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Des de Moor
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"A necessity if you're a beer geek travelling to London town" - Beer Advocate
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Des de Moor

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Beer sellers: The Beermongers, Portland (Oregon)

Shopfront at the , Portland, Oregon, USA

Portland, Oregon, is a beautiful, prosperous, civilised inland port city straddling the Willamette river. Looking west from the riverside, across a fine strip of parks and beyond the traffic calmed city centre with its free public transport, elegant squares and compact walkable blocks, thickly wooded slopes climb steeply, forming one of the USA’s largest and lushest urban forest parks. Besides fine views and many miles of surprisingly rugged trails, it boasts a zoo and a world famous rose garden, and you can reach it on a modern light rail system, only a few stops from the urban centre of Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Just to the north the Willamette drains into the Columbia river which divides the state of Oregon from neighbouring Washington. Tumbling from the Cascade mountains on its way to to the Pacific, the Columbia has carved a spectacular gorge 130km long and up to 1,200m deep, now protected as a National Scenic Area.

Sean Campbell pours a beer at the Beermongers, Portland, Oregon.

So though it’s some way down the list of famous US cities, Portland has much to reward the discerning visitor – and even more so if one of your interests is beer. Oregon is one of the cradles of US craft brewing, home to some major names with their roots in the early growth of the movement in the 1980s, like Deschutes, Full Sail, Rogue and Widmer Brothers, this last in Portland itself.

The state is now the second largest craft beer producer and the third largest craft beer market in the country. And as its biggest city, Portland is a major focus of the industry, hosting Oregon Craft Beer Month in July and boasting 43 breweries, more than any other city in the world.

Readers who know their hops will pick up a clue to one of the reasons for such beery excellence from some of the geographical names mentioned above. Both the Willamette and the Cascade range lend their names to hop varieties, reflecting the state’s longstanding importance as a hop growing region, now the second biggest hop producing state in the US.

Full Sail Session Lager at the Beermongers

Decent beer here has become a commonplace – even tiny local delis offer a selection of craft brewed bottles and cans. Amid such abundance, it’s more of a challenge than usual for specialist outlets to stand out, but one place that really makes an impression is the BeerMongers, one of the city’s most youthful beer venues.

The format combines a shop and a bar – a setup that’s becoming more widespread on the US scene and is also employed by another excellent Portland venue, the older-established Belmont Station, not far away. But whereas Belmont splits the space between the two functions, at the BeerMongers they coexist in a single space.

It’s in southeast Portland, some way from the city centre – I took a long walk there on a warm early autumn day, across the river and southeast following the railroad tracks, but it’s also by a bus stop with a frequent and reliable service. It’s set back from the road in a row of industrial units clustered around a little car park.

Rare and empty bottles at the Beermongers

The interior of this rather smallish and rather anonymous concrete space has been turned into something that’s homely and amicably cluttered, with a mix of art, sporting ephemera and breweriana on display. An assemblage of beer bottles and cans, both vintage and contemporary, has been donated by local collectors, including a 1979 sample of the first commercial bottling of Anchor Old Foghorn, courtesy of veteran Anchor brewer Ron Wolf, who now works for local brewpub chain McMenamins and occasionally serves behind the bar at Beermongers events.

The McMenamins connection extends to cheerful and enthusiastic chief beermonger Sean Campbell, who has worked for the bigger company for 15 years and continues to do so, splitting his time with his own business. He and his business partner wanted their own beer-related project and first thought of a brewery, but decided there was too much competition already. Speciality beer stores, however, were relatively rare. “Where I live, there are three wine shops I can walk to but nobody does a good range of beer, even though everyone drinks it,” says Sean.

Well-stocked fridges at the Beermongers.

Besides the large fridges containing around 525 bottled beers that line two walls, there are also eight draught taps – a relatively small number by US craft beer bar standards but vital nonetheless and well tended by Sean and bar manager Josh. “We always intended to have in-store consumption when we opened in 2008,” Sean explains. “The law in Oregon allows it so long as we don’t allow minors or serve hard alcohol.”

Originally the stock was just bottles, sold at the same keen prices both for drinking in and out, a policy which happily endures. “But as the first year went on,” Sean continues, “we got this really great group of customers that wanted to spend more time here, so we got the bar built and added more seating, and people have taken to it as a place they like to hang out. And that’s great – I’ve always liked working behind bars and chatting to people. I used to live in England and worked in there. Not having too many taps means we focus on specials and seasonals, often from small local brewers, and we can give each beer the attention it deserves.”

Sean’s professional background explains a slight British touch to the decor – there are some second hand English church pews his parents found for him, and most of the woodwork was created by a British expat carpenter. Displays that honour the popular local proper football – as in soccer – team, the Portland Timbers, add to the effect.

