Last week news broke that Portland’s leading restaurateur – Kurt Huffman of ChefStable Group was opening a 99 tap all Oregon dedicated beer hall called The Loyal Legion just off of SE 6th and Belmont in Portland. This taproom will also feature sausages and meats from Olympic Provisions with tbd vegetarian options. In a year of high profile new openings The Loyal Legion may be among the most ambitious with both high expectations from the ever critical beer geek community as well as the local press who’s eagerness to cover the latest hotspot is only matched by an epic failure. Even Huffman recently confided in an email to me that “We have never ever received the kind of interest in a project like we’re getting on this one” That is a testament to our fickle but loyal legion of beer fans and makes for an appropriate name for “The Loyal Legion” beer hall. Keep in mind that Chef Stable is the restaurant group behind such hotspots as Ox, Oven and Shaker, Lardo, Gruner, Foster Burger, Block and Tackle, Roe and St. Jack among others. You can even call me skeptical since similar beer bars without 99 taps have left me desiring more such as fresher beer that is rotated more frequently. Talking to Kurt Huffman though put a lot of my fears at ease.
I reached out to Kurt and the Chef’s Stable group for an interview that they were kind enough to provide and learned ahead of time that Kurt Huffman is one of the rare native Oregonians and had a background in the beer industry. Read Kurt’s open and honest interview below for the most information shared so far on the high profile Loyal Legion and the beer biz.
Q: As a born and raised Portlander do you think your more in tune with what people are looking for in bars and restaurants?
Kurt Huffman: Not more so than anyone who’s lived in Portland for a little while. In fact, there are times when I think that my perspective in limited by being a “native” because, as the food scene evolves, I am frequently finding that I’m surprised by what works, things that I never would have thought Portland would embrace.When you look at where all of my chef partners come from, all but one is from elsewhere. For the most part the Portland Food Scene is made up of people from everywhere but Portland – but who chose to move here to be part of the City. So in that regard, if that fact is any kind of indicator, I don’t know that Portlanders have any more insight into what we want to eat or drink.
Q: How has beer influenced you and been a part of your life?
KH: I began drinking in Portland right at what I would call the first Golden Age of Oregon craft brewing – which is around 1990. I was at the beginning of a 25 year rugby career and for better of for worse those two passions inform and entertain one another. I loved craft beer enough to decide and open a brewery – and that turned into a full decade of excitement.
Q: You founded a brewery called “Ninkasi” in France, a notoriously wine and cider focused culture that’s not much for beer. How difficult was that and what did you learn from the experience?
I proposed the idea of opening a brewery to the guy who became my French partner in 1995 – and we opened two years later in Lyon in September of 1997. There is an expression in Lyon that the three rivers that flowed through the city were the Rhône, the Saône and the Beaujolais – which testifies to what a wine dominated culture it is. The good thing was that we were unique and different from anything else in the City – so people were interested in checking us out. The bad thing is that it wasn’t a culture where people had 3-4 pints like the Brits or the Germans (or the Belgians, or the Dutch etc.). Ultimately our location next to the Stade de Gerland, combined with our stubborn refusal to give up, proved to be determinant in our success. Opening Ninkasi, and growing it into what it is today, was the hardest thing I have ever done, and that experience influenced in every way possible what I have done with ChefStable.
Q: How did your relationship with brewing end? It seems like since your time in France you have focused more on food and wine spots instead of beer. Is The Loyal Legion a return to an old love?
My relationship with brewing, as a business, ended when I sold the company to my partner, but I have always wanted to get back involved with beer or brewing in some capacity since I left. In many ways The Loyal Legion is what I wish we had done with the first Ninkasi in Lyon: simple but excellent food and a whole ton of awesome beer. It’s what I dreamed about when I was 20 and I’m stoked to finally do it 25 years later.
Q: The Oregonian article begins with the supposition that what we are missing is more beers and gigantic beer bars with 50+ taps. However those places like your Yard Houses and Henry’s are not well liked by the beer community. Do you think these style of places are where the industry is moving?
I hope not. No offense to Yard House and Henry’s, but they are the Cheesecake Factory of beer-halls, which will always have a HUGE audience, but I think, at least here in Portland, that there is a demand for something different. Anyone who ever got into home brewing, or craft brewing or who just loves drinking good beer, we all know that beer hates to travel. Beer hates heat, it hates sunlight, it hates trucks, it hates intense filtration, it hates sitting around in distributions centers etc. etc. Local beer will always have an advantage over beer that is brought in from far away – because it’s not beat up. The reason we’re limiting our list to exclusively Oregon beers is to emphasize how amazing our local Oregon craft brewing industry is. Personally, I think it’s the best in North America by a wide margin. The decision to exclude Vancouver beer, which is closer than say Bend, from our list only has to do with the our commitment to talking about how awesome Oregon beer is – so in that sense it’s a little hypocritical relative to what I just said – but I don’t care. I’ll take Oregon beer in a street fight over Washington beer any day of the week – and The Loyal Legion is our little tribute to Oregon’s craft brewing industry.
