Remember when a DJ was just a guy with a crate of records?
If you're younger than 30, you might not. But in pre-Skrillex America, a guy with two turntables and a microphone couldn't sell out arenas. Today, DJs often headline music festivals. Dutch trance DJ Armin van Buuren sold out Madison Square Garden in less than an hour.
Quietly, something similar is happening in beer. The new rock stars of the beer scene aren't the people making the stuff, they're the discerning palates who sniff, sip and write a check.
They're called "beer buyers," and, yes, at many of the elite craft beer bars in Portland (which makes them the elite craft beer bars in the world) this is a full-time job. They don't bartend or play guitar, they just pick the hits out of the crate and play them in the order that keeps the crowd hyped.
As we worked on our annual guide to the local beer scene—look for WW's 2017 Portland Beer Guide at the bars listed below, local brewpubs and places you're used to finding the paper—we noticed there's an elite class of buyers emerging in the city.
So, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, four of our writers spent 10 hours crawling between 12 of the city's finest beer bars to find the best.
It's just a snapshot, of course. All of these spots have had better and worse days than one random Wednesday in late February. But if your job is to buy and sell beer, we think you should do that well.
We picked places with notable buyers who aren't dedicated to one nation, style or tradition. At each spot, we sampled at least one beer each, usually two. Any place with eight or fewer taps, we ran through the list. We then rated the selection on overall quality, excitement, variety and balance. We looked for lists with lots of stuff we wanted to drink.
But we sampled the beers to make sure the stuff that popped off the board was as tasty as we'd hoped.
We then reached out to every buyer for comment and to offer them a chance to explain any trends—such as second-place Bailey's Taproom being a little heavy on British ales because of a U.K.-themed festival the previous weekend.
Our tasting panel was designed for balance and made up of Beer Guide editor Martin Cizmar (a haze fiend who also gravitates toward barrel-aged sours), Matthew Korfhage (a lagerhead who also picks tons of fruit beers), Don Scheidt (a Germanophile with a deep appreciation of all classic European styles), Shannon Armour (a recent transplant from Phoenix who loves sours, porters, stouts, coffee beers, black IPAs and pretty much anything weird.) and Pete Cottell (who pretty much always orders porter or stout).
Every spot was rated figure-skater style, on a 1-to-10 scale with fractions. The lowest scores awarded were a pair of fives: Apex by Cizmar, and Beer Belly by Korfhage. The highest scores were 9.2s given to Tin Bucket by Cottell, and Horse Brass by Armour.
When we crunched the numbers, we ended up with a result that matches our recent experience:
The best buyer in town is working at Tin Bucket, and a few of the city's more popular beer bars need to up their game.
3520 N Williams Ave., 503-477-7689, beercheesesouppdx.wix.com/tinbucketpdx.
Buyer: Jim Bonomo, a Connecticut native, was the buyer at Beermongers from 2010 to 2013 and then sold cider for Reverend Nat's before moving back to beer by taking over at Tin Bucket last September.
We didn't realize how much we missed Bonomo. The former buyer at cozy, geeky Beermongers was out of the game for three years before popping up at this little growler fill station on North Williams Avenue last fall. He's really impressed us since—the Bucket always seems to have a well-balanced list that includes coveted new releases like Culmination Hazy IPA next to new-to-town Founders and a bunch of old favorites.
Bonomo has a built-in advantage with 40 taps, 36 of them for beer. But Loyal Legion and Yard House each have 100 taps, and they're not going to top him. Bonomo's large lineup means he can keep something like Arch Rock Brewing's much-awarded Gold Beach Lager on tap most of the time.
"It's never off, it's beautiful in its simplicity, it's thirst-quenching, and we have to remind ourselves often of the benefits of beer-flavored beer," Bonomo says.
He shows bravery and great taste elsewhere, like with Barrel Mountain Starway Stout. On our visit for the Beer Guide, this beer stood out as the tiny Battle Ground brewery's one gem. In fact, everything else was terrible. Bonomo had no problem putting it on his tap list. "I know I can hand-sell people on a beer like that which I know is great, even if they don't know the brewery or don't have a favorable opinion," he says.
