If this isn’t a familiar sight, you’ve been drinking beer wrong. (Photo: Brian Yaeger)
It’s probably fair to say that out of all the Portland beer geeks, no one loved the Tug more than I. And now, as of earlier this month, I’m not even a Portland resident and as of next month, Tugboat Brewing is, reportedly and most likely, closing.
This morning, my friend and long-time Tugboat bartender Linsel Greene, posted on his Facebook wall:
“It’s kinda out of the bag, so I think I’m clear to inform the public that Tugboat Brewing Co will stop pouring beers on August 30th. The bar is being forced to close and leave its location on Ankeny St. The ancient fleabag Stewart Hotel, which sits above the bar, suffered structural damage during a fire earlier this year. The Bureau of Buildings has stepped in and demanded an evacuation of all Hotel tenants. The company that insures the bar claims that the business is uninsurable in this location, and so the bar is going to close.”
Tellingly, Linsel refers to it as a “bar” and that it’ll stop “pouring beers.” That’s because, to most of its patrons, it’s a beer bar and not really a brewery tasting room. There are 18 taps and at best, house brewed beer springs from maybe four of them. In some people’s opinions, “at best” would mean none of them flow with house beer. Admittedly, it’s not exactly a shining beacon of award-winning brewing as far as recipes, technique, craftsmanship, cleanliness, stewardship, innovation, or flavor. And yet… it was my favorite Portland brewery for one reason. Well, for one and a half reasons. No brewery holds a candle to it for sheer ambiance. And that matters. It’s an aspect that most of today’s watering holes overlook. A few various IPAs and some reclaimed wood and some growlers converted to lighting covers (or Edison bulbs) are not tantamount to ambiance. Corn hole and a cheese board does not a brewpub make.
Tugboat (their comically official website is at www.d2m.com/Tugwebsite/ and for my first review, click here) effortlessly exuded a comfortable and convivial atmosphere with shelves aplenty of old books, well-worn board games, and always the cool jazz raining down from the speakers. Moreover, as a patron you could always, always find good conversations whether your fellow barflies were out-of-towners who only found the joint because they were staying at a nearby hotel or after-work types. And these would be conversations about interesting topics, not about beer. If you want to discuss the beer in your glass, you go across the street (that feels more like an alley) to Bailey’s Taproom or its even geekier upstairs bar, the Upper Lip. Don’t get me wrong. I love drinking beer in both of those rooms, too, and not just because the taplists are always infinitely better than Tugboat’s. But Tugboat co-owner Megan McEnroe-Nelson had a name for those customers: “Beer sniffers.” It’s true. They almost all sniff their beers quite a bit before they drink them. And likely Instagram them, too.
I’ll get back to Megan in a moment, but what of this Mr. Greene? In Oregon Breweries, I referred to him as “patron-turned-bartender, the Goldendoodle of beer slingers.” The dude really aims to please the customers. I don’t know where he’ll work next, but if it’s at a bar, the patrons there will be lucky to have him. Just don’t try to ask him what kind of hops went into that IPA you’re sniffing or what his favorite NEIPA is at the moment.
After operating for 24 years, owners Megan and her husband Terry, who’s also the brewer with no formal training, are powering down. Megan is an absolute doll. Her brunette bob belies her age; she’s 43 years old. I’m 43 years old. When I was 19, I was drinking Natty Light through a straw on Halloween because for my Papa Smurf costume, I’d made a beard out of cotton balls and didn’t think about how to drink through it. When Megan was 19, she helped launch one of the first of Portland’s second-wave of breweries. The Nelsons actually already worked at the shop at 711 SW Ankeny. First it was called Time For Fun where Terry restored watches. Then they converted it to Café Omega, y’know, for all your watch repair and cocktail drinking needs. That’s when they added the four-barrel brewing system. It was legal since her husband was over 21. That brings me back to Linsel’s post.
“The owners haven’t told me any plans to do something else with the name, and I don’t think there’s much likelihood that they’ll open another bar. I think Terry might be done moving kegs, and I can’t say I blame him.”
I mean, does YOUR favorite beertender don a tophat? (Photo: Brian Yaeger)
So it’s not 100% confirmed that the Tug is closing, but the writing’s on the Facebook wall. In my book, I referred to it as “the most mysterious, misunderstood, and maligned brewery in Beervana.” Everyone knows where Bailey’s is and also where Mary’s (Bridgetown’s first all-nude club) but most folks don’t know about the brewery betwixt them. And the beer nerds who’ve been (many years ago and no sooner, no doubt, save for a few folks I’ve dragged there or were assigned to go for a blurb in WW’s Beer Guide) rarely find it as charming as I did. In a town that’s still very much all about IPA or newfangled, cockamamie ingredients, they didn’t realize that the best Double-Russian-Imperial Stout—Chernobyl—was right under their sniffers. It lumbers in at 14% ABV and exploded with tobacco and leather, immune to the flaws that a less cumbersome beer might incur. Because of its strength, they only serve it in half pints, hence why I said it’s the best brewery for one-and-a-half reasons.
To the fine folks of Beervana. You have 35 days left to enjoy your first half-pint in years or possibly ever. PLEASE enjoy an extra half pint for me!! I’m incredibly sorry that my plan to make it in before we moved at the beginning of July didn’t pan out. But I’m not going to get the last word in about Tugboat. I’ll use Megan’s words when she agreed to an incredibly rare interview since she’s quite averse to participating in the Portland beer scene since it has shown the Tug so little love. They don’t even participate in the Portland Craft Beer Festival and, to make this pill even more bitter to swallow, Megan had actually agreed to sell me a keg for Baker’s Dozen Festival last March which was going to be a coffee infused Chernobyl Stout, which would’ve made it the first-ever keg of Tugboat sold for off-premise but Terry injured his back during The Freeze last winter and didn’t get to brewing in time. Anyway, here’s what she about why they called their dinky little brewery about the boats that assist larger ships down the Columbia and out to sea.
“Like us, they’re not very fancy. They’re small, powerful, and hardworking. And a little bit salty.”