Q: Following up on my question about huge beer halls. Why 99 taps? The vast amount of taps has been a problem for beer bars like Henrys where a beer could be sitting in a line for a week or more because no one orders it. How will you solve the issue of stale beers?
The beer freshness question is critical – and it’s something that we will have to manage closely. We have two big advantages: first, I owned and operated a brewery for a decade and I know beer and how delicate it is. I also understand how to manage the infrastructure be that the beer gas, the line cleaning, the tap cleaning etc etc.Second, we are building the bar above the keg walk-in in the basement so the total length of the beer lines will be around ten feet. We will be cleaning them on a daily schedule and we have built that (relatively small) waste into our cost projections.I know that if we’re busy – and if we are smart about our product mix / keg sizes / and types of beer delivery methods (nitrous, cask, beer gas), then we won’t have quality issues. If we are not busy enough then we will NOT sacrifice beer quality just for the purposes of having 99 different beers. It may be that we have 99 beers for certain special events where, for instance, we give a visiting brewery 10 taps for a week (This is just an idea).The bottom line is that this is not a sacred number. The additional incremental cost of adding 40 taps is nominal so the number of taps allows us to be as big as we could ever need.
Q: Will all 99 taps be beer or will you have any wine or cider on tap?
We will have three wines on tap as well (white, rose, red), all from Coopers Hall, which is three blocks away. I don’t know if we’ll have any cider.
Q: Will The Loyal Legion cater to a slightly more upscale crowd or be the bare bones beer hall style of Lucky Labrador Brewpubs or a cleaner family friendly style of a Hopworks or Laurelwood?
The one thing you learn in this business is that you don’t get to pick your customers – your customers pick you – and you better be really goddamn grateful with whomever chooses to give you their hard earned cash. I think it is very likely, given the massive center bar (60 seats) that the OLCC will consider that we’re a 21 and over establishment, which is what I’m planning on right now. We’re not changing the “bones” of the building at all – so in that respect the space will be a good deal more urban/industrial than Hopworks or Laurelwood. There are concrete floors that will remain unchanged, booths around the perimeter of the space, a huge bar in the center, a nice sound system, and that’s about it. This space will be all about the beer and the sausages – there won’t be any play-dough or dinosaurs.
Q: How many cask beer taps will you have and do you plan to serve them at proper temperatures?
The intention right now is to have between 6 to 12 cask beers on tap and OF COURSE they will be served at proper temperature – our intention is to celebrate Oregon beer not make a mockery of it. There’s a right way of doing things and that’s how we’re going to do it.I want to work with other types of beers as well, be it firkins or temporary cask beers or anything that is fun and interesting. Our Beer Czar (or whatever we end up naming our head beer buyer) will be working constantly with breweries to secure these more “delicate” or unusual products. I’d love to have a number of them available all the time – but it will be opportunity driven.
Q: There was a mention of “iced” beer served at extra cold temperatures. What is the inspiration for doing that since generally craft beer is served too cold already when most beer is best served at 45-50 degrees?
We’re going to talk with breweries about the idea of replicating what I saw in Scotland and England, when I was playing rugby over there, of having “iced beer” on tap. This is supposed to be fun – and frankly I’m thinking that it will appeal to a different demographic that the hard core beer lover. We’re not going to serve someone’s beer extra cold unless they think it’s cool and fun. As much as I consider myself a beer dork I have to admit that there are a lot of times when I want a really light and REALLY cold beer. Especially when I eat a kielbasa.Maybe that will be our slightly suggestive iced beer tag-line?
Q: How many of the 99 beers will be staples and how many will rotate?
I have no idea.
Q: Being such an Oregon beer centric taphouse have you considered Cicerone certified servers or staff?
Yes – this will be a critical part of our training. We’ll help fund the certification for everyone – and a certain advanced level of training will be required for any job. We need our staff to be capable of talking to the beer neophyte without sounding like a pretentious asshole and to the beer dork without sounding like a moron. That requires a lot of training.
Q: What will make The Loyal Legion unique outside of it’s 99 taps?
It will be the best selection of Oregon draft beers anywhere. I think that’s pretty cool. And hopefully people will appreciate the amount of work we will put into doing it the right way.
The Loyal Legion beer hall is scheduled to open in April, 2015 at 618 SE Alder Street and is one of our Top 10 Most Anticipated Openings of 2015.