If it’s an average day at F.H. Steinbart, you’ll likely find John DeBenedetti bent at the waist tidying containers filled with grain or reaching into the cooler to resupply the ingredients. While that might not sound significant, the longtime owner of the country’s oldest homebrew shop keeps a routine that most men his age long ago abandoned for retirement. Not that he’ll make a big fuss about it, though.
“All of us are doing the same kinds of things,” DeBenedetti described, “filling malt bins, stocking shelves of yeast, the malts, hops.”
His wife and co-owner Mary Kay DeBenedetti will only let him get away with so much modesty and added, “He comes in early. He stays late. Long days.”
That dedication helped Steinbart reach a milestone in 2018: its 100th continuously operating year in business. Any company that lasts a century is certain to see immense change. In that span of time, Steinbart survived Prohibition, moved to three different locations and managed to import brewing components from Europe when they were nearly impossible to obtain on a smaller scale in the States. Even during John DeBenedetti’s four-plus decades with the store he’s witnessed the rise of craft beginning with breweries like BridgePort and Widmer in the 1980s and the boom of the hobbyist when President Carter effectively legalized homebrewing on the federal level. As the industry shifted, so did Steinbart. But perhaps its success stems from the fact that it never really wavered from its objective.
“We’re trying to help you make a successful product no matter the method,” said Mike Moscarelli, draft department manager.
“And we do that by service, by educating and by being as helpful as we can,” added Mary Kay DeBenedetti.
When the store opened on Southeast Grand Avenue in 1918 that meant supplying larger professional operations with everything from cabinets to tanks to — maybe — livestock.
“I was told draft horses,” said Moscarelli. “I’ve not seen any invoices for draft horses, so I don’t know how correct that was, but I heard that.”
The founder, Franz H. Steinbart (who later went by the Americanized “Frank”), kept meticulous records, some of which made it through the multiple relocations and are preserved in thick scrapbooks with graying pages that are brittle and curled at the edges. Unfolding each receipt offers a glimpse into the world of brewing in the early 20th century and illustrates a time where the names of businesses didn’t need any frills: there were frequent purchases from the Giant Rubber Company and The Stone Supply Company, for instance, which sold rubber and stone products. And Steinbart held on to every scrap — from the time he bought 5-gallon cans of government stamp paste to 12 pairs of brewers sandals.
There are reminders of the Prussian-born man who came to America with one of the waves of immigration from Europe in the late 1800s tucked away in the shop’s second-story offices. One of his walnut-colored Shannon filing cabinet that looks like an old library card catalog still gets plenty of use for invoicing. Curious what a calculator looked like when Steinbart was alive?
There’s a working example of a Burroughs beveled glass adding machine that’s as big as a cash register also in the store. That sits next to the founder’s original desk, now used by Moscarelli and covered in mementos like an unopened bottle of Innis given to him by Fred Eckhardt, Dean of American Beer Writers, who received it from acclaimed author Michael Jackson.
“When you’re around for 100 years, you collect a lot of stuff,” he explained.
Some of Moscarelli’s more interesting finds took place as he helped John DeBenedetti move the store to its current location on Southeast 12th Avenue: antique brewing and dispensing equipment, some of it unrecognizable to today’s brewers, along with letters stamped with “People Against Prohibition.” Steinbart’s support to repeal the 18th Amendment isn’t surprising given the unfortunate timing of his supply company’s launch just a year prior to its implementation and well into Oregon’s already-enacted ban on alcohol. Fortunately, breweries like Henry Weinhard’s turned to near beer and soda, which helped keep businesses like Steinbart afloat. However, interest in homebrewing began to increase at the same time since there was no law stripping vendors of the needed ingredients. So when people began boiling secret batches in their basements, Steinbart was their resource.
“It was somewhat underground because it wasn’t legal. It’d almost be like making moonshine,” said Moscarelli. “But you could still sell those things and what they did with it wasn’t our concern.”
