By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Thousands have embarked on a Cosmic journey with a McMenamins passport, which also includes rewards of merchandise, food, drink and fun experiences at all of the chain’s distinct Northwest locations. While some take years to earn their stamps, others raced through the challenge and are ready to complete it again. Either way, the idea has engaged customers in a unique fashion using a method that grew out of the DIY way patrons would use McMenamins brochures to check off locations they’ve visited.
“The idea was to get people to experience McMenamins,” said director of marketing Renee Rank Ignacio. “Along the way, an amazing community has grown out of it.”
There are now both official and unofficial pages on Facebook for the passport, which are the same size and color as the real deal. The number of stories of people forming friendships through the experience grows every year.
“I knew it was going to be a hit. I was surprised by the magnitude of people who embraced it,” said Ignacio.
Ignacio and designer Kevin Still spent years developing the passport. A primary concern was creating something that gave customers and staff the best experience possible. Additionally, the program needed to be manageable during crowded times.
“We had many different visions,” Ignacio said. An early prototype had a separate page for each stamp, which was too cumbersome. Finally, it started clicking. “The goal was to get people out to explore all our places and to enjoy the experience along the way,” said Ignacio. With that in mind, there are several experience pages with stamps for activities like attending a History Pub presentation or playing a round of golf.
The official passport launch date was Oct. 31, 2013 for employees and Nov. 5, 2013 for the public. “We want our employees to learn about all our locations. All our customers want to know about the history of our places and we want our employees to have that information,” said Ignacio.
The initial 10 customers and 10 employees to complete the passports received special prizes. Catherine Buck, who is now the Edgefield sales and events coordinator, was the first employee to finish. “It took some solid planning to make sure I could hit every McMenamins while it was open as fast as possible,” she said.
She started her adventure on a Friday when she got off work and planned to complete it that weekend. But a bad snowstorm on Mount Hood kept her from traveling to Bend. Instead, she headed south on I-5 to hit McMenamins locations in Salem, Corvallis, Eugene and Roseburg. The next Monday, she took I-84 to Highway 97 and made it to Bend’s Old St. Francis School.
“1,600 miles and four solid days later, I had every stamp but one,” she said. At that time, Bagdad Theater was closed for renovation until November. Determined to be the first in line when it opened, she decided to camp out Friday and Saturday before the official opening on Sunday. “I’m a very competitive person,” she said. The prize also proved to be a strong motivator: free admission to all concerts at the Crystal Ballroom and Lola’s Room for a year.
Scott Bassett, from Salem, was the first customer to finish and took his place in line at the Bagdad behind Buck. “It was cold and stormy on Hawthorne. I brought a heater and some propane and Catherine and her mom were kind enough to hold my place in line when I wasn’t there,” he said.
Bassett, a loyal McMenamins fan, learned about the passport and competition for first finishers four days after he retired from a career in state government. “I decided to go for it with encouragement from my wife,” Bassett said.
He headed out in his Prius for a quick tour of the Northwest. Bassett’s longest day started at the White Eagle at 6 a.m. He hit all the Washington locations, then headed to the coast by crossing the congested Lewis and Clark Bridge connecting Longview, Wash. to Highway 30 in Oregon. It was a race against the clock to get to the Pot Bunker Bar on the Gearhart property before driving to the Lighthouse Brewpub in Lincoln City and home to Salem 16 hours later. His prize was a $600 party at the Thompson Brewery & Public House that ended up doubling as a fundraiser for a nonprofit.
Bassett said, “I’ve traveled the kingdom four times and I’ve been lucky enough to go to four of the five Cosmic Tripster parties.”
Buck is thinking of completing another passport with her boyfriend. “But my plan for the next one is to do it slowly and enjoy the experience,” she said.
Since the passports were first “brewed” up, there have been five Cosmic Tripster parties. The first one was in the jail at Edgefield. “It’s the place where we store the artwork for our properties,” said Buck. “They cleaned it up, put the artwork out for display, and had tasting stations and food pairings in various parts of the building. There were about 500 of us at this event.”
The second was a pre-opening of the Anderson School in Bothell, Wash. With about 2,500 attendees. “It was an opportunity for our staff to practice and to get feedback and suggestions from a friendly crowd,” said Ignacio.
Impact on business has been tremendous, however, the program is costly as it includes giveaways. Since 2013, more than 5,000 people have become Cosmic Tripsters and Ignacio estimates about 80,000 passports have been sold.
“Because of its popularity, we’ve had to change our parameters,” she said. Originally she envisioned one party annually, but now plans them on an as-needed basis, trying to manage the attendance so people can still mingle. The limit for completed passports is two a year. And the passports are continually changing. If a new location opens, passport holders must get that stamp and “just-for-fun” stamps are always being added.
“We feel it’s a great value and connection to our customers that’s very special. We have three historians on staff. When we come into a place, we want to connect with the community,” said Ignacio. “And we want people to have fun. Those are the core values of Mike and Brian McMenamin.”
