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Olde England meets Haight-Ashbury

Strolling into a McMenamin Pub, you're immediately hit with an atmosphere that is nothing like most of its modern counterparts'. Hipsters and families alike lounge around playing board games, chowing on gourmet pizza, and sipping pints of beer with names like Terminator Stout and Ruby Tuesday Ale. The cozy booths and dark oak floors give the place a lived-in, down-home feel, despite walls decked out in wild, carnivalesque murals full of mystical iconography. Olde England meets Haight-Ashbury. And exactly the sort of wackiness that Brian and Mike McMenamin thrive on.

The McMenamin brothers have built an entire empire based on quirkiness, food, and home-brewed beer. Free of the clean, upscale trappings of the average brewpub chain, and now numbering more than 40 units and employing 900 in the Portland, OR, area, their concepts are making them serious contenders for the biggest brewpub operation in the country. The business succeeds at a time when some experts say the brewpub craze is flat, or at least showing signs of tapping out. The secret? Diversity. Each is different, right down to its name.

These "destination places," as the brothers call them, are bringing in $30 million in annual sales. Not bad for laid-back ex-hippies who usually show up to meetings in jeans and flannel.

Brian, at 39 the younger brother, says the seeds for their brew nation were planted in the '70s. "Everyone was directionless, including us," he says. "We just decided to do something we liked, which was drink beer."

Mike, 45, opened a tavern with two partners in Portland in 1974 called the Produce Row Cafe, a less than successful venture. Then, after a disastrous attempt at running a wholesale beer distributorship left him in debt, he teamed with Brian to open the first McMenamins pub, a simple bar in Hillsboro, OR, in 1980, with some financial backing from their lawyer father. "It was a good experience," says Mike of the wholesale effort. "We brought some of the first microbreweries to the state." Their beer developed a reputation in a state increasingly crowded with brewers.

In 1984, Mike McMenamin helped change an Oregon law that had prohibited bars from brewing and selling their own beer. It led to the opening of their first real brewpub, the Hillsdale Brewery and Public House. "It's because of the uniqueness of that law that they can do things differently from a lot of brewpubs," says Bill Owens, publisher of Beer and American Brewer magazines. "They can provide more of a family atmosphere, too, because that law allows kids to be in the pubs during the hours food is served."

Brian also points out that being in the Northwest gives them a distinct advantage. Oregon and Washington are the two leading states in draft beer consumption, with 27% of beer sold there from taps, compared with just 3% in California.

Of their 40-plus units, just over half are brewpubs. The rest are, at best, difficult to pigeonhole. "They really move to a different drummer," says Owens. "Nobody took them seriously at first because they did such crazy things."

Their first step in that direction was the renovating of an 1890's church they dubbed the Mission Theater and Pub. This cinema-and-draft house began by showing classic movies, an idea which didn't go over well. The brothers knew that to make a profit they needed more. So, they began serving burgers and pizza slices along with their beer. They also charged $1 admission and got second-run features. It worked. They now operate four of these pubs in the Portland area.

Bolstered by their success with renovation, they now specialize in historic properties. "We used to do strip malls," says Brian, "but they have absolutely no personality. We're interested in older buildings with lots of character."

With the Bagdad Theater, they remodeled an Art Deco theater slated for the wrecking ball. They removed every other row of seats and installed long tables to allow diners to eat and drink during the movies. "We don't have a master plan or anything," says Brian. "We like to differentiate ourselves."

The ultimate expression of that mission was the McMenamins Edgefield complex, a 25-acre estate and former poor farm, which required $4 million and four years to complete. Located in Troutdale, OR, outside of Portland, the sprawling concept includes a winery, movie theater, pub, 105-room hotel, meeting space, catering operation, fine dining restaurant, herb and flower gardens, four small liquor and cigar bars, and an amphitheater.

Brian admits that uniqueness comes at a cost. "The banks ran for cover on the Edgefield project," he says. "They thought it was too far away and the property was beyond repair. We did it slowly, starting with the winery, until we convinced them of the potential." They plan on adding an 18-hole golf course and a distillery in the upcoming year.

The brothers' most recent projects are even more ambitious. Last year they rehabbed a 1916 downtown ballroom, the Crystal, and turned it into a dance hall and concert facility with a brewpub and bar in the lower level. The 30,000-sq.-ft. space, which had hosted acts like the Grateful Dead and James Brown during its heyday, features a swaying dance floor built on ball bearings. It's also filled with murals depicting the building's history. "We want an atmosphere and a look," says Brian. "We get people together from the original buildings and tape their stories to give us something to go from." The McMenamins employ a team of 12 freelance artists to give all of their properties the look and ambiance they're known for.

Their newest concept is the Kennedy School, an Italian villa-style elementary school in the Conordia neighborhood of Portland. The brothers have turned the school into a community center, 35-room hotel, 5,000-sq.-ft. restaurant, movie theater, brewery, gym, pool, and playing fields. Says Brian. "It's the focal point of the neighborhood. We're doing more things like this to get away from the image of us as Deadheads who do funky brewpubs. We want to be involved with the communities we're in."

Part of those efforts include devoting more attention to the food. "We're actually more serious about our food than our drink at the moment," says Brian. The mix used to be 25% food, where it's now "around 70%."

Although most McMenamin brewpubs offer a casual blend of sandwiches, soups, burgers, pizzas, salads, pastas, and fish, the brothers are trying to slowly weave in what Brian dubs "fancier food." The Black Rabbit restaurant at Edgefield, for example, features modern eclectic Pacific Northwest food, such as Asian-accented seafood. "We're looking for that middle ground between white tablecloth and pub grub," says Brian.

So is the focus on diversification helping the brothers thwart the competition? "We're doing very well, that's all I can say," says Brian. "But I still think it's too early in the game to tell if our competition is affecting us."

Observers point to their independent spirit as their key to success. "They have a great formula, combining reliable casual-dining food with solid, quality beers," says David Edgar, director of the Institute for Brewing Studies in Boulder, CO. But he's not convinced that the brewpub industry is oversaturated. "There's a lot of life left in the genre. Actually, it's still in the early stages of development. Maybe a few years from now the brothers will have more of a challenge."

Already they've inspired copycats. The Mountain Sun in Boulder duplicates the look and feel of a McMenamins pub, right down to psychedelic wall art. "We are influenced by their pubs," admits a manager at Mountain Sun. "We're not knocking them off at all, but you could say we've borrowed from their feel." The pub even hired a former McMenamins brewer.

"If anything, the McMenamins will succeed because of all the chains they're the most down-home and casual," says Edgar. "They appeal to people with that casual approach."

And Brian notes that their next projects will re-focus on brewpubs. "These big projects take a lot out of you," he says. "We're going back to our roots."

But don't count on a McMenamins on every corner. "We're hands-on folks, and we're committed to the Northwest," says Brian. "Our expansion has come out of cash flow so far, and we've been lucky." Their sole foray out of Oregon has been Seattle, where they operate several brewpubs.

"The other brewpub chains have expanded by going into other cities and states aggressively," says Edgar. "For the McMenamins, it's easier to manage the pubs when they're in your backyard. Plus, I don't think their concepts would work anywhere else. They're maybe too different, too laid-back."

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