Portland has all these beers, all these trendy eateries, supported by young people sacrificing so much (bad jobs, high rents, traffic gridlock) to be part of “the scene.” Just recently in my planner (urban) circles, Portland was ranked number one as “the most gentrifying city in the USA.” Think of neighborhoods twenty years ago, compared to now, and that global view shows us people of color and those from different cultural strata and economic rungs on the Capitalist ladder being pushed out by the new Weinhards – IT-Digital wunderkinds propelled by neoliberal economics that have no community of place, just community of collective capitalist purpose. The “place” (community) we call Portland is a far cry from that muddy, sometimes-on-the-rails Portland of the young Henry’s time. This “place” at the confluence of rivers, the town with all the bridges, and so many shifting boom and bust forces realigning and reassigning values every generation, well, for me, it’s worthy of an historical deja vu, and this novel based on Henry Weinhard’s rise to brew master extraordinaire is that early foreboding of things to come one and a half centuries later.
Throughout the novel, beer, the nature of this new Adam as Old World expatriate and interloper into the wild new, and the perspective of a German in this not-yetcompletely exploited land of grizzlies, leaping salmon and powerful forces of dignified tribes are what drive the undertow for the reader. Don’t expect a detailed look at how the intricacies of fermentation create a sound beer in a time when everyone got drunk: old and young, rich and poor sipped hard ciders, whiskeys and beer, even the kids and pregnant women.
It’s a city ready for the taking. Young Heinrich Weinhard left his native Germany and headed to New York and then from Cincinnati to the great expanse of the evergreen lumber town where just a few blocks from “the river” the woods still held sway as both mythical place of protean shapes and home to Indians and wild-eyed mountain men gone crazy from the rain, isolation and ghosts from longburied pasts.
For Henry, the lineage of brew mastery went back 600 years to the Becks and the Pilsen Bohemia brewers in the old country, including Slovakia and Prussia. His passage into America as a German is deftly captured through Strelow’s keen eye for overlaying this first person narration – the author is a writing teacher at Willamette College in Salem – and his meticulous research into Oregon’s historical archives.
The story is told from the old armchair with an aging Henry recounting his years scraping together all manner of business deals toward establishing a beer hall and house of prostitution enterprise that would soon turn him into a double-man – conservative husband-father, a mover and shaker businessman in Portland’s “upper crust” community, counter-posed to the lover of the flesh with his own proclivities around the lust and kinship he had for one of his madams, Mrs. Els, a “fallen” woman, who became one of his head prostitutes and who kept the business of beer and flesh going while Henry became a civic leader.
Throughout the book, Strelow, through Henry, formulates a strong evolution from Old World thinker to this newmade man, into the West, ready for dramatic change as well as a cultural and religious and philosophical grounding from the shadows of the old, from the vestiges of the Brothers Grimm and Beowulf.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the Weinhards or even the earlier Germans, Austrians and English who can lay claim as the creators of beer. While some beer aficionados (I’ve been to many breweries in Europe and Latin America, so count me as one) see the Germans with their bottom fermentation process and elaborate storage caves in the Alps and the English’s top fermentation method in barrels stored in damp cellars as the start of modern beer making around 1200, this magical brew goes back 11,000 years, probably further back to huntergatherer clans roaming the Kalahari and African savannas.
Henry recounts: “I held theory as a way to make beer, court a wife, build a business empire, save money. I needed the compartments of theory – the best thinking on the subject – to work in my world. The West was for
A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim