Portland's premier bottleshop Belmont Station is finally undergoing the transformational expansion first reported on The New School in March of 2012. If you have visited the taphouse and over 1200 strong bottleshop recently, you may have seen the work going on on 45th street behind the building. There was formerly a rental house that was built right up against the back wall of the shop and had a revolving door of tenants. Belmont Station's majority owner, Carl Singmaster, has been waiting for the chance to purchase the entire building, which included both the Station and the house. The chance finally came, though that was far from the only hurdle the west coast's best known bottleshop had to endure in the craft beer renaissance.
In the past few years, new openings of bottleshops with attached taprooms have become a trend of their own. Where once Belmont Station was one of a kind in Portland, there are now many other establishments to compete with. In the last year alone, Portland has seen the openings of The Beer Bunker, NWIPA, 1856, Uptown Market, Beer, Portland Bottle Shop, Barrel, Caps & Corks. Quite a few more came about in the few preceding years, including The Beermongers, Bridgetown Beerhouse, Saraveza, and Bailey's Taproom. Though entrepreneurs have made a big push into expanding the craft beer business, the real competition has been from the big guys like Fred Meyer, which renovated the nearby Hawthorne location with the chain's largest beer selection at over 1,000 bottles. Belmont Station boasts over 1,200 bottles in stock, still beating the big guys; however, the big grocers' discounts and convenience still put small businesses at a big disadvantage.
Belmont Station's majority owner, Carl Singmaster, has a good idea about what made Belmont Station stand out from the crowd.
"In the early 90' a plethora of new beer was hitting the shelves and just sitting there. Retailers just let it sit there. There was too much beer in the pipeline at that time and it would get 9 months old, a year or whatever, and someone would come along and go 'hey, what's this microbeer, try it and go yuck! I am not drinking this! I am going back to Coors or whatever' because they were drinking old oxidized beer."In the current layout of Belmont Station, the Biercafe is separated from the bottleshop by a wall on the east side of the building. Following the narrow cafe bar and past the restrooms is the current office and some storage space. This back room makes for a not so cozy office space, with only a space heater to keep warm, concrete basement walls, and no windows making for long workdays in front of a computer monitor and paperwork. At the back of the room are the refrigerators for food storage, where a new doorway will be cut out into a new deck. The food storage refrigerators will no longer be of use, as the deli menu assembled out front will be done away with for a food cart. The hallway to the back office will be extended back through the building and onto an elevated outdoor patio, fully enclosed with roll-up glass windows. Below that outdoors will be a garden with room for a couple of tables and a yet -to-be-determined food cart whose rental agreement will stipulate that it operate during Belmont Station's current business hours.
Some might be wondering what took Belmont Station so long to expand and how business has been with all the new competition. A year or so back, after increased pressure on BS's slightly higher pricing, Carl instituted a discounted program for those who paid in cash. Some neighborhood regulars likely started shopping at the lower-priced Fred Meyer or even The Beermongers.
"A few years back, all of a sudden the QFC put in the largest beer selection of any QFC in the state. Yes, it hurt our business a little bit at that time. But now with the overall growth, and I think the respect and care that our people show for the beer.,,the people here love the beer, they care about the beer, they handsell the beer, and I think there are enough people here that know that, [so] we have continued to do well. I encourage the expansion. If more people want to open up, do it, just don't expect you're going to get 50 cases of Pliny. The toughest situation is getting less of the limited beers, because everyone is fighting for the limited beers."
Belmont Station has always been the top bottleshop destination in Portland and the state, though, because no matter how many other shops opened up, BS has always had the largest selection. My first immersion into full beer geekery came with Belmont Station's original tiny location next to the Horse Brass that now serves as that bar's office. Back then, you would just point at a bottle you liked or write it down on a sheet of paper for the shopkeeper to retrieve it from the back of the store. There was little walking or standing room, let alone any taps or a place to sip a beer while contemplating your purchase (just ask New School editor ElGordo, who worked there at that time). When former minority owner Carl Singmaster took majority control in 2006, the bottleshop moved up the street a few blocks to Stark and 45th into a former local grocery store and both expanded the shop and opened the biercafe. It was a risky but smart move. The new building allowed a much bigger bottle selection, more refrigeration, and, I think most importantly, its own beer bar. I worked at said bar early on when all it had was a kegerator with 4 taps. After it became clear it needed a wider selection, a walk-in cooler was added, allowing 17 taps and now even 1 cask beer. Earlier on, Carl Singmaster was a pioneer of adding draft beer to stores previously dedicated to bottled product.
