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.