A Petri Dish — Bar Culture Part I

 

(Welcome back to Thebeerchaser.  Since this is a long post, if you are seeing it through an e-mail, please visit the blog by clicking on the title above to see all of the photos and the narrative is not clipped or shortened.)

Books, articles and watering hole patrons often talk about “Bar Culture.”  But how does one define this abstract concept and how does one find it?  Recently, Bridgelinera Portland, Oregon online newsletter edited by Cassie Ruud (I’m proud to say – an Oregon State University grad) featured two interviews with yours truly – The Beerchaser.  

The link below will take you to the first interview – how the Beerchaser started and how it has changed during the pandemic.   https://bridgeliner.com/%f0%9f%8d%bb-portlander-don-williams-takes-us-beer-chasing/

And the following narrative is an expanded version of the second article entitled “The Foamy Culture.” The narrative below is my response to the first question Cassie asked with a lot of photos added from bars I’ve been to over the last ten years to illustrate the elements of bar culture.   

Most are from Portland watering holes and It saddens me to add that a number of bars are from some of my favorites which are no longer open. Future posts will address the other four questions on bar culture because it is a complex topic and needs a lot of photos to convey.

I’m saddened that the photos below are from a number including Club 21, Zarz, Crackerjacks, Mad Son’s, The Tanker all permanently closed – a loss to not only their patrons but Portland’s bar culture. And those are just ones represented in some of the photos in this blog post.  There are many more on the list.

Regardless of where you live, when it is again safe, get back out and support these small business people whose livelihoods have been decimated in the last eighteen months.  Try Kelly’s Olympian or……….

What are some key elements of pub and tavern culture (particularly in Portland) you’ve observed in your years of beerchasing?

That begs the question, “What is culture?” Let’s assume it’s a set of intangible aspects of social life – in this case in an individual bar or tavern – as contrasted to a brewpub or taproom – because there are some real differences.  One way I describe this is a watering hole’s “character.”  It’s really no different in Portland than elsewhere.

It can include more global items such as its location and the exterior, the regulars, the personality of the bartender and staff such as Phoebe, the charismatic bartender at the Brooklyn Park Pub – the first bar I hit in 2011.

Consider the style of the furniture (tables and/or booths) and how they’re set up. Take, for example, the unique Captains’ chairs at Claudia’s Sports Pub.

But it’s also a conglomeration of more mundane factors ranging from the lighting, the art (often nicotine-stained murals) or knickknacks such as old beer cans, bottles of MD 20-20, hats and mugs, and  team pictures and trophies from bar-sponsored teams,. 

Don’t forget the signs/posters with trite sayings such as “The consumption of alcohol may actually cause pregnancy. ”

The music (jukebox or live-streamed or live music) is also a factor and the number and types of beer on tap and the prices.  

The atmosphere is influenced by whether there are games such as pool and shuffleboard or pinball and Skee-ball   Don’t forget a favorite – Big Buck Hunter.  Are there TV’s and if so, how many and how big?  Is video poker pervasive?  Is there a smoking patio? 

Do they have weekly events or gatherings and are these karaoke or Naughty Bingo Nights?

Are there animals present.  Not just service animals that are required under Oregon law, but are pets (and kids) welcome in the bar and on the patio.

Are the critters alive or dead?! Consider the skilled work of taxidermists with their product hung on the walls with glassy stares?  And are these mounted trophies, deer and elk or more exotic critters such as the albino goat at the New Atlas Bar in Columbus, Montana or the ferocious stuffed alligator hanging over the bar at the Blue Moon Saloon near Kalispell.

It’s important not to overlook the bathrooms or heads.  Are they unisex and are there locks on the door (or doors at all)? Do the sanitary conditions (for example vomit-stained toilet seats) motivate you to drink your beer slowly so you can wait until you get home?

And where but in Whitefish, Montana, can you see a life-size image of former NBA star Kevin McHale say farewell as you exit the men’s head at the Bull Dog Saloon?

Is there food and what type (usually plentiful) and whether it’s cooked on site or prepackaged?    Some of the cooks at dives and neighborhood bars are really quite accomplished at their profession. 

I guess, however, it does not take a trained chef to prepare the fried ravioli – available for $5 at The Standard or the Chicken Gizards (only $2.75 when they are the special-of-the-day) at the Yukon Tavern.  And oh the Burgers!!!

Are the trappings dive bar vinyl booths and card tables or more refined dark wood with fire places (often in dive bars too)  with volumes of books (real not decorative).

Two more factors that are important are the bar counter and back bar.  Is your beer served on a Formica stand or a dark, classy wood counter with an attractive backbar filled with a multitude of attractive liquor bottles or knickknacks which evoke stories? 

The Gold Pan Saloon , an historic dive bar we visited on a road trip to Colorado that dates back to 1879, had an impressive long, rich mahogany bar in Breckenridge.

In talking to the bartender, she told us that the bar and the beautiful backbar were shipped around Cape Horn to its’ destination in Colorado during gold mining days. I couldn’t verify the story, but it would not surprise me.

You throw all these elements – abstract, tangible and then add the people and the staff together and the result is a “Community” – and each bar or tavern is its own unique community or cultural institution.

Stay tuned to Thebeerchaser.com for future posts with the remaining four questions in the Bridgeliner interview about Bar culture.

Cheers

4 thoughts on “A Petri Dish — Bar Culture Part I

  1. Great! Love all the photos and am concerned about forwarding to partner Michael as he may want us to head out for a road trip to them all! Truth be told though he is a dedicated Modelo negra guy and it’s part of our story…

    Enjoyed a piece of cold Woodstocks pizza for breakfast while reading… Cheers, Molly

    Like

    • They were. This was in Montana and the spittoons that were under the bar stools are now essentially historic decorations. That said, I’m sure a number of the regulars still chew. Thanks for the comment.

      Like

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