An Interview With Don Younger

January 31st, 2011 · 3 Comments · Oregon Breweries

As many of you have likely heard by now, Don Younger, owner of Portland’s Horse Brass Pub and one of the strongest supporters of the “good beer” movement over the years, passed away last night.

Following is a great interview, conducted by Alan Moen for American Brewer in 2001, that includes interesting history and gives you an idea of who the man was, if you did not know him personally. The interview may be ten years old, but it is a great read. This quote stands out from the rest: “…the public won’t be fooled. This is a bar stool revolution, and it’s driven from the bottom. It’s not what I like, it’s what they like. I respond to my customers.”

An Interview with Don Younger

By Alan Moen ©2001

Don Younger is the consummate Portland publican. A tavern and pub owner for over 35 years, he helped bring about the craft beer revolution in the Northwest. Don’s flagship Horse Brass Pub and adjoining Belmont Station retail shop are a Mecca for beer lovers from across the country as well as internationally (Don’s “sister” pub in the UK is the Princess of Wales). Younger now owns the Rose & Raindrop and The New Old Lompoc in Portland, as well as Lovejoy’s on the Oregon Coast. I sat down at “the Brass” with Don in February, 2001 to ask him about the beer business.

AM: Don, tell me how you got into this business.

DY: By accident, just like everybody else. In 1967, my brother came back from Vietnam, and out of the clear blue, with no warning whatsoever, he said, “I want to get a tavern.” And we did.

AM: What were you doing at the time?

DY: I was regional office manager for Lever Brothers—Lifebouy, Pepsodent, Mrs. Butterworth’s — right here in Portland. I kept my day job, though. And then little by little, the day job lost out to the night job. I’ve been doing it ever since.

AM: So your brother was involved for a while then?

DY: Yeah, and then he got bored with it, and I got interested in it.

AM: We’ve talked before about all the crazy laws about running a pub back then. Can you elaborate on that?

DY:  Well, there were things like — we couldn’t have windows. They had to be blacked out, so people passing by couldn’t look in and see all the evil that was going on. We weren’t allowed to have dancing. We weren’t allowed to have singing. We actually had to stop people from singing Happy Birthday. or if someone was dancing around the jukebox a little too much, we had to stop them. We didn’t have wine. Food was non-existent — a crockpot full of beer and sausages. We changed the beer once a week whether it needed it or not. And the way the laws were structured, that’s all we could do. That was back in the one o’clock closing days. The taverns closed at one and the bars closed at 2:30, which never made any sense. The taverns would empty out, and you’d head for the nearest bar and see how much whiskey you could drink in an hour or so.

It was pretty bleak. It was all blue collar, there wasn’t much hard liquor. There wasn’t much going on. It was just all taverns and pretty wide open. Drinking and driving was not a concern. Drunkenness was not a concern. That was the function of taverns.

AM: When did that start to change?

DY: In the early 70’s. They let us have windows — that was probably the single most important thing. The next thing was wine. With windows and wine came women. That calms things down. And then they started letting us have what they called a cabaret license where on occasion we could have music. The singing thing just sort of went away. Then they gave us a 2:30 closing so that we were on a par with the bars.

AM: Did you help make any of that happen?

DY: Not particularly, no. But what it did do was that now that the windows were here the middle class started looking in. And one by one, they started to come. And when they came in, they brought money, which was something new. We started upgrading little by little. It all happened so subtly. We started with a few sandwiches.

Things just kept building on each other. And then of course in the mid 70’s, when our good friend and hero Mike McMenamin opened Produce Row, which is in essence where the revolution in Portland started. That was 1974.

AM: Tell me about that.

DY: I didn’t meet Mike until 1976. There was nothing going on before that in terms of craft beer. Then the Horse Brass started. I think we had four taps, which was unheard of. I didn’t think it was possible to manage four taps. I had no intention of staying with that.

AM: Was the Horse Brass your first operation?

DY: No, I had several places before that. They were all the standard corner taverns, with the standard beers. A lot of people don’t remember that in 1970, there was no Budweiser, no Miller then. The few bottles that did show up were called Eastern beers. People think Bud’s always been a national product, and that’s just not true. We were in the midst of the Coors phenomenon at that point.

AM: Which got its reputation from its limited availability, I suppose?

DY: That was it, because it certainly had nothing to offer. But we didn’t know that. And then there was that one night when I had my first Bass, and that was it. It was all over. And about that time I met Mike. I think he was just 22 or 23. He came in here and told me about the Row, which I’d never heard of. I’m well past 30, and he’s this kid hardly of age, and he’s telling me what the future is. Since I liked Bass, I thought, what the hell? Well, it turned out he was right.

The rest, then, has been a slow uphill battle. The first microbrew I can remember would have probably been 1977 with the New Albion products, of which I still have an unopened six pack. Also in those days, River City Brewing from Sacramento came up here.

Sierra showed up here in ’82 or ’83. We knew we wanted our own microbrewery.

At that point, about 1980, word was that Portland was the hottest import market in the country, or good beer — I try to always use the term “good beer” rather than “micros” or “imports”, because they’re synonymous with each other. So we’re hoping and praying, and here came Charles Curry, and he was our hope. He opened up the Cartwright Brewery. Well, he brewed one batch, and that batch was bad. It was bottle only. A bunch of us were down at the brewery, waiting for that first beer, and we went racing back here with it. People gathered around, and we popped that first one, and almost unanimously we went, “Oh, man…” He had to sell it or die, and he did.

