger joint, a fish and chip shop, an auto camp cabin, a sanitorium, and a farmhouse. The room in which he stands is called Captain Neon’s Fermentation Chamber. It is the engine of Oregon’s first brew pub, started by Brian and Michael McMenamin, good Catholic boys from Portland with a yen for excellent homemade beer. Their brewery opened in 1985, on the heels of a new state law permitting same, and young Mr. Harris is today tinkering with the recipe for an ale called Hammerhead, first hatched as Batch Number 37 on January 25, 1986 (two months after Batch 12, a stout which would become famous as Terminator). The original recipe for Hammerhead used malt extract and syrup. Harris, a beer purist, wants to see what happens if he reduces the malt, cuts out the syrup, and throws in a few more pounds of hops. His theory is that it should taste deeper and hoppier. Harris has not seen fit to mention his experimentation to his superiors, partly because he is a new employee and is a little leery of publicly screwing with a successful recipe, and partly because Mike McMenamin has been much quoted as saying the only rule is that there are no rules.
Harris tastes his experiment. It’s stunning. The extra hops raised it about six international bitterness units, he says – a lovely sentence. I had another taste and then everyone in the place tasted it and then we tried it on the customers. The new recipe cleaned up the flavor, controlled the malt, and freed us from syrup. So that’s the Hammerhead you get today. Somehow that’s very McMenamin that something went totally right without being planned out.
Harris eventually moved on from Captain Neon’s Fermentation Chamber to become the first brewmaster at Deschutes Brewery in Bend, and then brewmaster at Full Sail in Hood River and Portland, where he is today. Oregon craft beer moved on and up also, from zero barrels made in 1984 to nearly a million barrels today, made by many dozens of breweries and brew pubs all over the state. Oregon in 2007 ranked third in the nation in production of craft beers, behind only Colorado and California. The beer industry pours two billion dollars into Oregon’s economy and employs nearly five thousand people. The city of Portland, with more than thirty breweries, is the biggest craft-beer city in the country, ahead of Seattle and San Francisco. The McMenamin brothers alone opened dozens of other pubs and breweries, resurrecting lovely old hotels, dying taverns and theaters, old grade schools, even a county poor farm, turning them all into shaggy cheerful brew pubs. So did lottttttttts of other men and women, and their creative adventures are admirable; I could happily spend hours talking about what it’s like to sit by Mirror Pond in Bend while sipping a Mirror Pond Pale Ale on a starlit summer night, or to savor a McPelican’s Ale as a gaggle of pelicans labors past the Pelican Pub in Pacific City on a brilliant August afternoon, or to moan happily into a Terminal Gravity ale on the shore of Wallowa Lake a mile from where it was made, but I grow tiiirsty, as my grampa would say, so let me shuffle back to my local.
A year after John Harris created the best ale ever, the McMenamin brothers bought a ratty old corner pub in southwest Portland, on Nebraska Street in the Fulton neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the Willamette River. It had started life in 1926 as Reisch’s Place, a diner where you could get beer during Prohibition if you asked the right guy in the right way. In 1940 it became the Home Tavern and slowly died. When the McMenamin brothers bought it they fixed most of the plumbing, built a little ivy-walled back garden, and christened it the Fulton Pub. In the last nineteen years many beers have been invented there by adventurous sorts like John Harris, among them Three Card Monte (of which legendarily a single holy bottle remains), Wildcat (brewed, by a Northwestern University alumnus, to celebrate Northwestern’s 1996 Rose Bowl appearance), Milk of Amnesia, Firecracker, Pumpkinhead (a porter made with essence of pumpkin), Impale (a heroically powerful ale), Nebraska Bitter (named for the street), Fat Rat Porter (named for a river rat who liked to roam the patio until his sudden demise), Piranha Pale Ale, and a jalapeno ale that still makes people wince.
The Fulton, of course, also serves Hammerhead Ale, which comes to me in a pint glass, carried by smiling silent men and women with ponytails. It is a lovely thing, Hammerhead Ale, dense enough to matter but smooth and uncarbonated enough to be eminently drinkable. It seems to me to have exactly the right number of international bitterness units. I wait a moment for it to warm up and lose its head and then I have a long sip, and right about then two articulate and hilarious friends of mine appear and we argue about books and writers and music and politics and wars and women, and the sparrows in the ivy bicker and rustle, and the sun spatters through the sycamores, and there is an hour of some kind of salty peace that’s hard to explain. It has something to do with the ale, which is delicious, and with my friends, who are testy and funny and generous, and with the sunlight, which is rare and nutritious here; but finally I think the deepest pleasure of that hour has to do with the Oregonness and pubbishness of the pub. It’s unpretentious, friendly, liable to laughter. There are babies and dogs and mismatched chairs. There’s world-class stuff made there but there’s no preening or wheedling. The pub and the ale were created here by people here for people here. When it rains everyone crowds inside, including the dogs. When the sun comes out everyone sprawls outside, including the babies. On the hottest hot days the guy making ales in the back throws open the screen door and out writhes the most redolent funky bready earthy dense smell you ever smelled, which is the smell of Hammerhead being born. Everyone bows and whispers John Harris! and a guy at the next table asks for a second pint and all is well.