Hipsterific as it is today, the city of Portland, Oregon has a rather shady and sordid past. In the late 1800s, it was considered one of the most dangerous places in the country to go out drinking; any bargoer who didn’t keep an eye on his beer ran the risk of getting drugged and shanghaied into forced service aboard a ship while unconscious. The series of underground tunnels used by crooked henchmen to drag would-be sailors from their bars and beds still exists, snaking from landmarks within Portland to its docks.
What does the city’s seedy underbelly have to do with Old Town Brewery? Well, one of those landmarks was the Merchant Hotel, the ground floor of which was converted into a pizza parlor, Old Town Pizza, in the 1970s. Today, it also acts as Old Town Brewery’s taproom, pouring pints of the brewery’s award-winning ales. Shanghaiing is no longer a problem in Portland, but Old Town still has a major tie to its history.
“Have you heard about our ghost?” asks brewmaster Andrew Lamont. “Her name is Nina, and she was a—I guess you’d call her a ‘lady of the evening’—who was thrown down an elevator shaft. You can eat at the tables right above where she was put to her final resting place.”
If the chance to drink with a spirit isn’t appealing on its own, consider also that Lamont is a skilled brewer churning out brews that have earned medals at each of the last three Great American Beer Festival judging competitions. (This should come as no surprise—before starting at Old Town, Lamont worked for Sam Adams’ R&D brewery, managing the design of beers in the brewery’s Barrel Room collection as well as multiple releases of the renowned barrel-aged blend, Utopias). He also takes a unique approach to brewing, using employees at the brewery and restaurant to focus group better versions of their beers.
“We’re in Portland and we just felt like our IPA needed something,” says Old Town owner Adam Milne. “We weren’t happy with it. Andrew heard that and had a meeting with everyone at the brewery. He sat us all down, asked us what we liked about IPAs and what we thought was missing from ours.”
Basing his recipe off the group’s feedback, Lamont brewed a malt base and split it into batches that were each dosed with different hops. After three or four rounds of tasting, Lamont says, “we took what they said to heart and sort of honed in on this sort of malty, East Coast-style IPA.” It was this brew—Shanghai’d IPA—that earned Old Town gold at last year’s GABF.
“When we went to Denver as a team, winning a medal for that beer meant so much to us because we had all had a part in it,” Milne says.
Lamont’s other beers, like the spot-on Sun Dazed kölsch (a silver medal-winner at the 2014 GABF), the coffee-spiked Warp Speed pale ale and the just-released tangerine/hibiscus/chili beer, Summer of ’74, are just as worthy of devotion. Try them out the next time you’re in Portland—just make sure you set aside a little for Nina.