By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
It only took three sentences at the bottom of a press release to set off a frenzy of theories on Facebook.
When Thirsty Monk announced in late October that it would be purchasing a “well-known Portland beer bar,” seemingly every blogger, author and industry insider in town leapt to their social media accounts to pile onto the mound of ideas in this guessing game. Could it be Horse Brass? No way would a brewery fit in that basement. The ill-fated Tugboat? Maybe, but rehabilitating the fire-damaged building made it a longshot. Produce Row? APEX? Blitz Ladd? The debate eventually fizzled after a few weeks came and went without a leak, an official announcement or a correct answer.
“I was reading what everybody was speculating and it’s amazing how everybody always assumes that it’s the bar that’s not doing well, you know?” said Hilda Stevens, owner of Bazi Bierbrasserie, the well-known Portland beer bar in question that no one suspected was up for sale. “Where people should really think about, like, maybe there’s a bar that is doing really well but they have a business plan and they have some priorities.”
What few people knew was that Stevens’ priorities had shifted with time and that she actually never intended to remain at the helm of the business that’s become a Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard headquarters for Belgian-style ales and soccer-viewing parties.
“When I opened this place, I knew it wasn’t something that I was going to do the rest of my life,” Stevens explained, which might sound like a friend just broke it to you that they weren’t really in it for the long haul. It’s all too easy to get attached to our favorite bars, and Stevens admits she’s become synonymous with Bazi, another factor that likely contributed to the surprise surrounding the announcement Thirsty Monk would take over in mid-December.
“I didn’t realize that I had become as much of a brand of this place,” Stevens described. “It’s like, I’ll go to place and people might not remember my name, but they remember Bazi. They associate me with the brand.”
That’s due to six years of cultivating relationships across the bar and around the neighborhood through her involvement with the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association. Bazi has become her home, its kitchen filled with kegs and living room overflowing with rowdy soccer fans watching a match on any given day, and her home is conveniently located just blocks from Bazi. The bar was a result of Stevens’ conservative planning, but even the most thorough proposal can sometimes benefit from a boost due to fortuitous circumstances. Those happened to take the form of a layoff from Stevens’ well-paying job in the tech industry, the arrival of Major League Soccer in Portland and the space Bazi opened in suddenly becoming available. Stevens also points out that the business ended up filling a need few realized existed at that point in the city’s beverage scene.
“I love the fact that we were the first Belgian beer bar to come into Portland in a time where people were like, ‘What is she thinking? A Belgian beer bar isn’t going to make it in hop-centric Portland,’” Stevens said. “It was all about catering to the right community and knowing our audience — knowing there’s a lot of people in this town who have traveled all over Europe and really appreciate Belgian beers.”
Stevens had a target: Bazi’s fifth anniversary. If she could build a clientele and become successful by that milestone, it would then be time to challenge herself once again by either expanding or selling. And when that five-year mark arrived, Stevens wasn’t ready to let go. The search for a second location was underway until, much like the founding of Bazi, unexpected factors intervened. Last March, the neighboring bicycle shop that shared storage space with the bar, which was primarily occupied by hundreds of empty boxes that once contained the two-wheeled rides, vacated the premises. Even before the clutter of cardboard was cleared, however, Stevens had envisioned the perfect purpose for that site.
“Nobody knows that there’s all that space unless you have worked here. And people who have worked here know that,” Stevens said. “And they know that I’ve always joked around and said if the bike shop ever moves out, a brewery needs to open up here.”
But the decision to look for someone else to acquire the business was solidified when Stevens realized it was simply time to go home. On Bazi’s fifth anniversary, her parents’ residence in Houston flooded, which would happen again when Hurricane Harvey pounded southern Texas with record-breaking rain, and Stevens couldn’t help. The distance during their crisis still pulls tears from her eyes; the ease with which she’d talked about Bazi suddenly halts as her voice grows unsteady and laden with sadness.
“And it was really hard, you know, not being able to be there. And … that’s, that’s the part — that’s the part that’s really hard to talk about,” Stevens said. “I can talk about the business side, no problem. But my family, it hurts. And watching how much they slow down, and you’re always missing out.”
The decision was easy at that point. It was time to pull out of the expansion plan and find Bazi a good owner so that Stevens could move back to Houston after nearly two decades in Portland. She put the business up for sale in July and quickly drew the interest of multiple companies. That included Thirsty Monk, an Asheville, N.C.-based brewery that uses Belgian yeast in all of its beers — from the more traditional tripels and wits to the somewhat unconventional combination of Northeast IPAs or chocolate stouts. CEO Barry Bialik said he put Bazi under contract nearly as soon as he heard it was available and without even seeing it, flying out a few weeks later to meet with Stevens and take a tour. That personal touch was impressive and helped her feel confident about entrusting what she’d built to Thirsty Monk.
“Definitely the fact that it was the CEO was the one out there looking for the location — that in itself says a lot about an organization,” Stevens added.
Bialik also wanted to be involved in making the announcement to the team at Bazi and remained tight lipped about the deal with media until they knew.
“We’re so sensitive to that and how we talk about news and how we share it to make sure we deliver it right,” he said. “There was no other way to even think about it. Of course I wanted to be there to share with the employees. I want everyone to feel comfortable that, yeah, their jobs are safe. They’re going to be part of the transition and we’re all going to help this grow together.”
The CEO had been scouting out possible sites in Portland earlier this summer, but found the perfect match for the company’s ethos in Bazi. The way he describes it, the two could’ve been set up on a beer bar dating app and there wouldn’t have been a more complementary partner out there.
