Friday, March 14, 2008

Beer Brings People Together

While drinking beer to excess certainly brings people together in, um, unsavory ways, the type of drinking I'm talking about is purely the social kind. Based on Jon’s previous post about our weekend in Portland, one might surmise that we drank copious amounts of beer. However, to be more accurate, we drank copious types of beer, each sample being no larger than a small juice glass (like the Strawberry Shortcake ones we used to drink Tang out of at Grandma’s). Other than being incredibly tired at the conclusion of every day—just as likely the result of running after various forms of transportation—we didn’t suffer the effects of inebriation.

On the contrary. We were fortunate enough to encounter some very interesting personalities as we sampled Oregon’s selection of brews. Jon mentioned our serendipitious discovery of a beerfest, but he didn’t discuss the people we saw and spoke to there. When we arrived and saw people tailgaiting, we knew we were in the right place. There were definitely trays of beer samples stacked in the backs of several Subarus. As we tasted, I began to pick up snippets of conversation from the group at the table next to us; I could tell they were serious as they discussed the merits of each variety. (As for ourselves, we were keeping notes, using such terms as “smooth and balanced” and “dangerously good.”)

Since they had started before us, this group of two men and a woman finished first. When they walked by, they congenially asked which variety we were voting for, as it was a contest. Approximately 3.7 seconds went by before Jon mentioned that he had lived in Germany for 3 ½ years (who wouldn’t?), thereby automatically qualifying him as a beer conniseur. It turned out that one of the guys had also lived there, sparking a conversation about the autobahn, volksmarches, and of course, bier. To make things even more interesting, the other guy had spent some time living in Syria…with his girlfriend who is Syrian and also Libyan and some other things as well. Seriously? How often do you meet someone who’s lived in Syria? (Side note: He recommended chicken schwarma as a doner kebab-type food—anyone tried it?)

Finally it came time for us to depart ourselves. We had cast our ballots and our hands were effectively cold from the chill in the air. We were hanging out at the bus stop when another beerfest patron strolled up and casually asked, “So which one did you vote for?” Through the course of our conversation, we learned that this gentlemen, sporting one of those knit stocking caps with the ear flaps, traveled all over the state for various beer events. He pulled out his calendar to check for upcoming events when my curious eyes noticed the words “Roller Derby” scrawled on one of the Saturdays. Being a big fan of re-showings of ‘70s roller derby bouts on the Classic Sports channel, I just had to ask. It turns out that our new beer-drinking-stocking-cap-wearing-bus-riding acquaintance was also a volunteer security guard for the Rose City Rollers, Portland’s incredibly popular roller derby team. He was kind enough to share some information about the squad, including the team’s website. There are a couple of bouts this spring—anyone care to go with me? We’ll have to act fast, though, because the matches all sell out.

And all of this because of beer. I don’t think the weekend in Portland was just a freak coincidence, either. Jon and I actually met in brewery…although truth be told, I was really there for the schnitzel. But I digress. Anyway, maybe all this friendliness is because a little beer relaxes people enough so that they’re more open to meeting new people. At the very least, it gives them a common interest.

I need to keep this lesson in mind, and not just when I’m having a beer. Too often, when I’m in a slightly uncomfortable situation or if I’m alone, I’ll hide behind a book. Yes, I do like to read, but it’s also a security blanket, if you will. I’m pretty good at observing my surroundings and people-watching—must be the writer in me—but I need to be better at putting myself out there, especially since I’m in a new place with few familiar faces. That's a challenge I will raise my glass to.

Bridges, trains, books and beer: We must be in Portland!

How best to prepare for a two-week trip to Europe? How about a trip to Portland, Oregon!

We have wanted to go to Portland for several months. Kristin has never been and I haven’t been there in 15 years. We figured this would be a good shakedown for our travels in Europe. We have also wanted to go to Hood River to have the Brewer’s Dinner at Full Sail Brewery. And we needed to do our taxes before going to Europe. Somehow, we figured out a way to do all of these by taking the train.

We first took the Cascade train to Portland, then the Empire Builder east to Bingen, Wash. From there, it was a short taxi ride to Hood River. The dinner was incredible! We had four courses of delicious food, each paired with a different beer. And Kristin actually ate fish. The meal concluded with a scoop of Tillamook ice cream and some deep-fried raspberry pie. Yum! We finished the night with some live folk music at the Double Mountain Brewery before returning to the Hood River Hotel.

