The Horse Brass Pub – Pinnacle of Perfection

The Horse Brass Pub - One of America's 100 Best Beer Bars

Thebeerchaser at The Horse Brass Pub – One of America’s 100 Best Beer Bars

Although the power and prestige of England have diminished since the days of Admiral Nelson’s exploits for the Royal Navy in the 18th century and Winston Churchill’s fiery oratory during World War II, one is reminded of the superiority of the Brits when it comes to pubs.

It is doubtful that English poet, John Milton, was referencing drinking establishments when he stated in 1643, “Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live”.  The Horse Brass Pub in Portland, however, does a wonderful job emulating the classic English public house and is worth a visit by every Portlander. “Arguably, holding the title of Portland’s best bar since in opened in 1976…It’s a tribute to all thing English.” (Willamette Week’s 2012 “Our 105 Favorite Bars, Pubs and Clubs.”)

Sign at the Entrance to the Horse Brass Pub

Sign at the Entrance to the Horse Brass Pub

Along with five other Portland bars, the Horse Brass Pub (HPB) made the honor roll of the 2012 Draft Magazine’s “One Hundred Best Beer Bars in the USA”:

“….Founder, Don Younger…claimed, ‘If it were any more authentic, you’d need a passport,’ he wasn’t kidding….Bric-a-brac adorns the nicotine-stained walls (from the old smoking days) of this dimly-lit, wood-paneled pub, perfectly recreating the neighborhood haunts of England….

HBP has championed the craft beer movement since 1976, and with its legacy still intact as perhaps the best bar in the nation, it isn’t just a destination in Portland, but a bucket-list item for any beer lover.”

Horsebrass

English Horsebrass Featuring Gloucester Cathedral

My San Francisco friend and consultant, Dave Hicks, and I hit the HBP for dinner and then traveled a short distance to another one of Draft Magazine’s 100 Best – Belmont Station (See Beerchaser Review posted on 4/17/13)

Princeton graduate, accomplished singer and beer drinker, Dave Hicks

Princeton graduate, accomplished singer and beer drinker, Dave Hicks

Hicks has traveled all over the world and commented on the authenticity of the pub except for one missing element — pervasive smoke which permeates the Anglican pub environment — or at least used to before the House of Commons passed a smoking ban in 2007.

Based on the 2009 expansion of the Oregon “Smoke-free Workplace Law bars and taverns could no longer permit smoking on or within ten feet of the premises.  We are confident that the cigarette lobby at the time, taking lessons from the NRA in opposing reasonable legislation, maintained, “Cigarettes don’t kill people.  It’s the tars, and toxins in the smoke.”  

Wikiemedia Commons Adverse_effects_of_tobacco_smoking_svg

Graphic of a typical bar worker’s internal organs prior to the 2009 Oregon Smoking Law

Nevertheless, this law had a dramatic impact on the environment within such establishments as the Horse Brass Pub as can be evidenced by these excerpts from my favorite annual Willamette Week resource on bars:

“Surgeon General’s Warning:  Smoking causes lung cancer, emphysema and shriveled testes.  (The new law) also leads to outdoor drinking, rain or shine, which can lead to frostbit, melanoma and accidental arousal from rubbing against another addict while taking refuge under a tiny awning….”  (“2009 Drink Guide”)                 

     Wikimedia Commons

“There used to be two types of customers here (HBP): smokers and chain smokers.  The 2009 smoking ban devastated regulars. (They all died said a bartender).  (“2011 Drink”)                 

“We worried that (the new law) would spell the end of …(the) venerable Brit Pub…Not because the 33-year old bar…wouldn’t retain its loyal patrons, but because we assumed its billowing, milkshake-thick clouds of cigarette smoke were load bearing structural elements of the building without which the sprawling pub would collapse.”  (“2009 Drink Guide”)

 

Coffin nail or structural element?
Coffin nail or structural element?

“What will become of Don Younger’s sprawling pub in 2009?  After the encyclopedic beer list and heart-stopping English breakfasts, this slice of Britain on Belmont is best known for air so thick with smoke, you could bottle it.”  (“2007 Drinkers’ Bible”)

Another often-cited difference in beer served in the US and the typical English tavern is the temperature of the beer.  For example, Hicks and I had wonderful chilled mugs of Portland Brewing’s Rose Hip Gold and Caldera Brewing’s Dry Hop Orange, which if served 4,928 miles to the east, would not be quite as frosty.  (Although it is a misconception that British beer is served warm, beer in the UK is usually served at cellar temperature – 50 to 57 °F. – Wikipedia).