We kept ordering tasters, and we kept wanting more tasters—a lager from El Segundo, a coffee beer from Breakside, a hazy beer from Block 15, Founders' barrel-aged cherry beer, and an imperial bier de garde from the Lost Abbey.
It felt like Christmas morning, one of our tasters said. Nothing else topped it.
Like a true champion, Bonomo shares credit with owner Jason Monge. "Because we deal with eight distributors and at least 10 self-distributed breweries, buying is a seven-day-a-week job that we often work on together with the help of long email chains and Google Docs," he says. "Working in such a small space, the kid-in-a-candy-store side of me often needs to be reigned in by the boss man to keep fresh beer moving consistently through the Bucket."
213 SW Broadway, 503-295-1004, baileystaproom.com.
Buyer: Bill Murnighan, who moved to Portland a decade ago from the Philly suburb of Laurel Springs, N.J., has been buying for Bailey's since working his way up from bartender.
As downtown's only elite beer bar, Bailey's Taproom has a coveted niche. It stays on top through studious attention to quality on its 26 taps (there are six more upstairs at little sister the Upper Lip.)
"I have spreadsheets and systems, but I don't want to bore anyone with that stuff," Murnighan says. "I like to mix adventurous selections with proven classics. Our menu flips quickly, so I feel like I have an added challenge of keeping things consistently interesting while maintaining quality. Local is always important, too, especially being a tourist-heavy spot in downtown Portland."
Murnighan also works hard to check his biases and give a shot to a grocery-store beer like Lagunitas Aunt Sally or an imperial stout from Salem, a city that doesn't have much cred with beer geeks.
"I regularly blind-taste beers and brewery samples to keep my bias out of the equation," he says. "We've all had duds from our favorite breweries and remarkable pints from subpar ones. I just want my tap list to be honest."
He showed that on this day.
Standouts included a new dry-hopped version of the Commons' flagship saison, our Beer of the Year back in 2013, and the only keg of Culmination's Trumpet Major Burton Ale we've seen out in the wild—it was named the fourth-best beer of 2017 in our Beer Guide.
The only real problem was the list's unbalanced emphasis on leftovers from the U.K. fest the previous weekend. An ESB from hop-happy Fat Head's was merely fine, and we were left wanting by a red ale from Kells and an oatmeal stout from Stormbreaker.
4500 SE Stark St., 503-232-8538, belmont-station.com.
Owner and buyer: Belmont Station began as a bottle-shop spinoff of the Horse Brass. Four years ago, Lisa Morrison bought it. Morrison, who has been a beer writer since 1997, hosted a long-running weekly radio show and is the author of Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest. In July, she hired Ryan Fosbinder as Belmont Station's beer buyer, and he's in charge of ordering and inventory management. The daily draft lists are done by general manager Neil Yandow, bar manager Susan Luoma and Morrison.
Belmont Station is bringing Sabermetrics-style analytics to beer buying.
"We keep track of every beer that has been poured, when it went on tap, when the keg kicked, how long it took, etc., and refer to that data during our ordering sessions, especially for seasonals, so we aren't relying on anecdotal information or a year-old memory," Morrison says.
Like a lot of other top spots, Belmont Station works hard to balance its 23 taps by style, strength and price. But it also tries to revisit some old favorites that get lost because of what Morrison calls the "Ale-DD" of beer geeks.
"A good example of this is the Deschutes Obsidian Stout we had on our nitro tap," Morrison says. "I was reminded how it truly is one of the best nitro stouts ever when I had it at the [Deschutes] pub in Bend recently, so when it was time to order the next nitro tap, I snapped one up!"
There were two big blemishes on this tap list. The first was the Raspberry Blonde from Belching Beaver, a San Diego-area brewery, that one of our tasters said he "wanted dead." And three blown kegs had not been replaced.
"We typically will replace those taps, but we were planning a four-beer showcase with Monkless [Belgian Ales] out of Bend the next day," Morrison says. "So we had instructed our beertenders to leave taps open after cleaning the lines."
4534 SE Belmont St., 503-232-2202, horsebrass.com.
Owner: Joellen Piluso, the business partner of Horse Brass founder Don Younger, took over the pub after Younger's death in 2011.
This old warhorse is still getting it done after all these years. As legend has it, the 40-year-old English pub was purchased on a cocktail napkin. It went on to become the first Oregon account for brewing stalwarts like Russian River and Sierra Nevada.