We got up early on Friday morning to catch the 8 a.m. Empire Builder back to Portland. It finally showed up at 11:40. When you have a 2,000-mile route, there is plenty of opportunity for delay. When we finally did arrive, we checked into our overpriced Portland hotel then went to look for beer. We took the streetcar north to NW Portland. Lucky Labrador Beer Hall was our first stop. We had dinner at Laurelwood’s NW Public House. The Spanish paella and vegetable sandwich (great for Fridays in Lent) were both great! We love the atmosphere of this cozy house near Nob Hill.

Our next stop was Bridgeport Brewing Company. Their flagship brewpub was far trendier than we had anticipated, but the beer was still great. We made a quick stop at Tugboat Brewery (actual motto: “Small. Hardworking. Powerful.”) Expecting a Ballard-esque working-class brewery, we were surprised to find a younger, rather hip crowd. Oh well. We decided to call it a night. We walked back to the hotel, right past (drumroll) … a brewery! The Rock Bottom Brewery was an unexpected find. The dark wheat beer was especially good, but the lager was more than disappointing (though not terrible).

The next morning, we hopped a bus to have breakfast at Jáce Gáce. Jáce Gáce is part café, part bar, part waffle house. I had huevos rancheros on a cornbread waffle, and Kristin had a waffle with fruits and nuts. Both were delicious! One thing we noticed about this café, and most of Portland for that matter, is the large number of kids. It is good to see young families moving back into the city.

Next, it was off to Tuck’s brewery in Hillsdale. After some confusion on the bus and a 10 minute walk, we found Tuck’s Chicken. Tuck’s no longer brews beer. We walked back to the bus stop disappointed. We didn’t have to wait long for a bus back downtown. As we were planning our next move, Kristin spotted a beacon of hope: a sign proclaiming “BREWFEST TODAY”! We got off at the next stop and went to check it out. As it turns out, the brewfest was held at the location of the first Oregon brewpub, called the Hillsdale Brewery and Public House. It is part of the McMenamin’s chain. We drank 20 beers from different McMenamin’s locations. My favorite was the Doppelbock, but an IPA took the crown.

What better way to follow up a brewfest that by visiting that largest independent used book store in the entire U.S.: Powell’s Books. Located adjacent to the streetcar line, it is four levels of every kind of book you can think of, and some you can’t. We spent three hours there, and even ran into my old boss from Germany and his family. Later, we took the MAX (light rail) across the river the Widmer Brothers for dinner. Before ordering, the waitress brought us a sample of Widmer’s seasonal beer. She must have known what we came for. I don’t remember specifically what we ate there, only that it was really good!

Our final day started leisurely. We attended an ELCA service at a historic church close to the streetcar line. The name escapes me, but everyone was friendly and we stayed for coffee. Then, we walked along the river for several miles, enjoying the unseasonably warm and sunny weather. Most of Portland had the same idea. Again, it was good to see so many people out enjoying the nice weather. It reminds me of Green Lake in Seattle or some parks in Europe.

After crossing the river, we hopped on the MAX and then a bus out to NE Portland. We were in search of a place called the Mash Tun. We had to look a little harder, as it fronts a side street and not the main street. We were rewarded for our efforts. The beer was great and everyone was friendly. There was not the feel of pushing beer on everyone as can be the custom at brewpubs that are more popular with out-of-town visitors. In fact, The Mash Tun is off the beaten path. I really felt like we, as tourists, had no business being at such a small neighborhood pub. Regardless, the waitress poured us samples of all the beers. Our favorite was the Red. What a great neighborhood hangout!

Next, it was a short walk to another McMenamins location, the Kennedy School. This is a historic elementary school that was saved by the wrecking ball by its conversion into a hotel, restaurant and brewery by the McMenamin brothers. It is a fantastic location. It is not so much that the school fits into the neighborhood, it is that the neighborhood fits around the school. Losing this building would have been a tragedy for the community. We had pizza and hummus. Mmmmm.

Unfortunately, we underestimated just how far away from downtown we were. And being that it was Sunday, the busses don’t run as frequently. Long story short, we got back to the hotel at 6 p.m. and had a 6:15 train to catch…from the station that is 15 minutes away! We ran to the MAX station, then ran about eight blocks, huffing and puffing, to the train station. Running helped make up some lost time and we got to Union Station at 6:13. Out of breath, we presented our tickets and boarded the train. It was a short two hours back to Olympia, where we were surprised by how many people got off the train there. I counted about 25 people. Making the train was a happy ending to a very exciting, yet relaxing and refreshing weekend. While on the train, we decided we were now prepared to take our families to Germany.

Of course there is far more to this story that what I have written. Ask me about it. In the coming weeks, I will try to expand on this. Or write about our wedding extravaganza. Prost!