My #1 resolution for 2016 is to finally become a Cosmic Tripster.
No, I can’t afford a ride on Virgin Galactic. But I do have enough funds to grab a pint and some Cajun Tots at one of the 61 McMenamins brewpubs in Oregon or Washington.
Although, to call a McMenamins a mere brewpub is to suggest that a trip on Virgin Galactic is just another airplane ride. Most beer-sipping residents of the Pacific Northwest know and love the McMenamins “brand.” But then, to call this pioneering, family-run company a “brand” might make it seem soulless — something it definitely is not.
What started in 1985 by McMenamin brothers Brian and Mike (Oregon craft brew pioneers) has now grown into a fun, quirky family-run empire, with not only brewpubs, but wineries, hotels, and concert venues, concentrated mostly in the Portland area.
But the McMenamins reach stretches up and down Oregon’s backbone, and includes 8 locations in Washington.
McMenamins are predominately housed in old buildings, whose (sometimes sordid) pasts are not just embraced, they’re exalted. Flamboyantly decorated by brilliant artists in a style the company calls “historical surrealism,” a trip to a McMenamins transports you into a universe of enhanced reality.
In the course of filling each venue with a sense of history, the decorators have managed to salvage the eyes and bones of some grand old buildings.
They’ve also amassed a brilliant collection of vintage and antique lighting, hardware and fixtures that would make a Hollywood prop house or Seattle interior decorator drool with envy.
The brothers McMenamin started as brewers, and thanks to their efforts as champions of the 1985 Oregon Brewpub law (which was the first to allow independent brewers to sell their beers on-site), the Oregon craft-brew movement was born. So it naturally follows that they serve AMAZING craft-brewed beer — plus house-roasted coffee, hand-crafted spirits and above-par pub food.
What does this all have to do with tripping through the cosmos?
Taking a cue from their target customers’ penchant for whimsy and discovery, McMenamins has created a wildly addictive and fairly brilliant marketing ploy — the McMenamins Passport.
You buy the empty passport at any location for $25 and a sense of adventure, then you visit EVERY SINGLE MCMENAMINS — the number of which is increasing yearly, it seems.
At each location you get a unique stamp (many locations have multiple stamps), and when your book of dreams is filled, you become a Cosmic Tripster.
Besides being able to forever call yourself a Cosmic Tripster, you get awesome perks, like a free night’s stay at three different McMenamins Lodges, free concert tickets, entry into the annual Passport Club party, and a Cosmic Tripster “key.” I don’t know what that is, but you can bet I’ll let you know when I get mine.
Along the way, you also get little prizes for completing a location or region — a T-shirt here, a growler there. You can also earn “experience” stamps — try a beer flight, attend a specialty dinner, spend the night in one of the hotels. Collect four experiences and you earn a $20 gift card.
Sometimes you have to complete a “photo challenge,” which entails solving a little puzzle by wandering around the grounds and finding the painting that answers the riddle — all in keeping with the fun and games that are the company’s heart and soul.
But there’s more to prize than just T-shirts or Tater Tots. The best gift I’ve received from this cosmic journey has been the delight of discovery.
Is this deliberate? I think so.
The brothers McMenamin understand delight. Of course they want their travelers to enjoy a beer and a burger, but they are also storytellers.
Since most locations are housed in historic buildings that have been given a second (and sometimes third) life, they already come imbued with a sense of character.
The Grand Lodge in Forest Grove, Or., was once an orphanage and old-age home run by the Masons…
The Olympic Club in Centralia, Wa., was a hostel and brothel…
And the newest jewel in the McMen crown, the 1931 Art Deco-style Anderson School, just north of Seattle, was a local Junior High School.
The venues are exaltations of their past lives, which makes them great places to exalt your present one.
Not only have I learned the always-interesting backgrounds of these old buildings, I’ve visited nooks and neighborhoods I might never have discovered otherwise, and glimpsed into other peoples’ lives — true treasure for a writer.
My first stamp mission was the Rams Head Pub in Northwest Portland, in a former residential hotel built in 1912. This is how I learned about Portland’s “alphabet” streets — a neighborhood of small, restored Victorian and Craftsman homes, with a cool, trendy shopping and dining scene. (And the McMenamins Mission Theatre is just blocks away.)
I also dug deep into the basement of Portland’s Crystal Hotel, where I purchased my passport (but I did not get stamped there — see the Cosmic Caveats below….)
Since I got my passport as I was in the midst of my move from California to Washington, I started to plan the routes of my road trips north and south to coincide with McMenamins in outlying areas.
The Roseburg Station Pub & Brewery, a former Southern Pacific train depot, was a grand way station on a cold winter drive south.
If I hadn’t sidelined through Corvallis, I would have missed one of the prettiest and most memorable drives of my journey, west on the 20 to the Oregon Coast, for snow and a simmering winter sunset.
I did a handful of Portland locations with my friend and fellow passport-holder Hilary (who first introduced me to McMenamins years back with a trip to the Olympic Club). We hit the Fulton Pub and the Chapel Pub, and got our first experience stamp when we toured the Coffee Roaster (and “discovered” Portland’s diverse and thriving King Neighborhood.)
And I broke up a long round trip to the Portland Airport with a lazy afternoon at the Vancouver on the Columbia.
Before another airport trip, I enjoyed an overnight stay with my honey at the Grand Lodge in Forest Grove (somewhat trepidatiously — the place is supposedly haunted, but we were not visited).
It was the warm of summer, and we watched a lively game of disk golf, discovered a “secret” hydrangea garden, took a starlight swim in the outdoor soaking pool and got ALMOST all of our stamps.
Which brings me to the Cosmic Caveats: some locations have small, tucked-away bars that are only open for, like, two hours a month (I’m exaggerating, but they do have limited hours). If you want to make the most of a passport journey, make sure you’re visiting at a time when you can maximize stamp acquisition!
Also, staff do not seem to be terribly forthcoming in OFFERING stamps. I originally purchased my passport at the Crystal Hotel in Portland — and by rights, I should have gotten all of my stamps right then and there, had the desk clerk gently reminded me.
My oversight, yes, but a missed opportunity to create customer good will, as opposed to customer annoyance. You had me at hello, now treat me like you want me.
We also missed out on some experience stamps at the Grand Lodge. It would have been a lovely gesture had the front desk staff, who knew we were passport holders, suggested we tick off our “overnight stay” and “take a soak” experiences. But these are very small bumps on a wide highway of wonder.
If you don’t live on the Pacific Northwest but plan on paying a visit, you should seek out a local McMenamins for a meal, or even a stay.
If you DO live in the PNW, sprinkle yourself with a little bit of McMenamins magic and treat yourself (or a friend) to a cosmic trip. You’ll meet some cool people, uncover a new neighborhood, and you never know what you’ll discover.
Here’s to it, and here’s from it, and here’s to it again! If you ever get to it, and don’t do it, You may never get to it to do it again!
-Joe Cotter, McMenamin’s artist