The DeBenedettis became involved in the business early on — before Prohibition ended. John DeBenedetti’s father Joseph and his cousin were employees in the 1920s, eventually buying the place when Steinbart died in 1934. It’s remained in the family ever since. While John DeBenedetti never planned on taking over the store, sometimes life circumstances determine your role. He ended up leaving his position at an electrical supply company to support his dad after the death of his wife, but it became a job he fully immersed himself in. Countless brewers from around the city and beyond are undoubtedly thankful John DeBenedetti continued to build Steinbart. After all, it’s where many of them got their start.
“When I first started homebrewing, there was no internet,” said Rob Widmer, co-founder of Widmer Brothers Brewing. “When I wanted the supplies back then, it was all mail order. And no matter who you were, Steinbart was THE place. John is an awesome guy and as long as we’ve been in business they’ve helped us with not only ingredients, but lent a helping hand if we had any equipment issues — and they were instrumental in getting us up and running. Steinbart is not only the answer for brewers in need of supplies; they also helped shape what homebrewing is in Portland today.”
John and Mary Kay DeBenedetti can tick off a list of beer makers they remember from a time before they were big and had a last name became synonymous with a style — as is the case with Widmer and Hefe — or grew into a quirky chain that’s dominated the Pacific Northwest and still expanding — like the McMenamins, who came in regularly.
“I remember one day Mike and Brian were both in and I asked Mike, joking — because they had three shops at the time, so I said, ‘When are you going to start your next shop?’ And he looked at his watch and said, ‘Well, in about three months!’” Mary Kay DeBenedetti described.
In a way, the DeBenedettis have watched classes of students graduate and helped them get there by providing the right tools and support.
“We knew all of the young brewers,” said Mary Kay DeBenedetti. “They’ve been with us and we’ve been with them — all of the ups and downs.”
While they acknowledge it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all of the new beer producers that have sprouted more recently, they’re still the go-to when one needs something like 35-pounds of a certain grain in a pinch.
“Many of our brewers head there when they brew at home,” said Hopworks Urban Brewery brewmaster Christian Ettinger, “and as commercial brewers we often head to the shop when we need supplies. The staff’s expertise, service and the shop’s selection are unparalleled. We thank Steinbart for everything they helped us with in our first decade as a brewery and for the last 100 years of service, too.”
As the company moves into its second century, one of its key employees is preparing his own transition. Moscarelli will say goodbye to the organized chaos of tubes, screwdrivers and saws in the draft department for a more leisurely paced life on the road in an RV with his wife. His retirement is quickly approaching on Aug. 1, but he leaves behind a well-educated team and a legacy of impressive projects.
Installing dispensing equipment might not sound sexy, but it is truly the final imperative step in bringing that perfect pint to a customer. And Moscarelli has managed to infuse plenty of jobs with creativity, whether turning a hydrant into a beer tower for the Vancouver Fire Department or giving Hopworks a way to serve cold, fresh IPA on a bicycle. Ever order a beer while cheering on the Ducks on the football field at the University of Oregon? Moscarelli is the one who made that possible during a 2002 remodel on campus where he stretched nearly 395 feet of trunk line from keg to faucet (nearly 2 miles of individual beer line). When asked about what’s most meaningful when looking back on his 30-year career, his answer was strikingly simple, yet noble from the perspective of any drinker: “Seeing a beer poured beautifully.”
Even when the anniversary celebrations come to an end and the day-to-day work resumes without spectacle, Steinbart will still be a place where a homebrewer can get the latest gadget or hop variety they read about in “Zymurgy,” Oregon Brew Crew members can shoot the shit in the warehouse and the stains on the office rugs — and ceilings — will continue to accumulate no thanks to accidents in fermentation because the people there care deeply about assisting others who aim to make the best beverage possible.
“I think that’s why we’ve enjoyed it so much,” said Mary Kay DeBenedetti, “is we’ve been a part of the industry, although a very quiet part.”
Of course, her husband would agree. There’s no need to make a fuss. All John DeBenedetti will admit is, “We were there.” But sometimes that’s the most important part. •
You can still help Steinbart celebrate 100 years!
F.H. Steinbart Beer Festival
Saturday, Oct. 27
District East 2305 SE Ninth Ave., Portland
Also keep an eye out for F.H. Steinbock, a collaboration between Widmer and Mike Moscarelli, which will be on tap throughout the city for a select period of time. Special anniversary beer kits are also available at the store.