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🍺 The foamy culture of Portland pubs with Beerchaser Don Williams

Today we’re chatting with our favorite Portland beer chaser, Don Williams, who has reviewed nearly 400 pubs, taverns, and dive bars on his blog since 2011. We asked Don about Portland’s pub culture, what has helped define it, what has changed, and what has persisted and will continue to persist into the future.

What are some key elements of pub and tavern culture (particularly in Portland) you’ve observed?

That begs the question, “What is culture?” Let’s assume it’s a set of intangible aspects of social life — in this case in an individual bar or tavern. One way I describe this is a watering hole’s “character.” It’s really no different in Portland than elsewhere.

It can include more global items such as its location, the regulars, the personality of the bartender and staff, the style of the furniture, and how it’s set up. It’s also a conglomeration of more mundane factors ranging from the lighting, the art (often nicotine-stained murals), or knick knacks such as old beer cans, bottles of MD 20-20, team pictures and trophies from bar-sponsored teams, hats and mugs.

The music is also a factor as are the number and types of beer on tap and the prices. Is there food and what type?

The atmosphere is influenced by whether there are games such as pool and shuffleboard or pinball and if video poker is pervasive. Are there TVs and if so, how many and how big? Is there a smoking patio? Do they have weekly events or gatherings and are these karaoke or Dirty Bingo Nights?

Are there animals present – not just service animals or pets which are welcome in many neighborhood pubs, but the work of taxidermists hung on the walls with glassy stares? 

It’s important not to overlook the bathrooms. Are they unisex and are there locks on the door (or doors at all) and do the sanitary conditions (for example vomit-stained toilet seats) motivate you to drink your beer slowly so you can wait until you get home?

Two more factors that are important are the bar and back bar.  Is your beer served on a Formica counter or a dark, classy wood counter with an attractive back bar filled with a multitude of attractive liquor bottles or knick knacks which evoke stories?  (I remember one historic dive bar with a beautiful long, rich mahogany bar which was shipped around Cape Horn to its destination in Colorado during gold mining days.)

You throw all these elements — abstract, tangible and the people — together and the result is a “community.” Each bar or tavern is its own unique community or cultural institution.

The Standard’s back bar — one of many elements of pub, tavern, and dive bar culture. (📸: Courtesy of Don Williams)

Has this culture gone through any observable changes from your perspective? If so, what kind?

It goes without saying, we have to separate pre and post pandemic — I’ll base this on the nine years I’ve been beer chasing prior to the pandemic.  During that time, I have witnessed minimal change in what we are describing as culture.  

That said, if one goes back further, there were some monumental changes affecting the character and operation of bars and taverns. I will defer to my friend and author, Matt Love, who for thirty years, studied and wrote about bars on the Oregon Coast.  He conveys the contrast in the Introduction of a marvelous booklet entitled, “Oregon Tavern Age.”

“It was the halcyon days of Oregon tavern life; no liquor, no craft beers, no meth, no video poker or slots, smoke-filled, and the classic cheap Pacific Northwest lagers brewed in the Pacific Northwest by union men reigned supreme…Customers watched Perry Mason on low volume and read mildewed Louis L’Amour titles from the lending libraries tucked away in dark corners.”

Of those Matt lists, the two monumental shifts were video poker – in the late 80’s and the end of smoking in the bars in 1984.  Why, because much of the dialogue and stories disappeared.  Instead of thick plumes of nicotine laden smoke from Camels, Winston, or Marlboros circling above the heads of those at the bar or individual tables where they told tales, the smokers escaped frequently to the front or rear exit — maybe a small patio — where they puffed in solitude.

In fact one wag stated he was concerned about the end of smoking at Portland’s legendary Horse Brass Pub, not because of losing the clientele, but because “we assumed its billowing, milkshake-thick clouds of cigarette smoke were load bearing structural elements of the building without which the sprawling pub would collapse.”

The bar at Gil’s Speakeasy, pre-pandemic. (📸: Courtesy of Don Williams) 

What direction do you see Portland’s pub and tavern culture heading and what are some of the pros and cons?

I’m optimistic that Portlanders want to mingle with friends and head to bars and restaurants when it’s safe. The character or culture will quickly be restored. If operational constraints are too strict, like not allowing seating at the bar, that will be a problem.

Over five years ago one Seattle author labeled dive bars “an endangered species.” The Portland Mercury also did an article on March 9, 2016, entitled “The Portland Dive Bar Preservation Society,” stating, in part:

“Portland’s lost a bunch of dive bars recently. A few were absolute shitholes that deserved to disappear, but most were victims of circumstance and change. A number of other bars have changed ownership and been fancied up to suit the modern market. Dive bars, if not endangered, are at the very least under threat.”

With the state of things in Portland, the concern now transcends dive bars. Any small, independent watering hole faces economic challenges. You can see lists of the number of bars that closed in the last year — many temporarily, but a lot are gone for good.

It’s up to Portlanders to support these establishments, unless we want to see more sterile operations devoid of personality appear. Some of these newer, corporate-owned bars don’t measure up to their scrappy predecessors.

The famous (infamous?) breathalyzer test at Gil’s Speakeasy. (📸: Courtesy of Don Williams)

What do you think will always stay consistent with Portland’s pub and tavern culture?

This answer might alienate those who think Portland’s culture is unique, but I’ll respond with the same answer whether describing a bar in Portland, the Oregon Coast, Montana, New England, or in Amsterdam.

As long as we don’t capitulate to the corporate chains who want to open their aseptic, suave drinking venues, the ancient tradition of a gathering place where one can raise a mug with friends will continue without much evolution. That’s a good thing.

I agree with English poet and essayist, Samuel Johnson’s assertion:

“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.”

This line from a twelfth century poet also rings true:

“When the hour is nigh me,

Let me in a tavern die

With a tankard by me!”

What is one of Portland’s quintessential pubs you feel is emblematic of that culture?

This is a hard question to answer because there are so many good bars in Portland.  And when a bar is good, it’s fantastic. Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good!  However, I’ll suggest three rather than one — all of which are on the east side of the river.

Gil’s Speakeasy whose owners self-describe as “the nicest assholes in town,” have a wonderful dark, spacious bar with no sign on the exterior and great cheap daily specials ranging from $3 chili dogs to $1 sloppy Joes.  They even have a coin-operated breathalyzer which states, “Blow before you go. Profits to local charities.”

And Mad Hanna’s — a wonderful bar community — has transformed itself during the pandemic into a general store (“part indie boutique, craft fair, and whimsically curated market”).  Besides, there aren’t too many saloons where you can chow down a $4.50 peanut butter and jelly sandwich while guzzling your $2 Happy Hour PBR.

But the bar or pub that epitomizes the culture discussed above is The Standard. This bar opened in 2007 at NE 22nd and Broadway and was perfectly described by Mathew Korfhage in the Willamette Week 2018 Bar Guide:

“But the thing that made me treat this bar as an extension of my living room for seven years, what makes it different from every other bar with cheap drinks and a pool table and a covered patio in winter, is the simple decency of the place. The Standard is one of Portland’s last true neighborhood bars, a ramshackle version of Penny Lane decorated in shattered CDs and corrugated metal…More than any other bar I know in Portland, it is a sodden vision of an ideal society.”

A huge thank you to Don for answering our questions and if you want more tavern culture and beer chasing stories, you can find all of that and more at his blog TheBeerChaser.com. If you missed our first interview with Don on how he began his post-retirement career as a beer chaser, you can find that here. Go check him out, give him some love, and tell him we sent you over!

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