Piluso and her team work together to make the tap list. There are no TV screens here, just paper menus on which kicked kegs get scratched off with Sharpies.
Horse Brass has a lot of latitude given its history: While working on this year's Beer Guide, two nanobrewers beamed with pride as they told me they'd finally attained their goal of getting their beers on draft at the pub.
Aside from a few fossils—Young's double chocolate stout, Hair of the Dog's Fred, a few Rogue beers—Horse Brass was better than solid, with a few surprises, like an uncharacteristic but wonderful oatmeal stout from Pfriem and an IPA from a Montana brewery none of had heard of.
1004 N Killingsworth St., 503-206-4252, saraveza.com.
Owner: Sarah Pederson, who's always reppin' her native Shawano, Wis., was the buyer when her eponymous pub opened in 2008. She took a six-year hiatus from that job before resuming the duty last year.
Though our judges were mindful of the advantages that bars with lots of handles have, and strived to appreciate the virtues of a small but well-chosen tap list, you may have noticed that our top four spots each had more than 20 beers on tap.
With only nine taps, Saraveza was playing with a handicap. And yet Pederson still managed to get a score in the 8s.
"Having a small tap list provides little room for error," she says. "There's not much for a customer to jump to if they're dissatisfied with the draft style of choice. That's why a thoughtful and knowledgeable curation is so damn important—it's got to be a tight, smart list that hits a broad range of styles."
Pederson does that by dedicating taps to styles and lining up the kegs behind them—something you can see from the menu, where a blown keg is stamped with a hand pointing to the next beer on deck for that tapping.
Pederson says her list was "a bit ballsy compared to normal," and we agreed. When you only have nine taps, making one of them a smoked beer is a commitment, or as Pederson calls it, "A hold-your-breath kind of move." But that beer was a lightly smoked Rauch from Pfriem, which our smoke-averse tasters loved.
A really nice rustic cider from Logsdon, a double IPA from Three Weavers and an outstanding bretted and dry-hopped saison with mango from Yachats rounded out our tasting. Everyone found at least one beer they were stoked on—what more do you want, really?
7337 N Lombard St., 503-539-5889.
Owner: Brian Koch, a former employee of the Commons, opened Lombard House in the middle of last year. With only 10 taps, it's less a destination than a really good neighborhood spot that's well worth stopping by when passing through.
The tap list at this tiny St. Johns pub—it's a literal house on Lombard, and not a big one—is personal. Of the 10, two were dedicated to an ACLU fundraiser in which local breweries donated kegs of their standard beers to be given for free. For a pub with only 10 taps, that's going to hit the bottom line. It also featured Victory's 21st anniversary beer, a favorite brewery of Koch, who grew up in Philadelphia.
Everything was solid, but we were most impressed with really good batch of Barley Brown's breakfast stout and the smoked beer from Pfriem that Saraveza also had.
6350 SE Foster Road, 503-805-7342, nwipa.beer.
Owner: Jackson Wyatt, who has the best palate for IPAs in Portland, owns hop-headed FoPo beer bar N.W.I.P.A. He has impeccable taste in dankness, and doesn't even like to smell German lagers.
Being a hop-focused shop, N.W.I.P.A. has only six taps to maximize turnover, and thus freshness.
"The tap list is small because freshness is key with IPAs," Wyatt says. "If a beer is on for a week, it probably won't return."
The downside of high turnover and limited inventory is that when the good stuff's gone midweek, the buyer is in a tough spot. Wyatt told us he was literally running out of kegs to put on—so we drank a Melvin Hubert, Block 15's Alpha IPA, El Segundo's Uh Oh and the first collaboration beer from Wyatt's soon-to-be employer, Grains of Wrath.
It was a solid but uninspiring list from a place that can feel magical on the right night. Our scores were tightly bunched in the mid-7s, with the lowest, a 7.1, coming from Cizmar, who expects nothing but the best from Wyatt.
1125 SE Division St., 503-234-6012, thebeermongers.com.
Buyer: Chris Tappan, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., formerly worked at Point Blank Distributing and has been buying here since Jim Bonomo—now at Tin Bucket—left the Mongers.
