[Editor’s Note: Tom Dalldorf, publisher of Celebrator Beer News, originally wrote this article for the Celebrator website and graciously shared it with us. Younger’s friend Phil Farrell is organizing a global toast to Don at 5 p.m. local time (wherever you happen to be) on Saturday, February 26.]
Don Younger, famed publican extraordinaire and legendary beer evangelist, died January 31 of complications from a fall a few days earlier. He was 69 years old.
Don was a “larger than life” character with an enormous passion for beer, brewing and beer culture. He loved meeting new people and spreading the word of good beer but eschewed “phonies” and poseurs. He also eschewed people who would say “eschewed.” He was not a model for the healthy lifestyle, preferring beer, whisky (make it McCallan 12 please, 18 if ya got it) and cigarettes (Spirits will do) to more conventional comestibles.
A pub crawl with Don involved a ride in his beloved 1973 Thunderbird with a hood as long as an Arena-size football field. But parking seemed never a problem. He knew all the great places and seemed to know just when to get there. The truly worthy might be treated to a crawl of the great beer places of Portland (in chronological order), beginning of course with Produce Row. Great moments of beer education not soon forgotten.
I first met Don at the Rogue Ales Brewery in Newport, Ore., before they moved across the bay into the vast former boat storage facility. Owner Jack Joyce told me I really needed to meet this guy who owned a cool pub in Portland. Don looked to be a cross between a thoroughly aged hippy and Gabby Hayes with puffy lips smacking at the possibility of another great beer and slightly bulging eyes that seemed to take in everything. His smile and gracious welcoming demeanor were legend. He truly wanted to listen to you but get him started and tales of pubs past and beer’s future spewed forth like first runnings.
I learned that a visit to Portland without a visit to the Horse Brass on Belmont was as vacuous as a light lager. But Don was not a beer snob. He began as a light lager drinker (there was precious else to drink in the 70s) and was indeed known as Captain Blatz. He famously won his pub in a drunken card game awaking with two headaches—his own and his new ownership of a pub. He maintains he had no idea what he was doing and his early success was due (he said) to blind dumb luck with an interest in good beer.
As the Horse Brass Pub prospered with adoring fans both local and from distant lands (a sister pub in England is in mourning), Don spread his wings and started other pubs to spread the culture of good beer. Some worked and some faltered. He learned, he moved on. His legacy is manifest in his surviving pubs and retail outlets. But Don’s lifestyle proved to be a challenge. Oregon’s chief beer scribe John Foyston reported: “Living as he wanted included being a famously avid cigarette smoker and a man who loved a pint or three with friends, and those habits finally caught up with him, despite his legendary Keith Richards-like constitution.” If only he could play guitar.
Don was a product of the 50s and loved the music of the era. He and his buddies would drive to hilltops to pick up broadcasts of Wolfman Jack at night from a 150,000-watt station across the border in Mexico to hear the latest rock ‘n roll or doo-wop. He carried that outlaw spirit with him into the 21st century.
His best-remembered aphorism (maybe because he kept repeating it) sums up the Don: “It’s not about the beer — it’s about the beer!” Well said, sir. I think. And ultimately, it’s not about Don — it’s about Don. Your next visit to the Horse Brass should begin with a pint of Younger’s Special Bitter on hand pump and remember: It’s named for his brother Bill, not for Don. But we know better, don’t we?