The first time I saw Don Younger he was holding a beer. Owner of the legendary Horse Brass Pub in Portland, Oregon, Younger stared intently out of a two-page photo spread in Imbibe magazine, his long gray hair spilling over his shoulders, his eyes bright, the beginnings of a wry smile forming beneath his beard and mustache. His arms were crossed, a lit cigarette in one hand, and a half-empty pint of ale in the other. Paraphernalia from Chimay, Bass, Tetley’s, and other breweries adorned the wall behind him. Looking at the image, only one word came to mind: “Badass.”
Two years later I move to Portland and finally see Younger in person. I’m at the Horse Brass with a friend, and Younger is sitting at the other end of the bar with his beer and cigarette, holding court with the regulars and drawing new visitors into the conversation.
Younger is indeed a badass, but more than that, he’s a publican. To call him a “bar owner” just doesn’t convey his devotion. Since taking over the Horse Brass in 1976, he’s helped usher in the state’s craft brewing revolution. Local brewers credit Younger for introducing them to beers that were unavailable anywhere else, and today his more than 40 taps and casks feature some of the best beers Oregon has to offer. Portland’s famed Rogue Brewery has named a beer, Younger’s ESB, in honor of Don’s late brother, who brought him into the tavern business. The Horse Brass is even known as far away as England, where transatlantic visits and dart tournaments have secured friendly bonds with its honorary sister pub, the Princess of Wales.
Yet as wonderful as the beer is at the Horse Brass, its community revolves around something more: smoking. The bar is notorious among non-smokers for its tobacco haze and its brown walls and ceiling, which people swear were once white. For those who enjoy tobacco, the Horse Brass is a welcome sanctuary in a city where many businesses are already smoke-free. It’s easy to light a cigar, strike up a conversation, and make new friends. Unfortunately, I had only three months to feel at home here: The state legislature decreed that on January 1, 2009 all bars and restaurants in the State of Oregon had to become smoke-free.
It’s surprising that the state took as long as it did to enact a smoking ban. Oregon is famously progressive, and neighboring California and Washington passed bans long ago. But perhaps due to Oregonians’ admirable independent streak, their state was behind the trend. Nonetheless, the law passed fairly quietly, apart from the protests of a few bar and tobacco shop owners.
Proponents argue the ban is necessary on worker-safety grounds. It’s true that long-term exposure to smoke carries risks, but anti-smoking activists exaggerate the dangers by stretching scientific studies beyond credibility. The best studies finding correlation between second-hand smoke and health problems have generally examined non-smoking spouses of smokers who were exposed over a period of decades at home. These studies cannot be exactly extrapolated to the service industry, and even more wildly extrapolated to its patrons. Given the high rates of turnover in the hospitality industry and the many smoke-free options already available, banning smoking entirely is an excessive fix.
The ban could be more accurately described as a simple tyranny of the majority: non-smokers imposing their preferences on everybody else. Before the ban, Oregon’s non-smokers had no shortage of places to congregate. SmokefreeOregon.com, a site compiled by local anti-tobacco groups, listed more than 400 smoke-free bars and restaurants in Portland alone. And if the state merely wished to encourage more smoke-free environments, it could have pursued less heavy-handed measures, like giving tax breaks to businesses that went smoke-free. That would have done the job without placing undue restrictions on bar owners, patrons, and employees who like being able to smoke on the job.
Technically, Oregon does make an exception for cigar bars, but the prerequisites for an exemption are so burdensome that very few bars can meet them. To qualify, bars must prove that they sell at least $5,000 worth of cigars each year, maintain a humidor on the premises, do not offer video lottery games (an important source of bar revenue), seat no more than 40 customers, forbid entrance to anyone under 21, and install state-approved ventilation equipment. Pipe and cigarette smokers aren’t allowed to light up in them. The ventilation requirement can be plausibly tied to health concerns, but the others seem intended simply to make running a cigar bar unprofitable.
The Horse Brass is unquestionably a smokers’ bar, but it strikes out on nearly all of these fronts. It seats far more than 40 people. It has gambling machines in the corner. People come to smoke cigarettes as much as they do cigars. And while cigars are popular there, the bar has never been in the business of selling them.
As the days drew closer to January 1, conversations at the pub turned frequently to what would happen once the ban went into effect. We’ll keep coming for the food, the beer, and the camaraderie, regulars tell each other, but we know we won’t show up as often or stay for as long when we do. We exchange notes on which cigar shops have the best lounges.
In the final few days of 2008, I spent a lot of time at the Horse Brass hoping to talk with Mr. Younger about the ban. He didn’t show. The bartender told me he was tired of everybody asking him questions about what would happen to the bar. “The whole dynamic of the place is going to change,” Younger told the Portland Mercury two weeks before the ban took effect. “The heart and soul is being removed, surgically. The State of Oregon runs my business now.”
Many customers visited the Horse Brass in the week between Christmas and New Years, just to light up there one last time. Frank Bader, a German immigrant, drove from across town because the place reminds him of the neighborhood bars he knew back home. “There’s a place where the nanny has no place,” Younger tells me, “and it’s called a pub.” Another dedicated patron arrived at 1 p.m. on December 31st to secure his favorite seat, which he occupied long into the night.
On New Year’s Eve, Don Younger is conspicuous by his absence. I’m huddled at the bar with other loyal regulars, savoring our last legal smokes. We’re all thankful to Don for making the Horse Brass such a wonderful place and saddened by the changes to come.
The clock strikes midnight and our cigars are still lit. “Put those out, they’re illegal now!” shouts a man from across the room. He’s only joking, but his voice is tinged with gallows humor. From now on, complaints could bring in fines of $500 per day and the menacingly vague threat of “further administrative action” for any bar that racks up multiple violations.
Don Younger is a badass, but even he can’t stop the dictates of faceless bureaucracy and nannying busybodies backed up by government force.
“This is the best bar in the world,” sighs the woman next to me. “It will still be here, but it won’t be the same.”
-Jacob Grier is a freelance writer, barista and bartender in Portland, Oregon. He writes at www.jacobgrier.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire