Portland's status as a beer mecca can be traced back to a grungy, smoky, dimly lit neighborhood British pub. The late, great publican Don Younger's famous Horse Brass wasn't just the first place in town to pour many English beers, but one of the first accounts for fledgling West Coast breweries like Sierra Nevada, BridgePort and Deschutes. It even helped launch Stumptown Coffee.
In 1976, Don Younger drove up to the corner of Southeast 46th Avenue and Belmont Street to have his car serviced. While the mechanics worked, he popped across the street to grab a pint at a pizza pub called the Horse Brass.
Younger ended up in a long drinking session with the Brass' then-owner, Jay Brandon. As legend has it, Younger awoke the next morning to find the deed to the bar scribbled on a cocktail napkin in his pocket. No one can agree whether he won it in a poker game or just bought the place.
At the time, nobody involved was particularly successful. The Brass, which had much of its current British decor, had been four different bars in rapid succession. Don and his brother owned a bar in Gresham, a head shop and an English sundries distributor.
And then bartender Brian Dutch introduced Younger to Bass Ale. Younger was a Blitz drinker, and it took months of cajoling. But after that bottle, nothing was the same afterward—for Younger or for Portland beer.
"If you've ever wanted to travel to England but your budget wouldn't stretch past Idaho Falls, the authentic pub flavor of the Horse Brass may console you. From the giant Union Jack on the wall to the poster of Lord Kitchener beckoning to the youth of Britain, this place seems English to the core. British beers and ales complement the tasty speciality dishes such as beef-and-mushroom pies and Scotch eggs. The relaxed, friendly atmosphere is made by, and for, the regular clientele, who seem to come for the darts and the company more than for the drinks."
—Steve Wayne, Willamette Week, Jan. 22, 1980
"It was absolutely fantastic, especially for someone who was an Anglophile—Horse Brass was modeled after an English pub. When I decided to move here, I wanted to live within walking distance of the bar."
—Belmont Station co-owner Carl Singmaster, who opened belmont
station with Don Younger
The Brass wouldn't be all imports for long.
Oregon's first craft brewery, Cartwright Brewing, opened in 1979. Because of a quirk in Oregon law, breweries couldn't sell their own beer, so Mike McMenamin started a small beer distributor to carry their bottles.
Horse Brass started selling Cartwright Brewing—despite quality issues with the beers of the time that led Don to later refer to the local beer scene as "barbaric."
Younger ended up being the first Portland account for craft breweries that are now regarded as pioneers.
"Don was excited about anything new…. [He] used to come over and have a drink or two or three…. We commiserated on the possibilities of the draft and the greatness of the coming draft explosion."
—Mike McMenamin, co-founder of the Mcmenamins Beer Empire, who founded produce row cafe in 1974
"Don started carrying our beer in the early 1980s—maybe 1982 or 1983—and almost always had at least one Sierra Nevada beer either on draft or on cask ever since. Don was ahead of his time in regards to beer. He had an eye for quality and flavor and he helped create a niche for beer lovers in Portland that really helped to set the stage for beer bars all across the country."
—Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada Brewing co-founder
"He was 10 years before anyone else. He served them on hand pumps before anyone was doing it. He was our first account in Portland. He was at the forefront, he was the leader."
—Rogue Ales Brewmaster John Maier
Younger also helped Portland brewers get on their feet.
"Fred Bowman, Jim Goodwin and I decided we wanted to put a brewery in
Portland in '83 or '84. The first person we went to talk to is Don Younger. He was very enthusiastic about it and supported what we were doing. I remember it being
very, very smoky, but we went to Don to get his blessing and to get his ideas."
—Art Larrance, founder of the Oregon Brewers Festival, Portland Brewing and Cascade Brewing
"In the early '80s, not many publicans were willing to give Kurt and me a chance, but Don Younger was an enthusiastic supporter from the start. It's hard to imagine now, 30 years later, but in 1986 most Americans had never seen a cloudy beer,
so Hefe blew their minds."
—Rob Widmer, co-founder, Widmer Brewing
"Way back in 1983, Dick Ponzi, Don Younger and I schemed and plotted the start of Oregon's oldest craft brewery, which we called the Columbia River Brewery. After we started the brewery, we continued to meet
[at the Horse Brass], and over drafts, strategized the Oregon Brewpub Bill [the 1986 bill allowing breweries to sell their own beer]. Don and the Horse Brass were our counterpart to the taverns used during another revolution in Boston and
Philadelphia a couple hundred years before."
—Karl Ockert, founding brewer of what became Bridgeport brewing, current
"For a publican to think outside the four walls of his own business for everyone's interest—he was one of the true early evangelists of craft beer."
—Gary Fish, founder of Deschutes Brewery
Don Younger became as big of an attraction as his pub—a legend in the beer community with countless stories from and about him.
And, along with the first wave of local craft beer, the Horse Brass continued to sell English sundries.
"The British have a capacity for sweets that can give pause even to the average sugar-grubbing American teenager. To the upper classes, the notorious English sweet tooth is a lower-class aberration. But the aristocracy is a dwindling minority. The rest of the population puts away bull's-eyes, toffees, sherbet dabs and licorice bootlaces at a rate no other nation can rival. Don Younger, who owns the Horse Brass Pub (one of the most congenial taverns in town), spent years tracking suppliers who would enable him to stock a wide range of English candy bars. After raiding the glass case at the pub's entrance, where the imports are on display, one concludes that these sweets, which use a higher grade of chocolate and fewer artificial flavors than American candy bars, are infinitely superior to them.
