How Pilsner Replaced Pinot on The Dining Table
Earlier this year, Higgins Restaurant turned 25. Owner Greg Higgins is widely credited with ushering in Oregon’s farm-to-table movement and turning Portland, once a culinary backwater, into an A-list destination. But Higgins gets less credit for his other transformation: establishing beer’s credibility as a gastronomic equal to wine on the city’s finest tables.
Greg Higgins grew up in western New York and studied fine arts in college, like so many young adults, not certain how his life would unfold. During college, however, he started cooking, and this turned out to be the formative experience that would lead him to travel around Europe and the US, feeding his curiosity about food. Eventually he ended up in Portland, landed a job as the first sous chef at the Heathman—the source of haute cuisine in the 1980s—and, when the chef departed almost immediately, found himself in the top job.
Higgins’ cuilinary story is well-known. He won a James Beard award, and his restaurants, particularly the one named for him, have won countless awards and honors. Less visible, though, is the way in which he elevated the status of beer in the city and paved the way for Oregonians—and his fellow chefs—to take it seriously as a complement to the best food. This history deserves more exposure, as does Greg’s role in giving Portland such a huge head-start in the adoption of locally-made beer.
Higgins is a man of many interests, and one of his early passions was beer. By the time he was chef at the Heathman, he was already homebrewing—right about the same time the Ponzis and Widmers were launching local breweries. “I was fascinated with beer then,” he said, and spent his time trying to track down anything imported with character. He read avidly about beer, soaking in Michael Jackson’s evocative prose. Later, the two would travel together, which certainly goosed Higgins’ interest in beer. “I had a lot of fun times crawling through pubs with him,” he told me (and I be he did!). But Jackson was also a big promoter of cuisine à la bière—and exposure to the way beer was treated by Europeans, particularly in Belgium, left a lasting impact.
Higgins’ first foray into beer-centric dining came when the Heathman opened a more casual bistro focusing on bread called the B. Moloch (in the space now occupied by Southpark). He collaborated with the Widmers, who operated a ten-barrel brewery in the space. In 1989, he waxed about the inspiration when the LA Times came to visit.
"Since Mesopotamian times, people have baked bread and made beer in the same location," said Greg Higgins, chef and manager of the B. Moloch Heathman Bakery and Pub in downtown Portland. "Maybe it was because you need yeast for both beer and bread, and yeast likes certain atmospheres."
"We use beer in many of our recipes," Higgins said, as he trimmed the excess pastry from several dozen calzone and slides them into the brick oven. "We make a slightly sour beer bread, and we use beer in our rarebits and some of our sauces."
This was a time in Portland when Widmer’s Hefeweizen was going supernova, and for a few years the combination of the sunwashed bistro, tall glasses of Hefe, and all the city’s shiniest people created an entirely new impression of what beer could be. In the 1980s, Portlanders (and Americans more generally) still associated “beer” with everything blue collar. It was the tipple of hunters and loggers, the thing men (yes, usually men) drank when they stopped into a neighborhood tavern. It was a symbol of the cheap, the accessible, and the bog-standard ordinary. As brewers at the time will tell you, beer’s fixed reputation and cultural status were one of the biggest barriers they faced in winning converts who couldn’t understand why they would have to pay a quarter more a glass.
A social phenomenon exists, but I don’t know if anyone’s named it. It works like this. Take any category of food or beverage—cider, Mexican food, cheese—that has a low status. As new artisanal producers arrive to introduce people to higher forms, they face a challenge. Their entire category is hamstrung by prexisting expectations until one brand or establishment can be seen as high culture. That allows the expectations to shift so potential customers now arrive with the idea that a product might be rare and sublime.
Breweries were making good beer by 1989, and there were a number of them around Oregon. But they still suffered from the straightjacket in which public opinion placed them. The beers they made might have been tasty and even elegant, and they may have attracted a whole tier of drinkers who would love their interesting new flavors, but they were still considered low and so that group never encountered them—until Greg Higgins put beer in a context they understood.
B. Moloch started to shift that view, and when Greg opened his own eponymous restaurant in 1994, things really changed. Higgins quickly became the city’s most interesting restaurant, and when diners arrived for locally-sources salmon and asparagus, they found not just a wine list, but a beer list as well. Indeed, Higgins had Warren Steenson, a beer sommelier, on staff to identify, source, and import the best beers from around the world. In the 1990s, Portlanders were introduced to Orval, Rodenbach, and Cantillon, and those beers turned many heads.
At the same time, Higgins worked with local brewers to develop special beers that would serve the Higgins menu. The first and most enduring—it’s still ongoing—was with Hair of the Dog’s Alan Sprints. Both companies were founded that year, and Sprints has a culinary degree and equal passion for the alchemy possible when food and beer come together. They saw eye-to-eye on food, and Higgins was delighted to find a local producer willing to make the daring, complex beers like Belgians did. “What Alan did at Hair of the Dog was seminal,” he said.
That beer could be wine’s equal at the dinner table is still controversial in some parts of the country. The idea hasn’t been true for fifteen years or more in Portland, where you’d struggle to find a good restaurant that didn’t take beer seriously (even places like Noble Rot, which focus on wine, have great beer). Higgins loves wine, but believes beer is just more versatile with food. For him, it was obvious that beer should be included with wine on the menu.
“I’ve tried to make beer visible to people,” he told me. He has done just that, and so effectively and comprehensively I worry we fail to notice his contribution. There are many parents of success, and we could name dozens of people who helped make Portland Beervana. But the one who gets overlooked too often is Greg Higgins. Let’s raise a pint to Greg and correct the record.