“What was so great about walking into Bazi for the first time is it felt just like walking into a Thirsty Monk,” Bialik recounted. “It had the same kind of energy, it had the same kind of community, it had the same kind of family-pub feel. And they’re on the same top 100 beer bar lists we are. They specialize in Belgian beer just like we do. It just felt like such a natural fit.”
There won’t be many immediate changes—the Bazi name will stay in place until Thirsty Monk’s Denver brewery can supply the Portland spot with its beer. Even then, they’ll stay true to Stevens’ model of offering a wide variety of Belgian-style offerings, with about half of the taps reserved for a rotation of other producers. Bialik’s brother Opus is in the process of moving his family from Seattle to Portland to serve as the new general manager. And as for that storage space housing a brewery, it’s still too early to tell. Architects need to survey the room to determine if a small system could be installed. If not, Bialik said he will either purchase an existing brewery elsewhere in the city or contract brew with another business. Either way, Thirsty Monk will eventually make beer in Portland. Until that happens, Bialik is focused on the ownership change and grateful for Stevens’ assistance.
“I’m so happy that Hilda is going to have the time to stay around and help as long as she’s available to help Opus with the transition and to learn about the community she’s created there and how we can honor and continue that.”
It’s a legacy she hopes will be remembered each time a crowd gathers there to drink Belgian beer as a soccer match plays on the business’s big screen.
By Don Scheidt
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“The difference between America and England is that Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way.” - Earle Hitchner
Go back 40 years from the current day. What does 40 years ago mean in American terms? Jimmy Carter would win a presidential election over Gerald Ford in post-Watergate America. The year marked America’s Bicentennial — 200 years since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In a small way, 1976 also began to usher in some changes to American-made food and drink, industries that were dominated by large corporations at the time. Choice was the exception, not the rule; it was a big deal to have more than four or five beers on tap — an even bigger deal if there were imported beers among them.
It was against this backdrop that Don and Bill Younger became owners of the Horse Brass Pub in Southeast Portland. The takeover date of Nov. 1, 1976 comes with a nearly apocryphal story of a bill of sale, written on a cocktail napkin, found on Don's desk (or was it on top of his dresser?) after an evening of drinking. He broke the news to his brother after taking him into the business explaining he wanted to buy him a sign from the Scottish brewery with the same last name displayed on the wall, but wound up purchasing the whole establishment — a pub where you could choose from a half-dozen beers on tap.
Initially, selection was what was offered from the distributors: taste-alike American lagers, a few imports of dubious freshness, maybe some Anchor Steam from San Francisco. But when Cartwright Brewing Company opened in Portland in 1979, there was support from Horse Brass — an early sign that Don and company would be taking an interest in the burgeoning small-brewery scene, despite his fondness for Blitz.
While Cartwright folded, others came online, slowly but surely: Widmer Brothers Brewing and BridgePort Brewing Company in 1984, Portland Brewing Company in 1986, as well as Rogue Ales and Deschutes Brewery in 1988. During this time, Don was a champion of these businesses and Horse Brass become a primary sales point and supportive meeting place for new brewing entrepreneurs, whether they set up shop in Portland or were located out of town.
There was this microbrewery thing emerging — small-scale commercial producers with flavorful beers similar to imports on tap. For Horse Brass, the choice was obvious: support these guys and their beers. Add taps. Introduce people to local beverages. Give the owners of these specialty breweries business advice, even a little cash if needed. For instance, when Rogue first sent kegs out to the general trade, Horse Brass was first in line. A relationship between the pub and brewery formed quickly and naturally, one that was cemented in 1989 when Rogue made a special bitter for Horse Brass as its house beer.
A time of celebration coincided with tragedy, when Bill had an untimely death. Don asked that the beer from Rogue be named as a memorial to his departed brother. And so it became Younger's Special Bitter — “YSB” to many, cask-conditioned “Billy” to the regulars. By this time, Don was thoroughly in the microbrewery camp, and the tap selection was in a state of near-constant expansion.
As Horse Brass emerged as one of Portland’s premier beer bars, it gained repute far beyond the city’s boundaries. But the business had its troubled times too. There were economic downturns when people had less money to spend on extras like beer. Though Don and crew kept at it, having transformed the ordinary tavern into an English-style pub, complete with a beer engine for dispensing cask-conditioned ales and fish and chips that some consider the best in town.
The big test came at the end of 2008 when changes in local laws meant that Horse Brass — long a haven for tobacco smokers — would be smoky no more. Don, a front-of-house fixture often perched at the end of the bar with a beer and a cigarette, didn’t conceal his anger about the change. Many say his mood shifted after that as he was no longer allowed to smoke with others in a place he considered an extension of his home. But the pub prospered anyway, something even Don grudgingly admitted.
Later in 2010, the end approached. Failing health and injuries from an accident led to Don’s passing on Jan. 31, 2011. Longtime business manager Joellen Piluso has taken up the mantle of ownership, carrying on the pub’s traditions. The 40th anniversary celebration, held during the first week of November 2016, was a time of special beers — not just from local brewers, but from those across the country. There are numerous beers served at Horse Brass that weren’t even around during Don’s heyday, but that’s the spirit of the place. New brewers are always welcome if the beer is good.
In a young culture like Portland’s, 40 years may as well seem like 100 and plenty of people will happily come from 40 miles away to meet friends at Horse Brass. It’s the kind of place with a life of its own and is still instrumental in fostering the beer culture in the Pacific Northwest. There are people alive today who may yet help Horse Brass celebrate its 50th anniversary, or even its 100th, as should be the case with one of Portland's most enduring beer institutions.
Horse Brass Pub
4534 SE Belmont St., Portland
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.