Glasses and real footie at the Beermongers

The beers are arranged not, as is usual, by country and region but by style, irrespective of origin, creating some interesting juxtapositions that invite comparison and contrast. So Belgian classics like Saison Dupont line up beside American interpretations from small Oregon brewers like Ambacht, Beetje, Logsdon, Upright and the puzzlingly named Captured by Porches, while fellow Oregonians Southern Oregon and Fort George challenge Bitburger and Budvar in the pils section.

Belgian-style and genuine Belgian beers are well-represented beyond saison, with lambics from 3 Fonteinen, Boon and Hannsens and big ales and sour browns from Anker, Rochefort, St Bernardus, St Feuillien, Verhaege and lesser known names such as Gaverhopke and Schelde. These are ranged alongside American tributes and variations from the likes of Deschutes, Pelican (both from Oregon), Avery, Anchorage, Boulevard, Green Flash, Nebraska and the always appreciated but hard to find Russian River.

Still, US beers dominate, and as you’d expect, pale ales and IPAs are particularly well represented. Other small Portland brewers on the shelves include Alameda, Hopworks and Lompoc while 10 Barrel, Beer Valley, Caldera, Flat Tail, Hop Valley, Klamath Basin, Ninkasi, Oakshire, Pelican, Seven Brides and Silver Moon come from elsewhere in the state. Other West Coast brews – Diamond Knot, Fish Tail and Pike from Washington, Bison, Green Flash and Uncommon from California – line up beside admired craft brewers from across the nation. The cultish Pabst Blue Ribbon is a sole ironic nod to the mainstream, a survivor from the early days when they also offered a range of national brands but found most of them ended up in the bargain bin.

Imported offerings besides those already mentioned include Scandinavian eccentricities from Beer Here, Evil Twin, Midtfyns, Mikkeler and Xbeeriment; some British classics from Fuller’s, JW Lees and Traquair; and the odd bottle or two from Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and Japan. A small range of craft ciders is set to expand as local interest in this sector grows.

The range includes some beers the management admits are relatively slow sellers “Drinkers have gotten more experimental with sour beers, geuzes and other funky beers that they wouldn’t have recognised three or four years ago,” says Sean. “As soon as I start thinking, ‘why are we carrying that?’, someone will come in and say it’s their favourite. And our approach is good for brewers too – if they come up with something new they will often put it out to us because we’ll at least try it.”

Sean Campbell of the Beermongers

It’s a densely populated part of town but the shop gets visits both from across Portland and far beyond, with customers from across the US and Canada, including numerous younger craft beer fans. Sean has learned not to stereotype. “Young folks who look like they just got off their skateboard might go straight for Rodenbach,” he says. Other customers are members of the city’s sizeable home brewing community, looking to try examples of styles they intend to make.

Events include regular Meet the Brewer evenings, themed days when countries, styles or regions take over all the taps, an annual Orval event and beer festivals where they expand into a marquee in the car park. Expansions are planned, such as adding aged beers (including Orval), or even opening a second branch. Good advice is on hand when you need it.  “People are here for fun and the shopping experience,” Sean confirms, “so there’s a delicate balance between education and hovering.”

Online and social marketing have proved a key to success in an increasingly web-based beer scene. “We had facebook and twitter accounts right from the beginning,” Sean recalls. “It takes your time, but it doesn’t take anything out of your pocket and I don’t think we would be nearly as successful without that stuff. I’m 40 and a bit of a dinosaur as I still read the newspapers, but lots of people younger than me get all their stuff online, including from trusted beer blogs.”

Sign at the Beermongers. I spotted exceptions.

Great little places like the Beermongers are currently riding the crest of a wave of excitement in fine beer, not only in places like Portland but elsewhere. Even in the midst of recession, craft beer is flourishing as an affordable luxury that people like Sean are keen to share. “It’s great to be able to tell people they can enjoy the greatest sour beer in the world for less than $20,” he concludes. I’ll raise a glass to that.

Researched September 2011

Fact file

Address: 1125 South East Division Street, Portland OR 97202 (corner of SE 12th and Division)
Phone: +1 503 234 6012
Web: http://thebeermongers.com
Hours: 1100-2300 (Fri-Sat 2400)
Drink in? Yes
Mail order: No

Manager’s favourites: Orval, Oud Beersel Oude Geuze, Heller-Trum Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, Upright Belgian-style beers

Beer picks

All from Oregon

1 comment to Beer sellers: The Beermongers, Portland (Oregon)

  • Mark

    Nice post. It looks like you really enjoyed this place. Now I’m kicking myself for being lured by the myriad taps at APEX, diagonally opposite. I’ll definitely need to make a return trip to Portland. Cheers!

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