The Horse Brass wasn’t the first bar I visited when I moved to Portland almost 10 years ago, but it’s the one that I’ve been going to almost every week since.
My first visit was in the late summer of 2001, when I lived around 20 blocks west on Southeast Belmont. Our friends introduced us to the place. Emily had just moved to Portland herself, joining her fiancÃ© Dan, a Portland native. They knew I liked beer, but probably had no idea what they were starting.
To me at that time, “liking beer” meant drinking Guinness from the can, or picking up a six-pack of Killian’s Red from the fancy section of the beer aisle on payday. Newcastle on tap was a rare event* back in Des Moines, Iowa, where I’d emigrated from. When I first opened the menu at the Horse Brass that night, my eyes rolled back in my head. I commented that it would be nearly impossible to drink every one of the beers on that list, but I vowed on that day that I’d do my best to tick them all off.
Week after week, my wife and I would join Dan and Emily at the Brass, and I’d continue my journey down the list while the others would each order a Fred.
I don’t remember when I learned about the rotating taps, but it was a discovery that both excited and frustrated me. Eventually, I came to accept that – no – I wouldn’t ever be able to “finish” the Horse Brass’ beer menu. And that was more than okay with me.
It was several years before I figured out who the grizzled guy on the “cigar” side of the bar was (before the smoking ban, several people tended to smoke cigars on the west side of the bar, near the double dart boards). If you didn’t know better (and I didn’t), you’d probably think he was homeless. Always clad in t-shirt and jeans, with long, white hair and an unkempt beard. Smoking cigarette after cigarette after cigarette. Really the only clue to his identity was the fact that he never had an empty glass, and he was always chatting with the other regulars.
And then I found the life-size portrait on the wall, and something clicked. This was the man I’d heard so much about. The one Bridgeport’s Karl Ockert** called “the godfather of Oregon’s craft beer movement.” You see, Oregon’s craft brewers wouldn’t have lasted very long unless someone would actually buy the beer they were making. Don Younger, the Horse Brass’ owner, was one of the first to take the risk on serving the flavorful beer that common sense – and every market indicator – said that no one wanted. No one else was selling it. But Don did. And he kept it up for 30 years (and counting).
It’s hard for me to say where I’d be today without the beer education I received courtesy of Younger’s Horse Brass. This 33 Beers book wouldn’t exist, I’m sure of that. I’m sure I’d still be friends with Dan and Emily (and I know I would be married to my wife). I doubt I’d be drinking out of this Portland Area Darts League Champion’s Mug (My team, sponsored by the Horse Brass, won B-League in Fall 2006). But I’ve had some amazing times within the sometimes-smoky, always inviting confines of the Brass, which remains my favorite Portland pub.
So here’s to you, Don. I wish you a speedy recovery, and if not, a well-stocked smoking room behind those pearly gates.
Beer Name: Imperial Younger’s Special Bitter (Horse Brass 25th Anniversary)
Price: $9.99 (in 2006)
Sampled: January 30, 2011
Notes: The man rates a 5/5, but the beer hasn’t held up as well. Hops are almost gone, but a biscuity sweet malt remains. Some oxidation, but mostly biscuits.
IBU: 52 ibu
Serving Type: Bottle.
* Thankfully, not anymore. Several great beer places now exist in Iowa’s capital, including El Bait Shop, The Royal Mile, The Red Monk, and the fantastic beer store, Beer Crazy in Urbandale.
** Name-checked twice in a week!