Over a Pint with Drew Phillips of McMenamins Crystal

IMG_1088As a beer writer who really writes about people, the idea for this Over a Pint series (for me and all beer bloggers who’d like to join in on last Mondays) is to go out for some beers with a brewer and have a conversation beyond the parameters of what’s going on in the world of beer. Sort of in the vein of The Session but with just two instructions.

  1. Head out with someone who brews for a living and talk to them over a pint (or more) without recording it or taking any notes. Just chat. About stuff.
  2. Don’t do it at the brewery’s pub or tasting room.

Let’s begin.

Name: Lloyd “Drew” Phillips

Brewery: McMenamins Crystal Brewery

Professional brewing experience: None prior to McMenamins

I spied the following tweet from @TheMetalBrewer:

I knew I’d found my next subject for “Over a Pint.” It’s not for me to say the Tugboat is “the coolest” brewery in town, it is PDX’s most mysterious, misunderstood, and maligned. Perhaps you’ve never been. It’s directly across the alley from somewhere all local beer geeks go, Bailey’s Taproom, home of, as the Tug’s owner Megan McEnroe-Nelson calls their clientele, “the beer sniffers” for the way they fuss over chalices. The Tugboat isn’t necessarily a beer Mecca but it does offer the warmest, most inviting atmosphere, which is why @TheMetalBrewer suggests patrons prostrate themselves. (No, not examine their own inner sphincters but essentially genuflect at their Altar of Ambiance.)

It’d be more fitting to call this month’s feature “Over a Half Pint,” at least on my behalf. That’s because the Tug’s best beer is Chernobyl Double Imperial Stout, a 13.5% beast that belies its ABV, that the beertenders are instructed to only sling by the half pint. Over the course of the night, I enjoyed four such halves. The Metal Brewer is Lloyd “Drew” Phillips, a member of McMenamins’ stable of brewers since 2012 who, in company fashion, worked his way up from non-brewing gigs at pubs such as Kennedy School and East Vancouver. He does love metal. But, a perk of brewing at the Crystal is that he gets to attend any of their shows like the recent triumphant return of Sleater Kinney. For his part, Drew drank exclusively Black Sheep Ale, a British import pale ale.

It’s a fitting brand for him. But from what I’ve gathered about Drew, he hasn’t been branded a black sheep but relishes standing out from the herd. As a brief set-up, I arrived at the Tug before he did and, in true Tug fashion, struck up a conversation with a guy named Troy who I sat next to. (OK, it’s “whom,” but I hate that word.) Troy, a homebrewer, was in town on business from Nashville. Drew lived in Nashville and spent a decade in Tennessee though he’s originally from Charlotte, NC. Anywhom, Drew and Troy then engage in a conversation, mostly about brewing for McMenamins, and he uttered this great quote that I’ve possibly mixed up by a word or two. “I’m in Italy, but I’m like the Vatican.” It was a dictum on his and all McMenamin brewers’ autonomy to brew whatever they like save for those famous beers such as Ruby and Hammerhead. But is that so different than any other brewer with big-selling brands that are equally treated as sacred cows?

Drew is one of the company’s most creative brewers. He wrote the recipe for Lord of Misrule, the rum-aged Mexican Mocha Imperial Stout that had many local beer tastemakers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) scratching their heads that easily one of the best beers at last year’s Holiday Ale Fest came from McMenamins. I also recall that he co-created the “Cerberus” program—a series of wild ales now being made at Edgefield—that underscores the unique barrels McMenamins’ brewers have access to since they also operate two distilleries. Incidentally, Cerberus was the name of the family dog in my 7th grade Latin book–yes, I studied Latin in junior high–that perished with the family at the end when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Only later would I learn how great the name was, akin to the claymation pooch in that innocuously Christian kids show Davey & Goliath, since Cerberus is the three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades in the underworld in Greek mythology. I vowed to one day name a dog Cerby (“Kirby”), which I did, but it turned out that the rescued pitbull was, sadly, too aggressive and I had to give him back. That’s what I get for naming him after a hell-beast I guess.

As if to hammerhead the final nail in the coffin, Drew is scheming a new beer event that I’m confident will become one of the best in Beervana, or at least one of the most talked about, or at the very least one that will be deserving of those banners. We talked about it quite a bit at the bar, but we talked about a great many other things like music and Tugboat itself and how he just figured the “McEnroe Smoked Pale” that was one of only three house beers on tap was named for the tennis great who was both pale and renowned for his ranting that’d lead to figurative smoke coming out of his ears when really it’s named for Megan’s family although, I did find out that her father’s name is actually John McEnroe. As a side note, one of my favorite beertenders in town, the Tug’s very own Linsel Greene (whose father, David, earned the Emmy award that now adorns the pub’s mantel) wasn’t on duty but Megan’s…sibling…or in-law is the barback and the beertender of the night just so happened to have worked at the Crystal Ballroom. Like all Tug staff, she’s pretty cool and kindly poured me a sample of the smoked pale ale which I didn’t order for obvious reasons but I did start off with a pint of the IPA just to try something different. So, that, coupled with those Chernobyls, is why I didn’t recall details of Drew’s festival-in-the-works and now rely on some cheat notes he emailed me at my request.

The event, Sabertooth (#SabertoothPDX) is actually the 2nd annual and will “pay homage to Crystal Ball era,” said Drew, and keep in mind it’s where the Grateful Dead played even before the McMenamin brothers—who were and are huge Deadheads—bought it. If you didn’t hear about it last year, that’s because tickets are super limited, maybe as many as 300 this year. He continued, “The point of ‘psychedelia’ was then and is now to expand the mind, often pushing yourself into uncomfortable places to do so…We’re trying to create an interactive atmosphere that speaks to all the senses and hopefully expands some minds.” Beer-wise, attendees can expect anything but normal. No flagships. No IPAs or even accepted beer styles. “The more the beer violates or confounds BJCP standards, the better.” But it’s as much about the experience as it is the beer. “Small groups will be led through the 1st Temple of Blasphemous Sacc-rifices (working title) and will be further ‘initiated’ with some sort of fermentation-based activity at each sample station.”

For as “weird” as we pretend we keep this place, there’s a lot of homogeneity. Through Drew’s brews and more, he’s doing his part to alter that.

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