🍻 Portlander Don Williams takes us beer chasing

Today we have something special for you, folks, and you’ll need your beverage of choice for this one!

We sat down with Portlander and Oregon’s original Beerchaser, Don “Dirt” Williams, who has reviewed nearly 400 pubs, taverns, and dive bars on his blog since 2011.

We asked Don about his history of beer chasing, how he pivoted his blog during the pandemic, and which local watering holes he’s excited to revisit as things begin to reopen.

Don has been beer chasing since retiring from a law firm in 2011. What began as a hobby has become a full time commitment to celebrating the culture around dive bars, pubs, and taverns. What follows is our interview, edited for length and clarity.

Don “Dirt” Williams, daydreaming of beer chasing once more. (📸: Courtesy of Don Williams)

How many pubs / taverns were you visiting before the pandemic shut things down?

I started in August of 2011, when I retired. Up to the start of 2020, I had been to 366 — 119 of those were in Portland, and 237 were around the state, across the country, and even a few in Europe. Unless I’m traveling, I almost always go back to a bar twice — at least — to make sure I have a good grasp and feel of the place.

Before the pandemic hit, I probably had visited about 10 more before everything shut down.

I hadn’t been to any pubs since March of 2020, until last week — my wife and I were celebrating our 41st anniversary and we drove out to Hood River and visited a couple of breweries there and went hiking. (As things get safer) the Beerchaser is ready to start beer chasing again!

Don and his wife Janet, out beer chasing pre-pandemic. (📸: Courtesy of Don Williams)

How did you have to adapt when it came to working on your blog?

The Beerchaser Blog has been one of my main hobbies, in fact, people were worried about me initially because I was working over 60 hours a week at the law firm before I retired. It was funny, folks would tell me “Oh Don’s going to be so bored in retirement.”

Originally, when the pandemic hit, I thought about shutting the blog down. We have two daughters, both of whom are nurses, and I was really concerned about them. While they don’t take care of COVID patients, they sometimes have contact with them in their practices.

We were really worried about them. But friends and relatives reached out to me and told me “look, we’re sick of reading about case counts and bad news — you need to continue this.” So I did, but I had to change up the content I was creating.

I have a section of my blog called “Beerchaser of the Quarter.” Every quarter I select someone who may have nothing to do with bars or beer, they just have an interesting story. I leaned into sharing those stories on the blog. Most of these folks I’ve known personally — one was a fraternity brother of mine at Oregon State who played pro football for the Steelers and became the first former NFL player to climb Mount Everest in 2012. Another is Father Martin, the head brewer at the Benedictine Brewery.

Other ways I adapted was by reminiscing — my family moved to Oregon when I was 11 and I went to Oregon City High School. I wrote a post about what that was like, what it was like to live in Oregon City and go to school there. 

I also wrote about a physician of mine, Dr. Cameron Bangs, who was a part of the Vortex Rock Festival in 1970.

Thousands of people gathered in Estacada — they were originally going to meet in Portland to protest the American Legion conference, but Gov. Tom McCall talked them into going elsewhere. 

It was the only state-sponsored rock concert in US history. My physician happened to be the physician at that festival. He told me he saw a LOT of sunburned Oregonians that he had to treat. 

I also changed things up by commenting on old beer reviews. There are some reviews where it reads like a wine snob wrote it — “The taste of this beer was like tasting the salt on the crest of a wave breaking on the Oregon Coast” — and it’s ludicrous. I had saved some of these goofy reviews and I did a couple of posts on the taste of beer. That led me to commenting on highfalutin book reviews. It was a lot of fun. Before retiring, I wrote boring memos for lawyers for 25 years on financial management and strategic planning. So just being able to write creatively was really refreshing.

Another story: In 2019, I took a solo road trip to Montana for six days, and my wife and fellow beerchaser Janet flew into Billings to meet me.

I wanted to go to my favorite Montana bar: The Dirty Shane Saloon in Yaak. But that was a trip out of the way, so my wife told me “I am not going 200 miles out of the way to go to a dive bar. I’ll fly in and you can have six days on your own.”

In those six days I visited 29 bars. When Janet arrived, we visited another 21 or so. I want to clarify that we don’t always have a beer at each bar and I don’t need to. I just need to get a sense of the bar in order to write about it.

During that road trip I fell in love with Montana and it’s bars, the people.

Don Williams, creator and author of The Beerchaser Blog, has reviewed close to 400 pubs and taverns across Oregon, the country and internationally. (📸: Courtesy of Don Williams)

What is a local Portland watering hole you’re looking forward to visiting as we start to come out of the pandemic?

I have a few I’m excited to see again!

One is The Standard on NE 29th and Burnside. It’s a nice, old time bar. They used to have $1 drafts on Wednesdays until their insurance company decided to stop that. The whole ambiance of the bar — I’m looking forward to visiting it again. Another one is Yurs in Slabtown — Willamette Week described it as “a dark dive bar, spacious and ideal for daytime drinking.”

One of the first Portland dives I went to was the Brooklyn Park Pub, there was a bartender there named Phoebe who is just great. There’s also the Ship Tavern out in Multnomah Village. Sadly, one of my favorites that won’t be opening back up was Crackerjack’s up on NW 28th. There’s Gil’s Speakeasy, and Mock Crest Tavern — there are a lot.

There’s just something about dive bars. Although they’re not for everyone. Janet primarily was a fan of wine, but since we started beerchasing, she has become enamored with IPA’s.

She told me “Don, I’m not going to go to a dive bar.” Her opinion of what makes a dive bar and mine are distinctly different. For example, the Brooklyn Park Pub to me is just kind of a neighborhood bar, but the second time I went back to it Janet came along with me and she said, “Don, this is a dive bar.” So when the Beerchaser goes to dive bars, it’s usually with friends.

What is in the future for the Beerchaser?

It’s been about 10 years since I started beerchasing, and when I began I had a kickoff at the Lucky Lab Brewery in Northwest Portland. When things get safer, I want to have a 10 year anniversary party to celebrate the blog and beerchasing.

But other than that, my schedule is pretty clear. I’ll be excited to get back to beerchasing!

Support Don and his beer chasing by visiting his blog and reading more awesome stories of Portland’s local watering holes. Got a favorite local dive you want to shout out? Email us at [email protected]