Younger's supply varies, but there are as many as 25 or 30 varieties on hand."
—Karen Brooks, Willamette Week, June 25, 1984
"I'm a '76 baby too, like the Horse Brass. I discovered we were the same age the year we turned 30…That year I decided Don Younger was the coolest. I mean, people called him a 'publican' and he was riding a horse on the front of a killer bottle [of Rogue Imperial Younger's Special Bitter]."
—Sarah Pederson, Saraveza publican
"Of all the Russian River beers, Don's favorite was the Blind Pig IPA. He sold it at the Horse Brass and it was the only beer he drank when he visited us in Santa Rosa. While [he was] on a trip to Santa Rosa with some of his publican/bar-owner friends, we pretty much told our staff, 'If Don Younger shows up, please let him in; he pretty much can have the run of the brewery.' For Don, this meant one thing: an unlimited flow of Blind Pig IPA. So one morning during his trip, he showed up rather early at the pub. Of course someone from the brewery let him in, and he promptly took a seat at the bar and began drinking Blind Pig. A short time later, Natalie arrived and asked Don if he'd like to get some breakfast at one of our favorite breakfast spots. Don, without pause, looked up at Natalie and said, 'Sweetheart, the closest thing to bacon I'm going to get is a Blind Pig!' We never did see him eat a meal on that entire Santa Rosa trip."
—Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing
Don Younger didn't just help out breweries—like Lompoc Brewing, which he helped found in 1996. He also gave a small seed loan to a coffee-obsessed kid from Seattle, who worked at Horse Brass' sister bottle shop, Belmont Station, for about nine months in 1999.
"I was short on funds…and Don gave me a small loan. In one of the dark corners of the Horse Brass, he gave me some dough and asked me to pass along that favor to someone else, which I have…spring of '99, that's when it all started. I worked for Don (and Joy) at Belmont Station for probably nine months; that's how long it took me to build out the first Stumptown on Division."
—Duane Sorenson, Stumptown Coffee Roasters founder
On Jan. 1, 2009, Oregon's statewide ban on smoking in public places went into effect. For most business owners, it was either a blessing or a minor imposition. Not so for Younger, who was both a dedicated smoker and libertarian—he was such an avid Rush Limbaugh listener that business partner Joellen Piluso had to broker a deal that she'd never listen to NPR in the bar office if he didn't listen to Rush.
"The Horse Brass was legendary as the smokiest bar in Portland. [At a cask festival], I tapped the casks on Friday and left them open to the atmosphere on top of the bar—gravity fed, as casks are. On Sunday I stopped in to taste the beers, and to my surprise, the Rogue Shakespeare Stout had taken on all the best parts of the tobacco smoke. The beer had an added distinct fruity tobacco flavor and a touch of smoke. It was magical."
—Ben Love, Gigantic Brewing
"Don knew the Horse Brass as his house, and he felt the government had changed the laws on what he could do in his house…he was probably the most avid, diehard smoker I have ever met in my life. He smoked three packs of American Spirits a day forever and ever."
"We bonded over our opposition to the looming Oregon smoking ban. My first op-ed published in The Oregonian was about that, and Don posted it outside the Horse Brass men's room, where my photo was quickly defaced with a comical mustache and other graffiti. Of all the places my writing has been posted over the years, I don't think any place will be more prestigious than the Horse Brass bathrooms."
—Jacob Grier, bartender, author of Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer
"Don blew smoke in [the face of] a board of health inspector or someone who was checking on nonsmoking compliance and said, 'Fine me.' Don wasn't able to, but he wanted to turn the Brass into a smoking club."
—Chris Ensign, Bartender
Unfortunately, the smoking ban took a toll on Younger, who passed away on Jan. 31, 2011.
"You couldn't talk to him for more than five minutes without it coming up. He never let that go. It changed him and it changed his whole attitude; his whole trajectory just declined after that."
"I think that killed Don, I really do. He was heartbroken. He wanted to have his bar his way. I mean, he was not a healthy person, but I think that pushed him down a rabbit hole. He lost his spirit and his energy, and I think that had a lot to do with it"
—Lisa Morrison, writer and Belmont Station co-owner
"I was at the hospital the night Don passed away. I had my private time with Don. I mean, he was in a coma and there were only about four of us there, but I felt privileged to be given that opportunity to share some time alone. He touched a lot of different people."
Beer icons like Chris Black of Denver's Falling Rock Tap House and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River flew in for a private wake at the Horse Brass.
"There was a cardboard cutout of Don Younger, and they put it at his favorite stool of the bar. I didn't notice it there, and I looked over and saw it and it was an uncanny likeness—it scared the hell out of me."
"We owe most of the existence of good beer in Portland to Don Younger and the Brass."
—Matt Swihart, Double Mountain brewing founder
"He is the greatest as far as the classic barkeep and bar experience as far as what you do in the pub…. It's all about talking life and its stories, and of course tasting beer."
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