Working Hard, Playing Hard at Edgefield

It's midnight, and I'm hard at work in the Power Plant.

That's one of the bars at McMenamin's Edgefield resort (one of... oh, hell, I lost count. There's at least five), the one where I wound up after a full afternoon in the Distillery Bar and some very pleasant cool and shady Hammerheads in the Little Red Shed bar and a couple stouts on the wide, shady porch, resting back in the comfy Adirondack-style chair. I even spent some time sipping stout in my room -- because this IS a 'B&B&B,' bed & breakfast & boozery, a brewpub/distillery/winery with rooms for the discerning guest.

But right now it's crunch time, and I've got to get some notes down while I'm still here to be able to justify the trip and the expense. I made this working trip to Portland, OR, from my home in Pennsylvania to see breweries and cover the Oregon Brewers Festival. So I'm sipping, eating GREAT french fries, and scribbling. With any luck I'll be able to read the crabbed handwriting through the beer spills and grease stains.

Edgefield is an old "poor farm," a turn-of-the-century idea for helping the poor get on their feet by working for wages on a county farm while living at the big house. An idea of debatable merits, with good points on each side, but... there are times when you can almost feel those hard-working threadworn people behind you, and together with the occasionally eerie artwork around the place, it can throw someone who's not completely pragmatic. Well it did me, once or twice, anyway. Maybe I imagine too much.

Let's start at the top. Edgefield sports an 18-hole golf course, a par 3 with lots of rough, and easily available refills for your pint glass. Some people actually take it very seriously, but... I didn't. It IS a lot of fun, when taken with the right attitude, like much of Edgefield.

You start the golf course at the Distillery Bar. Yes, there is a distillery! The bar is framed by a crazily baroque tangle of pipes, valves, fittings, gauges and copper worms, complete with a cigar lighter at one end and, high above the bar on the other end, a worm tip where a pale fluid drip, drip, drips into a funnel collector. It is this kind of attention to decorative detail that makes Edgefield (and McMenamin establishments in general) such a constant source of delightful surprises for the observant drinker.

The distillery, run by Lee Medhof, produces malt whisky, rye whisky, and various eaux-de-vie. Lee works on a single 65 gallon column still. Don't expect Glenlivet or Old Overholt; as Lee says, "The mindset of the Pacific Northwest will produce a spirit that is not like the others." That's for sure. Lee's stilling 100% barley malt and aging it in new, charred oak barrels, a combination of Scotch distilling and Bourbon aging that has produced a very interesting spirit.

Grab a dram and move on down the hill, through the extensive plantings that keep the gardening staff busy, past the busy outdoor bar (I didn't linger there, too many couples and my beloved wife was not along). You'll see people everywhere with glasses in hand, a perfectly civilized hand-transport of beer, wine (Edgefield makes their own wine, too), and liquor that McMenamin's manages by its large grounds and interlocking licenses.

Why this can't be the case everywhere, with abuses handled on individual bases, I don't know. It was like a sophisticated amusement park of the palate for adults, and I greatly got off on the whole idea. Large parts of McMenamin's reflect The Way It Should Be, in my opinion: freely available drinks, very few regulations on how you can buy, carry, and consume them, and much reliance on individual responsibility. I saw no drunks all day... though I suppose I'm a bit drunk as I write this. But my bed is a 90 second walk from the door of the bar, so I feel no guilt.

Anyway, I grabbed another Hammerhead, McMenamin's standard PNW IPA (that's Pacific NorthWest type India Pale Ale, which is to say a quite bitter, pine-and-citrus aroma/flavored ale) at the Little Red Shed, and parked my satisfied self on the side porch to examine the kingdom.

A few words about the Little Red Shed. McMenamin's claims this is the smallest licensed bar in all of Oregon, and they may be right: I've been in bigger bathrooms in private homes. There's only one room in the small brick shed, which is covered with plants to the point of disappearing. In that room is a small bar with three taps, a selection of cigars, a small stereo, and one bench. Ah, and a quiet, smiling bartender. $2.50 changed hands (happy hour), and I had a pint of Hammerhead for the porch.

The porch is broad and deep, shaded and pleasant. I relaxed, and sang a song to entertain myself as I drank. The grounds were gorgeous in the sunlight, with trails wandering through groves of trees, past a Jerry Garcia memorial (McMenamin's can be very Dead), and by a small pool overhung with huge plants.

Wander inside, and you'll find the masseuse's office ("Quiet! Massage in Progress"), the bustling and efficient front desk, staffed by bustling and efficient young women, the Black Rabbit restaurant (quite nice, and where you'll get your complementary (up to $7) breakfast in the morning), and your rooms.

My room was somewhat spartan: a standard bed, vanity, wardrobe, and table with 2 chairs. The bathroom was at the end of the hall, but no worries: there are two bathrobes in the room. My only complaints about the shared showers themselves were that while they were individual, there was no place to put my dopp kit, so I had to balance it on the divider, a quite precarious thing. But... shared showers (30 yards down the hall) in a $90 a night room?

In fact, that's one of my very few serious complaints about Edgefield. The whole place is somewhat pricey. After a while I got the feeling that the whole place was a big sieve upon which guests were bounced about until they left, breathless, happy, and plucked clean of money. Of course, I feel the same way about amusement parks, and I love to go to them, so it's not a big problem.

The only other complaint I had was the fumes from the huge paper plant across the Columbia River. Sometimes the wind would catch things just right (or wrong) and you'd get a faceful of that unmistakable odor, a real gagger. I found that the restaurants effectively blocked the smell, and when I was outside, a cigar was just as effective.

The staff at McMenamin's were uniformly excellent, both polite and knowledgeable about their offerings. I was afforded every courtesy by the desk staff, the bartenders, and my waitress at the Black Rabbit (and I did have an excellent breakfast of a roasted vegetable and cheese omelet with sourdough toast and boysenberry jam). I could find no fault with them at all.

The whisky needs work, and Lee will admit it: it needs age. I did get to sample a few older barrels, and he's got a good product coming in a few years. The beers brought no complaints from me: Hammerhead was clean and brightly hoppy, the Terminator Stout has a pleasantly heavy body to it with good chew, perhaps a bit heavy for summer, and they had a Cream ale on that was quite nice on a hot afternoon.

Oh, my Lord, I almost forgot the Power Plant! This is the most pub-like place on the whole grounds, with a real bar, a grill behind it, tables, neons, the whole deal. Quick friendly service here, too, and the fries, as I said, were GREAT. When the unearthly booze freedom of the rest of Edgefield gets to you, retreat to the Power Plant and pretend you're in a 'regular' brewpub somewhere. It's nice to have.

My work's done, and I can stumble off to bed. When you come to Edgefield -- and you really must -- make it a real vacation, if only for a day.

Play hard in the amusement park for adults.

Copyright 2003 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: March 04, 2003