By Pete Dunlop
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Belmont Station, Portland’s original bottle shop and beer bar, is hitting the ripe old age of 20. They’re celebrating with a 20/20 theme — 20 days of events for 20 years.
The party gets underway on Saturday, April 1 at the Horse Brass, where Belmont Station got its start in 1997. The Brass will have a collection of special beers on tap when it opens at 11 a.m. Some of those beers will have been made with help from Belmont Station staff.
At 1 p.m., guests will march up Southeast 45th Avenue to the current home of Belmont Station, where they will feature several bottle releases and more special beers on tap. The parade will include noisemakers, bubbles, signage and typical parade fare — though no floats.
“Twenty years is a nice milestone,” said Lisa Morrison, majority owner of Belmont Station. “Besides being a celebration for patrons, we’re honoring the contributions of people who made and continue to make Belmont Station what it is today. People like Joy Campbell, Don Younger and Carl Singmaster, not to mention our awesome staff, past and present.”
Another featured event, mini-Puckerfest, is set for April 7-9. They’ll be pouring at least eight sour beers at all times during the weekend. A number of special beers from well-known breweries will be released, including one from de Garde Brewing called, “The Station.”
“As part of Mini-Puckerfest, we’ll be doing another Battle of the Blends competition,” Morrison said. “Two teams made up of Belmont staff produced blends with Cascade Brewing. Patrons will vote on their favorite for the insufferable bragging rights.”
The weekend of April 14-16 will feature Bigger, Badder, Blacker drafts, featuring a Deschutes night with an Abyss variant, Black Butte 25-28 and a vintage bottle sale, plus other offerings through the weekend from Ninkasi, Fort George and more.
On Monday, April 17, the Besties celebration will bring together the folks behind the recent Oregon Beer Awards Small, Medium and Large Breweries of the Year: Baerlic Brewing Company, The Commons and Breakside Brewery.
Next up is the annual Samuel Smith's Salute on Tuesday, April 18. Tom Bowers of Merchant du Vin will showcase the iconic brewery and its place in modern craft beer culture. There will be bottles pouring at the bar and Bowers will lead the annual salute during the course of the evening.
The party finishes up on April 20, with Lagunitas tapping The Waldos’ Special Ale at 4:19 p.m. (so it can be in your glass at 4:20 p.m.). Sixpoint will contribute their Puff to the party (including Puff rolling papers) and Laurelwood will have a special 4/20-themed IPA.
Old-timers will recall that Belmont Station was the only place of its kind when it opened next to the Horse Brass. Campbell and Younger launched the small store because Horse Brass patrons were asking to purchase imported beers and other specialty items.
“We were just slightly more than an afterthought next to the Horse Brass,” said Chris Ormand, who spent a decade at Belmont before joining General Distributors last year. “We sold novelties, specialty food and offbeat videos, most of it imported from the U.K. And beer.”
The place stocked some 400 bottles in those days. It’s hard to fathom given present circumstances, but each bottle was displayed with a price tag. The actual beer was stored in walk-in coolers. Customers would make a list of what they wanted and give it to the clerk, who would round up the beers.
The beer selection has exploded, obviously. Modern Belmont Station carries some 1,500 beers, ciders and meads in bottles and cans, and also features 23 rotating taps pouring some of the best beer in the city. It’s a Cheers bar for many locals, as well as a destination for tourists.
“There truly was nothing like Belmont Station when Joy and Don launched it 20 years ago,” Morrison said. “It was a big deal when my business partner, Carl Singmaster, joined as co-owner, moved it to the current location and added the beer bar.”
Belmont Station is generally regarded as Portland’s premier bottleshop and beer bar. They were again recognized at the Oregon Beer Awards for just that: Best Beer Bar and Bottle Shop. But Morrison refuses to brag.
“I guess we are looked at as setting the standard for what a bottle shop and beer bar should be,” she said. “That’s something we strive for. I like to think we’re respected for our knowledgeable service, our friendly and cozy atmosphere and the fact that we've been consistent through the years.”
Stay tuned for information on next year’s big bash, when Belmont Station reaches drinking age.
Note: Many of the events happening during the 20/20 festival were still being finalized as this story went to press. Check the Belmont Station website for updated details.
4500 SE Stark St., Portland
By Pete Dunlop
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Chris Ormand got an offer he couldn’t refuse. And it didn’t come in the form of a severed horse head.
After more than a decade of formative fun at Belmont Station, Ormand is moving to General Distributors, where he will be craft brand manager. He’s been the purchasing manager at the Station, responsible for what makes it into the coolers and onto the floor, for many years.
