Monday, June 23, 2008

Happy 25th, Barley Mill

Every year the Barley Mill celebrates its birthday right around the summer solstice. This year Carla and I finally stumbled the six blocks from our house, figuring the 25th anniversary was special enough to show up for. As befits the Barley Mill, it was a pretty low-key event, at least when we were there around 2 PM, but we did get some birthday cake and pints of this year's version of the wacky Anniversary Ale as we withstood our dose of live Grateful Dead recordings.

McMenamins' pubs operate on a kind of buddy system, each pub with a brewery supplying beer to a single non-brewing pub in the chain. My understanding is that it's done that way to most profitably comply with the helpful regulations the state of Oregon has set up to protect its citizens from drowning in locally-made beer. Although the Barley Mill was the first pub in the ever-expanding McM empire, it opened before on-premises brewing became legal, and it was never a brewery. Instead, it is supplied by the chain's first brewpub, the Hillsdale Pub.

Right on the company website, it says "the pub's the thing". There are excellent brewers working for McMenamins', but the beer itself takes a back seat to real estate and atmosphere in the country of McMen-istan. Thus, the Barley Mill isn't where you go to revel in Oregon beer quality; rather, it's where you can take your kids and their grandparents for lunch and keep everyone happy without breaking the bank. Personal anecdote: my daughter chose to have her sixth birthday party at the Barley Mill. It was our first year in Portland, and as someone who grew up in the Bible Belt it felt a little strange to me that we were inviting a handful of kindergarten girls to have dinner at a bar. But why not? It's non-smoking, serves tater tots, and it's dripping with colorful artwork and crazy things for kids to look at.

The past year has brought a few changes to the Barley Mill. The dartboard is gone! It was in pretty bad shape and poorly lit, way back in a corner, but it occasionally came in handy and I hate to see the demise of any steel-tip dartboard. Also, for some reason they have draped a huge Grateful Dead flag over the excellent back-wall mural of old-fashioned Germans drinking Miller Beer under the protective gaze of a reclining nude woman. Everyone should hate to see the demise of any mural with a nude woman. And the menu seems a little different, though the only change I can put my finger on is that the Triple Play -- soup, salad, and garlic bread -- is gone.

Because the focus isn't really on the beer, the McMenamins' standards aren't of great interest to beer snobs -- though the CAMRA guide to the West Coast puzzlingly singles out Terminator as the best example of a West Coast stout. But it's not all bad. Corey Blodgett has a loyal following out at the Cornelius Pass Roadhouse for his imaginative beers. I was also impressed the other day at Ringler's by the Belgian Trippel and the Decent IPA (which supposedly got its name after one of the weekly papers complained that McMenamins' didn't brew a decent IPA). And for the last couple weeks the Barley Mill was serving an interesting little number called "Hemmerhoeff'd": the Hammerhead recipe brewed with a Belgian yeast.

That brings us to the Starvation Army Pale Ale, the pleasantly fruity pale brewed up for the anniversary. John Foyston has an entertaining article [Confidential to John: who does your spell checking?] about the ritual gathering where each participant adds something -- beer, wine, spirits, herbs, pieces of paper -- into the mash. And you know, it turned out pretty tasty.

The state of Oregon would be a far different place if there were no McMenamins'. That's especially true outside of Portland, where they serve as lifesaving oases for caravaning urbanites. Even here in town, the landscape would be far different with no Kennedy School, no Bagdad, no Crystal Ballroom. And it all began right here in Southeast. Happy Birthday, Barley Mill!


  1. The Barley Mill has served as both living room and kitchen during the lengthy remodel of our that we're done, we still use it as a fallback position when none of the other food options nearby sound good.

    Bill, dude, I could totally read that confidential note to John. You need to beer up your security.

  2. Nobody does John's spellchecking! I chortle when I see what happens when the MSM have to fly without copy editors.

  3. Hmmm... my Confidential would have been funnier if it was a piece of advice, like, "it's called a 'spell checker'".

    Oh well. Dave will probably tell me I need to beer up my sense of humor.