Purple Beer

Jeff Alworth

Political heavy-weights Tom Potter and Ted Kulongoski have declared July 23-31 "Beer Week" in the Rose City and throughout Oregon.  Over the coming days, we will therefore be doing our civic duty and offering beer-related content on Blue Oregon.  Cheers!

BarnI have learned many things in pubs.  I've learned to shoot pool, score a dart game, and how to snuggle a blue puck up to the edge of a shuffleboard table.  I've learned all about beer.  I've learned about the consequences of drinking too much.  I've even learned that those consequences are substantially reduced if I stick to stouts.  But the most important lesson came at the Terminal Gravity Brewpub in Enterprise, Oregon, when I visited there five years ago.

Enterprise is the major metropolis of Wallowa County, boasting nearly a third of the population.  Of course, Wallowa County only has 7,082 people, and so Enterprise, despite its gravitational pull, is a small town.  It sits in a valley of golden fields, sluiced with streams and dotted with red barns, everything framed by the mighty, snow-capped Wallowas to the South and West.  It is, like most of Eastern Oregon, Republican country--and in 2004, 70% of the residents cast ballots for George Bush.

The brewpub--a converted bungalo--is a gathering place, where bronze forgers, ranchers, writers, and tourists gather for a beer after work.  They congregate on the aspen-wooded lawn, next to a stream, on a scattering of picnic tables.  There aren't enough tables for everyone, so you just crowd in and share.

When I visited five years ago, I was parked in-between a rancher and a local artist.  We struck up a conversation, and I learned that the rancher was Bush-red, and the artist Kucinich-blue.  Yet we weren't there to discuss politics, we were there for the beer.  As the night progressed, and after we'd become acquainted, the conversation did wander into politics--the environment, actually.  But, instead of devolving into the usual partisan fracas, we continued to treat each other like three guys enjoying a beer.  And guess what: we had a fascinating and productive discussion and walked out friends.

The partisan divide has become so stark that it's self-perpetuating.  We seem to have forgotten that politics are really best when they serve the people.  With our scorched-earth language (liberals as treasonous America-haters, conservatives as jack-booted Nazis), it's impossible not to elevate the partisan loyalty above the greater human loyalty.  In a pub, though, looking a person in the eye, it's a lot harder to think of him as a stinking pit of evil. 

Perhaps because of the loss of the public square and the rise of selective media, even in Oregon we've grown suspicious of each other.  Maybe beer's the answer--anyway, it's a theory I'm working on.  Yesterday, Oregon kicked off "Beer Week," which will culminate next weekend with the Oregon Brewers Festival (at which you'll find a tap of Terminal Gravity Ten--a massive barleywine).  Let's all go out to a local pub (or pubs, if you're really feeling patriotic) and celebrate with our fellow Oregonians.  We may not agree about Karl Rove, but surely we can agree that our brewers make the best damn beer in the world.  In the dim light of a brewpub, all beer is purple.


(Oh, and when I went back to Terminal Gravity two weeks ago, it happened again: we made friends with a quartet from Idaho who'd come specifically to Enterprise for the beer.  We were having such a good time that they bought us a final round just to extend the conversation.  I tell you what, it's hard not to like someone who will buy you a beer.)

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    Bravo for doing your public service and posting this. And, of course, cheers!

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Jeff - I'm glad you had a rural experience, but I have to tell you, it's not the beer.

    Lots of us over here don't drink beer, but we can talk with our neighbors in a civil tone. It is so rare that someone would be accosted for their political beliefs that such action in and of itself is a conversation topic. Everyone here knows I am a Democrat, and my car has a will placed sign to this effect. Yet, I talk everyday to lots of Republicans. One example: I talk on a regular basis with someone who is an officer in the County Republican Party. He and I have served on a couple boards together, we have had some cross over business (he's insurance, I'm real estate appraisal), we always talk when we bump into each other at the Post Office, and we are beyond civil into pleasant and respectful. We don't avoid issues. He liked his candidates, but not without qualification.