"People complain about buying a bottle of beer if you're 25 cents more than a supermarket. But they say nothing about going to the bar and buying a pint, even a cheater pint of beer for $5. If you buy a bottle of beer for $5, the retailer probably paid $3.50-4 for it, but for a pint of beer, the retailer probably paid $1.30 to $1.60 for it. [There's a] huge difference in the spread. But it's just the difference between how people pay and react. You have to sell a lot of bottles to stay in business. There are a certain places who can do that and I keep telling them, 'you have a good pub, focus on the pub.'"
Nowadays many newer bottleshops are just learning this lesson. Take, for instance, The Beermongers. That strore greatly expanded its bar, which has in turn become a large part of the business. The Hop & Vine's owner, Yetta Vorobik, recently opened the 1856 bottleshop, which fits a couple of taps in a tiny space. Still, the biggest hurdle for most new bottleshop owners isthe financial side--money, lease, loans, partners, etc. Even for Belmont Station, now a juggernaut in the business, it was an uphill battle to secure funding to build the biercafe and to build the current expansion. Loans were and are needed to build out the space. Back when the business first moved to Stark Street there were multiple owners which included original controlling partner Joy Campbell and the late great Don Younger (of the Horse Brass). Any funds necessary to be borrowed had to be signed off on by all parties, making things more complicated. When the biercafe was first opened, it was with old tables and stools from the recently closed and beloved Rose & Raindrop, and, as mentioned before, the taps were modest and the bar, as it still is now, a bit cold and generic. One of the changes Carl hopes to see in the future is a correction of a past regret.
"I would like to see a more substantial wood bar out there at some point, and we are saving wood from this project. I would like to see a remodel that would make it curvier."
This would be a welcome addition from the sharp-cornered, dull wood bar that is there now.
When the opportunity to expand the Station came, it had been a longtime coming. In order to plan for the future Carl, had secured a long-term lease and notified the building's owner he was interested in purchase if the opportunity ever arose. The building owner, as it turned out, was interested in investing money in larger projects but was waiting for the stars to align in the proper place before sale. However, once the time came, the Belmont Station entity was regretfully tied up with the passing of a legend.
In 2011 legendary publican and owner of the Horse Brass Pub, Don Younger, passed away. Don was an investor in Belmont Station, among many other local beer establishments. The reverberations of Don's passing are still being felt in the Oregon beer community today, and unfortunately tied up the outcome of Belmont Station for some time in his estate. Carl Singmaster had succeeded in purchasing the building
"...but Belmont Station the entity was tied up in the estate of Don Younger. So we had to wait until the estate settled and I was eventually able to purchase the interest from the heirs of the estate. During that period of time we wouldn't have been able to do something that cost as much money without an agreement from everyone in the business. We got the expansion approved and permitted, but we couldn't pull the trigger until the estate settled, which it finally did in November."Finally in November of 2012 the estate was settled and between Carl's wife, Amy Singmaster, and himself they were able to purchase 100% interest in the business. The new expansion will allow Belmont Station to expand business by adding the only outdoor beer garden in the neighborhood and by eliminating one of its largest weaknesses: food service. Though Belmont Station has never been required to serve food of any kind since it operates on a tavern license, Singmaster has always thought it important to have some kind of food available alongside the beer. There has never been space for a proper kitchen, though, and the buildout of a full kitchen is unrealistic and costly.
"We are not good at food, and the cost at putting in a proper kitchen right now is astronomical. If you want to put all that in, then you need to be a real restaurant, and I am not a restauranteur. I know beer, we do beer pretty well and we like to have food just so people can pace out their beer."Since day one the bartenders have been responsible for prepping sometimes time-consuming menu items that never were on par with a full restaurant. This simply delayed beer service while frustrating both the customers and staff. This new change is a welcome one from my perspective. Once a food cart is secured to set up along 45th Avenue it will be able to serve both the neighborhood from the sidewalk as well as Belmont Station's customer base. This will allow them to focus on food without as many drawbacks. According to Singmaster, "a cart owner should do well because rain or shine they will have some business."
With any luck, construction on Belmont Station's expansion will be completed in March of