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The McMenamins Effect: How 2 Brothers Helped Start Beervana

McMenamins Old St Francis Brewery
Brewery art at Old St. Francis School McMenamins

It’s easy to take local beer for granted these days. What’s now practically implied wasn’t always so and it took some hard-working, pioneering, beer-loving minds to make it so.

Brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin played massive roles. The Oregon siblings got started in the beer business in 1974, when local beer was scarce and the concept of craft — at least in this country — attracted laughter. Their first project, Produce Row Cafe, was one of Portland’s first beer enterprises that focused not just on a plethora of beers, but local beers.

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The McMenamins brand as most know it started a bit later. The duo opened Portland’s first brewpub in 1985 in the verdant Hillsdale neighborhood. It was quite significant and ultimately ushered in an entire vibrant community of establishments where folks could brew and pour their work onsite, alongside the requisite pub grub. Fresh, local beer that you could actually witness being made in the adjacent room was suddenly a thing.

Old St. Francis School McMemenamins

But McMenamins did even more. They took extra steps that made it iconic and immediately recognizable. It took on an eye-catching aesthetic, borrowing equal parts from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, hippie culture, and a healthy dash of surrealism. Like freemasons, they preferred beautiful old buildings, saving many from less tasteful development or even the wrecking ball. And they managed to inject beer and a familial pub lifestyle into previously unrelated arenas, like movie theaters, concert venues, and hotels.

Pacific Northwesterners and tourists alike argue over their favorite McMenamins today. Is it the gorgeous Cape Cod-inspired Gearhart Hotel along the coast, set next to one of the oldest golf courses in the country? The presumably haunted Hotel Oregon in the heart of McMinnville, headquarters of one of the biggest UFO-oriented gatherings around? The beautiful Old St. Francis School in Bend with its cozy soaking pool?   

Hotel Oregon
Hotel Oregon McMemenamins

In all venues, the artwork is written all over the walls. McMenamins is known for its giant murals, cosmic themes, funky light fixtures, and warm pub environments. McDonald’s has its yellow arches, Budweiser has its red bowtie, and McMenamins has its squiggly sun sitting stop a crescent moon.

About the beer. By today’s high Pacific Northwest standards, it’s not the best. But it continues to be solid and, more importantly, it paved the way for Beervana to exist in the first place, and then to be mimicked by other cities all over. The legislation the McMenamins brothers passed, in tandem with other rising players of the time like the late BridgePort Brewing, opened the flood gates for what would be a tsunami of craft beer pubs.

Terminator Stout McMemenamins

Moreover, a lot of great brewers have done time there. The regional chain has become an incubator for serious Northwest brewing talent. And, flagship beers like the malty Terminator Stout and extra-refreshing Hammerhead continue to serve well.

The brothers created the first brewpub in the state with Mission Theater in 1987. Three years later, they developed Edgefield, a sprawling manor on the outskirts of Portland that continues to be a regional favorite for live music, frisbee golf, and weekend debauchery.

McMenamins Mission Theater
Mission Theater McMenamins

It’s become quite the business. McMenamins brought in an estimated $170 million in revenue in 2017 alone. The brand is spread among close to 60 locations throughout Oregon and Washington and employs roughly 3,600. It’s still turning out beer but also produces cider, wine, coffee, and an assortment of spirits.

The food is decidedly meh (save the cajun tots), but that’s not really the point. McMenamins has already floored the region with its original one-two punch of house-made beer and a storied atmosphere bolstered by historic architecture.

Beer-loving folks near and far should raise a glass to the locally minded regional chain. 

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