We had to wait until “the bottle opening heard ’round the world”. In this very unlikely scenario, a beer tasting at Portland’s first fern bar, called Hall Street Bar & Grill. Anyhow I got an invitation from them—they were doing a beer tasting featuring Michael Jackson. I had met him once before. When we got there, it was like a magical moment. People who I know for sure that were there were Paul Shipman (Redhook), Chuck his original brewer, Bert Grant was there, Charlie Finkel was there, Fred (Eckhardt) was there, the Widmers were there, Ponzi was there, Portland Distributing was there — the first distributors to pay attention to good beers.

Halfway through the program I remember this beat-up old white van pulled up by the door and two guys came in with a keg of beer. It was Paul and Ken from Sierra Nevada. In this one room was really the future of microbrewing. At that point we knew something was going to happen. Because the Portland market was so strong, these out-of-state beers were zeroing in on it. In the business it’s called the pipeline. Then BridgePort and Widmer opened about the same time, and the passion started. Once we had beers to call our own, it spread like wildfire though Portland.

A lot of people that have been forgotten have done their share. One who doesn’t get enough credit is Mike McMenamin — there should be a statue somewhere to Mike— he was the real visionary here. He opened the first distributorship and he went broke. Then he opened the Fat Little Rooster, a place that got shut down or shot up in a rough neighborhood up on Hawthorne Street. And then he opened Hillsdale.

AM: How did you get into the Horse Brass, the English thing?

DY:  I don’t know. It’s kind of a convoluted story. A couple of guys I knew had English wives, and they started it. They went broke within six months. I was down here one night and got drunk. I woke up the next morning and found I’d bought the place.

AM: Was it called the Horse Brass then?

DY: It was, and I had no idea what that stupid name meant. And the funny thing is, it’s not stupid anymore, everyone just says it. Back then, nobody knew what it meant. Now it’s taken on a life of its own. Nobody questions it. But The Rose and Raindrop, I came up with that one.

AM: Did you try to carry British beers after you bought the place?

DY: Well, I thought I’d try this for a little while. I didn’t have any idea what a banger was. I didn’t have any clue. People said, you must be English. Hell, no. I didn’t even know what a pub was. I just drank Blitz — gallons. I didn’t know any better.

AM: So you started carrying the local micros?

DY:  No, it was imports. And then we got up to eight taps, which just revolutionary. Then it was ten, twelve. We all knew it was going to work. But we never — even the most optimistic of us — we never saw where it was really going. Now good beer owns this Portland market. And the person who receives no credit at all is Bill McCormick of McCormick & Schmick’s. Because they went multi-taps almost as fast as the rest of us. But what Jake’s, and his places did, is give us credibility. It wasn’t just some obscure bar out in Belmont or someplace down in the produce section — all his places have an excellent selection of beer. Nobody ever mentions his name, so consider it mentioned.

AM: How did you get into real ale?

DY: Once the hook was in, I scraped together a few bucks and went over to England in ’77, and had my first cask beer. I fell in love with it. Didn’t know what it was. I joined CAMRA in 1978. I’m a compulsive book collector. So I think it would have been about 1983, a fellow conspirator from a small brewery in Northeast Washington named Mike Hale — he had just been picked up by Columbia Distributing — anyway,  Mike and I got to talking about cask beer. I did my best to explain it to him. Then I remember I had a book from CAMRA called Cellarmanship which I showed him, and he says, “I think I can make cask beer.” And he says, “what about the hand pump?” Well, I’m also a compulsive collector and I just happened to have an old hand pump in my basement that I found. And I only lived a block away, so we over to the house. And he says, “do you mind if I borrow it and try to get it going?” And I said, sure. A few weeks later, he came through the door with a cask and the hand pump working. We drilled some holes in the wall and put a fan on it with a rheostat to keep it cool.

AM: Was that the first cask beer in Portland?

DY: I’m not sure, but I think it was the first cask-conditioned beer anywhere in the country. On premise. There might have been a brewery that had it, but we were probably the first retailer.

AM: So how did people respond to it?

DY: Oh, they really responded to it. We now have five handles. The funny thing about it is, over the years I refurbished a few, and got new ones, but the first one is still working right over there, just chugging right along.

AM: Now that imports have gained a lot of steam in the past few years, how has that affected you?

DY:  It goes back to what I said earlier. It’s the good beer movement.

It’s pretty easily explainable, the resurgence of the imports, when we have the second generation of good beer drinkers now. It may seem weird to say this, but microbrews are “dad’s beer.” The kids do rebel. You’ve actually have two things going on here with the real young ones, the 21 to 26’ers. You’ve got the “traddies” and the “retros”, my terms for them. The traddies are into good beer, but they’ve gone to the imports. The retros, they’re diving into PBR and Hamm’s. There’s been a renaissance of the 60’s style taverns.

AM:  That’s sort of a step backwards, isn’t it?

DY: Well, not really. In their own way, they’re as passionate about PBR — they’re eschewing the mainstream.

AM: What about the growth of interest in Belgian beers?

DY:  It’s an evolution. It’s another style of beer that with one or two exceptions, we’ve not been able to replicate. There’s still that desire for the next beer.

AM; How has that affected your business here?

DY: We’ve never gone away from being an import house. People think of the Horse Brass as a microbrew place, but I think I’ve got 14 import handles, and it’s never slowed down for me. The micros weren’t “instead of”, they were “plus.” I don’t know that we would have been successful without each other.

AM : And what about the so-called “shakeout” of the craft beer industry today?

DY:  Having traveled a bit, I don’t see it. I think the people that are opening and closing don’t understand what it’s about. They’re trying to catch a wave. They’re not beer people. They places I’ve visited — plastic pubs with plastic beer — yeah, they’re brewing on premise, but there’s no heart and soul in the beer, there’s simply a consortium of investors, and the public won’t be fooled. This is a bar stool revolution, and it’s driven from the bottom. It’s not what I like, it’s what they like. I respond to my customers. 

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