This is not to suggest that English beer is bad as exemplified by this commentary from Voltaire on both British citizens and their beer:, “They (the British) are like their own beer; froth on top, dregs at bottom, the middle excellent.”

Rose Hip Gold --- Even Better on Tap

Rose Hip Gold — Even Better on Tap

The 50+ different beers on tap at HPB, including 28 rotating or guest taps, create dissonance for an indecisive drinker.  They reflect what was purportedly Don Younger’s motto, “It’s not about the beer.  It’s about the beer.”

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A Comment on the 2013 Willamette Week Bar Guide (Horse Brass review continued below)

A Valuable Resource for Thebeerchaser Tour
A Valuable Resource for Thebeerchaser Tour

As evidenced above, an important resource for this blog is the Annual Willamette Week Drinkers’ Bible or Bar Guide.  Indeed, Thebeerchaser’s printed copies for the last five years of this annual list of favorite Portland bars is a valuable resource.

The enormity of the challenge of a comprehensive tour of Portland bars, pubs and taverns hit home when I read the 2013 publication.  WW listed 121 favorite bars visited in the last year.  This compares with 41 establishments since Thebeerchaser blog commenced in August 2011.

Of WW’s favorites, Thebeerchaser has only frequented nine to this point as shown below:

Brooklyn Park Pub     Coalition Brewery     Beer     Prost     Laurel Thirst     Lutz Tavern

Goose Hollow Inn     Sasquatch Brewery *     Horse Brass Pub

* Visited, but not yet reviewed and posted on Thebeerchaser blog.

To quote Alfred Lord Tennyson, “So much to do, so little done, such things to be.”

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Horse Brass InteriorThe rich history of the Horse Brass Pub, established in 1976, can be found on its outstanding website and gives a more thorough chronology than can Thebeerchaser, but the decades of founder, Don Younger’s impact, are evident throughout.  His dedication to the fledgling craft beer industry in Oregon is his legacy.

Memorabilia enhances the Ambiance

Memorabilia enhances the Ambiance

It would be a stretch to label the food as “outstanding”; however, the menu is extensive and offers numerous English-type options.  My bangers and mash were good and ample and Dave Hicks had a similar reaction to his steak and shepherd’s pie.

And oh yes, before ending the review of the Horse Brass Pub, a recurring theme on this blog bears iteration.  Just as with the Ship Tavern and Jakes, the HBP was purportedly the scene of a simultaneous gathering of approximately twenty Portland police cars one summer night in the ’80’s.

Members of the Portland Rugby Club and the team from New Zealand they had defeated in their match that day, capped off the day with food, drink and “revelry” — Film at 11:00 ….!

The Horse Brass Pub                    4534 S.E. Belmont

Belmont Station – 1,000 Bottles of Beer on the Wall – You Take One Down and Pass it Around…..

Thebeerchaser at the entrance to Belmont Station

Thebeerchaser at the entrance to Belmont Station

Thebeerchaser teetered on the brink of Beer Tour malpractice when initially confusing The Belmont Inn (see Beerchaser review on March 18, 2013) with the Belmont Station. Since the latter was recently named by Draft Magazine as one of the top one hundred beer bars in the US for 2012, I reasoned that any Tour of Portland Bars and Taverns mandated a visit. It joined five other Portland pubs in sharing that ranking.

Of course, any rational person could have made the same mistake since Belmont Station has been on Stark Street since about 2007. Lease issues which arose in its original home (1997), forced the move from Belmont Street, and they retained the original name.

Princeton graduate, accomplished singer and beer drinker, Dave Hicks
Princeton graduate, accomplished singer and beer drinker, Dave Hicks

My companion that night when we hit both the Horse Brass Pub (review to be forthcoming and also one of Drafts 100 best) and Belmont Station was Dave Hicks, a San Francisco consultant, with whom Thebeerchaser worked while a law firm COO before retiring to tour bars and taverns in 2011.

Hicks remains a good friend and is both a cum laude 1986 Princeton University undergraduate and a lawyer who graduated from University of San Diego Law School including a semester studying law in Paris.

There are Ivy League grads with whom you wouldn’t even want to have a water-cooler conversation; however, Hicks is a guy that even President Nixon, with his aversion to Ivy League elitists, would have enjoyed having a beer, wiretapping his conversation or having as a traveling companion on his historic trip to China.

Hicks on the lookout for new pubs and taverns

Hicks on the lookout for new pubs and taverns

Besides being a good drinking companion, Dave (and his twin brother) are both accomplished singers and were members of the Princeton’s oldest and foremost a cappella singing group – the Princeton Nassoons where he sang bass.