    Nobody likes the war in Iraq here, but some attribute different reasons and causes for their dislike. We can talk environment, it is a common point of agreement that everyone likes the clean air, clean water and generally good environment here.

    So, Jeff, I'm glad you have discovered that people can just sit and talk. You don't need the beer. You can just talk. We are just folks after all, and nobody is all that important so as you wouldn't talk to someone else.

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    Steve, my roots are in Eastern Oregon, and my aunt and uncle still farm onions outside Vale. I have another cousin in Lakeview, and one in Redmond, and I spend a fair amount of time in rural Oregon. One thing rural Oregonians assume is that Portlanders were born in the Pearl, but assumptions sometime get you in trouble. My "rural experience" is my history.

    And I disagree with you about the meetings of people. We have lost the public square, so pubs are one of the only places left where people of different minds come together. I framed this post on my visits to Enterprise, but the experience is, I'm happy to report, not just a function of that great brewpub. I have found that wherever beer is brewed, civil people are enjoying it and drinking it.

  • Tommy Brooks (unverified)

    I do think Jeff is on to something here. I offer the following as weight to the evidence:

    Almost two years ago I had an opportunity to move to Washington, D.C. The shift from Left to East coast was troubling enough, but I soon began to settle in. One aspect of my new life that never settled, however, was the serious lack of frothy goodness at the local watering holes. I searched far and wide, but nearly every package store owner pointed me to Sam Adams or Newcastle when I asked where they kept the craft brews.

    Furthermore, I discovered that the entire town was divided along party lines (shocking, I know). There were some bars and restaurants you just don’t go to when you’re in the minority party. And the few bars where the parties did mingle felt just plain stiff and everyone talked only to those sitting at their own table.

    But there was this one magical moment – at the Brickskellar (which boasts the largest beer menu in DC, even if everything on the menu is not always available). While joining some friends for a beer, word got out that a group of Oregonians was in the house. Before we knew it, someone treated us to a magnum of Hair of the Dog. For that one evening, there was no talk of politics or policy or anything else of a divisive nature. Only talk of beer and of Oregon. Again, it was magical.

    That moment aside, DC wasn’t the place for me. I high-tailed it back to Oregon so that I could live that moment every day. My first act was to join the Beeristers, a beer club at the U of O Law School (and probably the only school-sanctioned beer club in the country). Our goal is not just to promoted Oregon’s brewing industry and the art of homebrew, it’s to erase the divide created by all politics.

    Sure, rural and urban folk have good qualities that go beyond beer appreciation, but there’s something to this. If a good Oregon beer can unite a small part of DC for an evening, then I don’t see why it can’t unite our entire state.

    Tommy Brooks, Brewmaster U of O Law School Beeristers

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    Tommy - Brilliant story. I'm upgrading it to a full post.

  • Gary Fish (unverified)

    Jeff, Good column. I have written and spoken about this often. Most recently at the National Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia. I believe firmly that our society, to a great extent, has lost the ability to disagree. With so much of our national dialog now being anonymously held over electronic and other media, we need no longer be accountable for our words. We can throw rhetorical grenades from the conversational sidelines with impunity. However, in the pub over a beer, there is direct accountability, civility, and comraderie that, I have found, is exceedingly rare in other venues. Interestingly enough, and not just because I make my living this way, beer is the medium that facilitates this discourse. I only speak from my experience and observations, but I can tell you I am proud to be associated with an industry that can claim some small role in the re-civilization of our society. Gary Fish President Deschutes Brewery, Inc. Deschutes Brewery & Public House

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    Gary, you've been doing your part in many ways for--what is it, 17 years now? Some theories hold that civilization started when the first brewers were trying to get enough grain to make their early beers--propelling them to invent agriculture. Can there be any doubt that brewers are at the center of our effort at national re-civilization?

    I'll drink a Mirror Pond to that.

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