Beermongers is another small-list spot—it has just 11 taps, all of which change constantly and none of which are given away as a sop to cider.
Tappan has, in our experience, pretty much unimpeachable taste in beer. But he also has a loyal crowd of regulars with a strong preference for the classics. John Foyston, The Oregonian's former longtime beer writer, stops in almost every day for Redhook IPA.
"We try to keep it interesting and eclectic, while maintaining the high standards our friends and guests expect," Tappan says.
On this visit, that meant some pretty typical local offerings, like Barley Brown's Shredder's Wheat and Breakside's Bourbon Barrel-Aged Salted Caramel Stout, along with a few very interesting locals, like Culminaton's Peche and a gose from Labrewatory. Scores really fluctuated, from Cizmar's 8.6 to Cottell's 6.7.
"I felt like they had the right breweries, but the wrong beers," Cottell said.
8105 SE Stark St., 503-255-0049, roscoespdx.com.
Buyer: Jeremy "J-money" Lewis, the only Portland native on this list, has been buying for Roscoe's for a decade.
Montavilla's Roscoe's has 20 taps, though on this visit two had kicked. The bar aims for diversity, and attains it, with everything from a Commons Pils to a Rodenbach Fruitage to a blonde ale from Ballast Point.
"I am always looking to have a varied tap list that showcases many different styles of beer and exposes people to unique beers and styles that they might not find elsewhere, while still rotating in some of our favorites," Lewis says.
On this day, that meant Russian River's Consecration, one of Lewis' all-time favorites, which none of us ordered mostly because it's 10 percent ABV and runs an industry-standard $8.50 per goblet.
In the heat of the moment, we also skipped the Fruitage—a major mistake.
"I think only three of the Rodenbach Fruitage kegs made it to Oregon," Lewis says.
1216 SE Division St., 503-273-9227, apexbar.com.
Owner: Jesse McCann opened this bikey, cash-only beer bar in 2010 after working at Toronado in San Francisco.
This large patio bar has 50 taps and takes special pride in pulling beers from all over to fill them—on our visit, the only local offerings came from Hair of the Dog and Gigantic.
Apex was one of the first of the current wave of self-consciously snobby beer bars, and still carries itself with the confidence of someone who was quite popular in high school.
On this particular day, the offerings included nine double or triple IPAs, seven nitro beers (including Guinness), Hamm's, Stiegl Radler and an $8 pint of Pliny the Elder. The Pliny did not taste especially fresh.
Imperial Bottle Shop & Taproom
3090 SE Division St., 971-302-6899, imperialbottleshop.com.
Buyer: Alex Kurnellas, a third-generation restaurateur from Medford, N.J., has 20 years experience in the business and has owned Imperial since it opened 3½ years ago.
A lot of people like Imperial, the glass-walled, concrete-roofed beer bar on Division Street that plays a lot of funk music and has 20 taps.
"We want to create a pleasurable experience for our customers, and a large part of that, for us, is to introduce people to new beers and breweries," Kurnellas says. "We also prefer to support small, local, independent breweries, so we focus on those. Finally, I try to spread the love around between breweries and distributors so I can maintain good working relationships with my suppliers."
On this visit, that meant Ninkasi's Helles, Coin Toss' pale, Flat Tail's chocolate almond porter, and an experimental IPA from Vancouver's Loowit. There was also a beet beer from Idaho that tasted—well, just like beets. (Seriously: If you like beet juice, this is a beer you need to have.) Our tasters were curious to try many of the beers, but ultimately not especially satisfied with the glasses we got.
"I think it was solid tap list, and I would happily drink multiple pints of any beer on the list," Kurnellas says.
Asked about his least favorite on the list, Kurnellas pleads the Fifth.
"I'd hate for any brewery or any of your readers to take my personal taste as a comment on the quality of a beer," he said. "I am a big fan of the fact that beer taste is subjective."
1205 SW Washington St., beerbellypdx.com.
Buyer: Micah Tordiff , who did not respond to request for comment.
This new minimalist taproom from the owner of Lardo sandwiches was like a remnant sale: Much of the list was made up of the leftovers of recent tap takeovers by Founders, Finnriver and El Segundo. The most generous score was a 6.9 from Cizmar, who thought that putting Founders Rubaeus on nitro was a cool idea.