He still sings at some alumni functions and birthday parties, etc., with a spin-off group, the NassauHallics, named for one of the main buildings on campus.  He has the good judgment not to participate in karaoke based on the premise that it was Japan’s retaliation for Hiroshima and Nagasaki….

Belmont Station is accurately described in the Willamette Week 2009 Drink Guide as follows: “This misleadingly named establishment which moved four blocks north from its original home on SE Belmont Street two years ago, is deservedly famous for its stock of 1,000-odd beers, plus sundry wines, ciders and meads. But the Station, which is owned, in part, by legendary Horse Brass publican, Don Younger, doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its attached bar. It’s a cheerful, narrow space dominated by the long wooden bar and dozen rotating, mostly local taps.”

While the Belmont Station Biercafe’ is a very nice neighborhood bar and the attached bottle shop is very impressive based on the breadth of its inventory, it does raise the question: “What makes it one of the top 100 bars in the United States? 

Wall decorations are a nice touch in the bar.

Beer signs as wall decorations are a nice touch in the bar.

Having reviewed several other bar/bottle shops on this blog including “Bottles” (July 2012) and “1856,” (December 2012), I would rate Belmont Station as comparable although probably having a slightly more varieties of alcoholic brew. It also advertises itself as the first beer bottle store in the Northwest.”

It can be assumed that other bottle shops have similar practices, but Belmont Station also differentiates itself because its bottles have “been thoughtfully selected, meticulously rotated, and
properly stored under UV-filtered light.”  
Of course a selection of 1,200 different brews  raises the question as to how many different brands of beer is adequate – 50 or 175 or 650, or …..? 

In college, for example, when it was not available in Oregon because of pasteurization issues, we considered the student who brought back one case of Coors to be a hero.  Personally, I would be satisfied with at least 25 options as long as PBR is a choice…….but then I am an aficionado of bars, taverns and pubs and not of beer itself.

A possible validation of the claim, "Portland's Premier Beer Bottle Shop!"

Can you find me a Coors???

Perhaps the following January 2011 review from Yelp provides some insight:

“If you opened up a beer store in L.A., it probably wouldn’t last a month, but folks in Portland love their beer. In the PNW, drinking beer is more than just pouring a 12 pack of fizzy yellow swill down your throat until you puke.

People appreciate a fine crafted brew and will spend good money for a unique beer drinking experience….(Belmont Station) is one of the best bottle shops I’ve visited.”

Besides the inordinate variety of bottled beers and ciders, sixteen excellent beers on tap.

Besides the inordinate variety of bottled beers and ciders, sixteen excellent beers on tap.

The Biercafe, adjacent to the bottle shop, has sixteen very good and mostly local beers on tap. I chose the $7 “Flight of the Day,” featuring samples of four different beers, which that night included:

Agrarian Ale’s “Chronic D’ Aphotic“, Natian’s “Elephante India Red Ale“, Bear Republic Brewery’s “Cafe’ Racer 15“, all of which were very good, and Lagunitas Brewery’s “Gnarlywine,” which had a “potent toffee and caramel flavor” and was a little rich for my taste.  The Agrarian was my favorite and I enjoyed the combination of “five of the farm’s most resinous hop varieties with organic oats and roasted malt – a full bodied hoppy delight.”

Pliny the Elder - great Roman intellect.  (He probably drank wine but at least had a beer named after him.

Pliny the Elder – great Roman intellect. (He probably drank wine but at least had a beer named after him.

 

Dave Hicks chose the creatively titled Pliny the Elder Pale Ale by the Russian River Brewery, named after Pliny the Elder, the Roman author, naturalist and philosopher in addition to being a naval and army commander.  His death near Pompei, was a result of the eruption of Vesuvius.  This excellent Double India Pale Ale also inspired Dave to hum a very melodic Secular Ode of Horace while he was drinking it.

Belmont Station has a nice menu of pub-type food available from 3:00 until 10:00 PM, including snacks such as chips and salsa, hummus and cheese plates in addition to large deli-sandwiches, soups and pizzas.  Since we had already eaten, I didn’t get to try a curried potato “pie” that looked very interesting.

Our friendly bartender and Thebeerchaser logo

Our friendly Belmont Station bartender and Thebeerchaser logo

Thebeerchaser will visit the other five bars in Portland that made Draft Magazine’s top 100; however, having reviewed over fifty establishments on the Beer Tour since 2011, a bar or pub may be analogous to a steak dinner – “Even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good” – especially when you have a good drinking buddy along for the ride.