The Labrewatory’s manager Chris Sears is pictured here with some of the equipment at the North Portland brewery. The 3.5-barrel craft beer lab can serve as a bridge for brewers who are leaving one brewery and starting out on their own. Additionally, those firmly rooted in bigger brewhouses can experiment and collaborate at the new site. Photo by Jim McLaren
By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The intersection of North Interstate Avenue and Northeast Russell Street is a good place to catch a snapshot of Portland beer culture: past, present and, perhaps, even the future.
On the corner there’s Widmer Brothers Brewing, a craft beer founder and icon. A block or so east, there’s the White Eagle Saloon & Hotel, part of the ubiquitous McMenamins chain.
Now, go a couple of more blocks to the east. At 670 N. Russell St., you’ll find a white, one-story building fronted by a couple of glass-paneled garage doors. Over one door it says:
Portland’s Craft Beer Lab
Sitting at the concrete-topped bar, manager Chris Sears explains the owners “thought there was a need for a place where people can come in and have a laundry list of experimentals and collaborations.”
The concept is simple — sort of. If it works, true Beer Geeks will have nirvana in their own backyard.
The idea for a “craft beer lab” begins with Thad Fisco, owner of Portland Kettle Works. The company is a full-service brewery fabricator that has been making steel for breweries from Norway to Japan, from Canada to Costa Rica. Just as importantly, Fisco has a long-running partnership with Jon Kellogg, a commercial real estate developer. The duo worked on rehabbing two blocks of North Williams Avenue in what Portland Monthly called the “reinvention of old streetscapes that harnesses PDX’s entrepreneurial spirit and love of the past.”
As it turns out, Fisco owned a rundown taxi cab garage that needed some reinventing. He also had an idea for making beer. But, in a unique way, without making beer. Huh?
Explanation — the folks making your favorite beer at most breweries may not have the space to make test batches of their beer daydreams. Even if they do have the room and time, they might not want to risk having you turn up your nose at their experiments.
That’s where The Labrewatory’s 3.5-barrel system comes in. Manager Sears says a brewer can whip up a batch of their latest concoction or work on a collaboration with another brewer and do it in a very quiet, pragmatic way.
The facility will be producing enough beer so that any brewer can make an inexpensive batch and split tap sales with The Labrewatory. The brewer then has a built-in test audience. Sears says they “will have public comment forms so people can give their opinions of new beers or you can go online to comment on beers by number. You won’t know who made the beer.”
It’s a win-win-win for the brewer, The Labrewatory and you.
The “craft beer lab” can also be a bridge for brewers leaving one brewery and starting out on their own. “We have the former head brewer from pFriem. He’s ventured out on his own.” Sears explains, “They’re a little delayed in their project, but he wants to get his brand going so he can get beer out and build his brand.”
The Labrewatory will, someday, have a head brewer. “We’re in the process of finding a head brewer — somebody with, obviously, experience in brewing and also a good personality because they will be working with other brewers a lot and, kind of a requirement too, the head brewer needs to pour beer at least once a week.” That brewer will be an educator, tutoring customers about the mystery beers and helping the beer makers digest customer input. Sears provided an example of that type of feedback, saying a brew “seemed to be received very well minus a couple of things. Let’s make a couple of tweaks and run it through again or let’s make the tweaks and make a decent-sized batch, put our name on it and sell it.”
Since all beer makers start small, this brewers’ playground will make room for the guy fresh out of his garage. The Labrewatory will offer advice and a chance to put a hobby to a public test. Amateurs will learn how to scale up recipes to commercial size and find out from people, other than family and friends, whether their best is good enough. But, unless they have a license, they won’t be able to take their beer home. It will have to be sold at the The Labrewatory.
The Thad Fisco project, overseen by Chris Sears, has a look as fresh as its business plan. The interior has a gleaming industrial look with metal light and bar fixtures custom-made at Kettle Works. The side of the room across from the bar features burl wood tables against a wall made of wood reclaimed from the old garage. The bar’s centerpiece is a thick tap tower with 16 handles.
The day I was there, you had numerous tasty choices, such as pFriem Blonde IPA, Upright Seven and Epic Brainless Raspberries, each for $4 per glass. As you sit at the smooth, wide bar, you can look toward the back of the building and catch a glimpse of the brewhouse. You can also raise your snifter-shaped glass and appreciate the beer against the backdrop of a well-lighted, subway-tiled, white wall.
“We kind of wanted to give it more of … old-school laboratory vibe,” Sears says. “Of course, in a lab you want it to be bright so you can see what you’re doing and analyze. That plays into the type of consumer we want to bring here. It’s hard to check out the color of your beer if it’s dim lit.”
It’s also hard to imagine that The Labrewatory won’t soon become a “must” for locals and beer tourists.
The Labrewatory hours: 3-9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Sunday
Tamale Boy is serving Mexican fare from a food cart to customers at The Labrewatory, but the business is in the process of building out the space next door.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.