“I’m moving on for a combination of reasons, definitely not just for money,” Ormand said. “I wasn’t unhappy. There have been many offers over the years. This was the first that was strictly craft-oriented. I’m delighted that I’ll be focused on what I know best, which is craft beer. Plus, I’ll be working alongside [VP of Craft/Specialty Beverage] Bob Repp, someone I’ve known and respected for years. ”
General is hoping to tap into Chris’s experience in inventory control and sales trends at the retail level. He’ll help them smooth the gap between distributor and retailers. His collection of industry contacts may also come in handy.
“Chris understands ordering and forecasting,” said Tiny Irwin, general manager at General Distributors. “He’ll help us manage inventory more efficiently and ensure that the freshest product reaches shelves. I also think his relationships will help drive sales for current partners and attract new ones to our portfolio.”
Ormand’s time at Belmont Station dates to 2005, when it was just slightly more than an afterthought next to Horse Brass Pub. They sold novelties, specialty food and off-beat videos, most of it imported from the U.K. There was beer, as well. The Station stocked some 400 beers in those days.
“We displayed a bottle of each beer with a price tag,” Ormand recalls. “All the actual beer was stored in giant walk-ins. Customers would make a list of what they wanted and we would gather it for them. It was horribly inefficient. But you couldn't ask for better product storage conditions.”
Serendipity landed Ormand at Belmont Station. He had moved to Portland from the Midwest in June 2004 and was living in an apartment near the business. Shortly after losing his coffee shop job at the end of the year, he ventured across the street to grab some bottles to celebrate his unemployment.
“Alex Ganum (who went on to found Upright Brewing) was working behind the counter. I mentioned that I was unexpectedly out of work. It turned out he had just accepted a brewing position at BJ's and was giving notice. He told owner Joy Campbell she should hire me. That led to several hours of chatting with Don Younger, who was a partner in the business, over pints. I agreed to start the next day, Jan. 5, 2005.”
He spent his first six months working in the bottle shop. When the buyer left to pursue another opportunity, there was little interest in the position. So it fell into Chris’s lap. Serendipity had struck again.
There have been a lot of changes over the years and Ormand has seen them all.
“Probably the biggest change was the relocation,” he says. “We were a small store with 400 beers and a bunch of novelties. In early 2007, we moved to the current space on Stark Street and became a true bottleshop, with more than 1,300 bottles and an attached beer bar. That was enormous.”
The best part of that story is that Belmont Station’s growth occurred slowly and organically, allowing them to build a customer base and beer selection while maintaining high standards of freshness and quality.
“I see new places opening nowadays with 1,000 beers right off the bat,” Ormand says. “I just shake my head because I know half of those beers will be stale before they sell. Our inventory here was built over time, which allowed us to mostly avoid that issue.”
Things have obviously changed a lot in recent years, during which the local brewery count and number of available beers has exploded.
“Demand for most imports has plummeted in recent years,” Ormand says. “That’s probably because we have local breweries producing great beers that are fresher and less expensive than their imported counterparts. Most people like local.”
The big exception to the import decline is sour and wild beers, which have gotten increasingly popular in recent years. Beers that were once “shelf turds” are now all the rage.
“I loved sour beers when I arrived at the Station,” says Ormand, “But we could hardly give the stuff away for years. We’d get Cantillon or Fantome and cases would sit for months. That flipped around 2011. All of a sudden, everyone was looking for those beers and cases would fly out to door.”
Portland being what it is, another big change is that consumers have gotten more sophisticated.
“Especially as it relates to freshness,” Ormand says. “I see more people checking bottled-on dates than I used to a couple of years ago. People have figured out that freshness matters. They won’t buy old beer, unless it’s something that’s going to be cellared.”
Belmont Station will carry on. With Ormand’s help, it has established itself as a world-class bottleshop and beer bar. Replacing him won’t be easy.
“There’s no way to fill Chris' shoes,” said Lisa Morrison, majority owner. “We aren’t just losing our purchasing manager. We’re losing our institutional memory, our historian, graphic designer, web designer and IT guy. He also has one of the best palates I've known. Fortunately, we have a great staff and we’ll get through this. But we’ll never be quite the same.”
Ormand looks forward to the excitement and challenges of his new role. He’ll be working with fewer products in higher volumes, shaping Portland’s craft beer landscape.
“Being able to choose what goes on the floor at Belmont Station has been awesome,” he says. “Being able to choose what potentially ends up in stores and on tap around the city is a step up. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.