[Note: I'm about to post a review of the new Northwest Lucky Lab, but since it refers to the original, I'm posting a review I wrote in 2000 (I think). Don't expect reviews of this depth to continue.]
915 SE Hawthorne
Monday - Saturday 11:00 a.m. to midnight
Sundays noon - 10:00 p.m.
Minors until 9 p.m.
Beers: Black Lab Stout, Hawthorne's Best Bitter, Dog Day IPA, Stumptown Porter, Reggie's Red, Organic Golden Ale, seasonals and specials.
Like restaurants, brewpubs have personalities. They may be temples to brewing, with gleaming kettles and fermenters looming behind the bar, or they may be modeled after an English pub, with dark wood and darts, or they may have an original feel created by the owner. If you wanted to describe the Lucky Labrador Brewpub’s personality, “authentic” wouldn’t be a bad choice. Like an old flannel shirt, Lucky Lab is comfortable and unaffected.
The best brewpubs reflect the character of their neighborhood, and the Lucky Lab is situated at the edge of one of Portland’s most down to earth, the Eastside Industrial District. An active pocket of light-industrial business, this is a part of town where people come to put in a good day’s work. One of the most popular coffeehouses isn’t a Starbucks, but My Father’s Place, an old-style diner where you can still smoke and get a plate of biscuits and gravy for breakfast.
True to the feel of the neighborhood, the Lucky Lab is located in what was, from 1922 to 1994 (the year the pub opened), a roofing and sheet metal warehouse. A cavernous building with exposed wood joists, skylights high overhead and the original wood floor underfoot (very much worse for the wear after seven decades of steel-toed boots and dropped tools), it takes no imagination at all to envision the years of hard work that took place there. “Brewing beer is industrious work,” co-owner Geist said of the space, “and we wanted to convey that with our building.”
It is possible to enter the pub from the Hawthorne Street side, but that entrance, which sends you down a long, deserted hallway, feels like the back way. Rather, most people head to the north entrance where there’s a covered back patio and picnic tables—seemingly populated even in winter by groups of chatting pubgoers. From the back door, you are delivered right into the hubbub of the main seating area.
Although the building is a mostly unaltered warehouse, it doesn’t feel industrial inside. The floor, ceiling, and thirty-foot bar running along the wall are all wood. Light drifts down from the high canopy onto a dense scatter of tables, also wood. Inspired by English pubs, the atmosphere is warm and inviting, if not exactly English.
On the wall near the restrooms you can find a bulletin board covered with snapshots of patrons' dogs—mostly labs of every stripe. And near the rear door is a similar collage, this one showing the brewery’s faithful on vacation, standing in front of famous monuments while proudly displaying a Lucky Lab T-shirt (my favorite is “the grassy knoll”). The patio outside is home to another group of regulars—the four legged variety. Particularly in the summer, the one often finds as many dogs as their human companions.
The food tends toward the basic side, with soup, sandwiches, and bento. During one tour, Geist noted, "This is our kitchen—it’s a hallway—which I guess shows our emphasis on beer." In fact, though the menu is limited, the food is excellent. Featured are a wide selection of vegetarian options as well as particularly meaty choices like a stout-cooked sausage sandwich.
Portland natives Alex Stiles and Gary Geist founded the Lucky Lab in 1994. The idea for a brewpub first came to Geist and Stiles in 1991, when they visited Europe on a post-college backpacking adventure. Enjoying the pub culture throughout their travels, it was at the magnificent brewing monastery Kloster Andechs in Germany that, as Geist punned, they were “almost divinely inspired” to own their own brewpub.
After returning to Portland, the two worked at BridgePort, Geist in the pub pulling pints, Stiles in the brewery, and the inspiration grew into a business plan. In the early summer of 1994, with $190,000 raised from ten investors, they leased the 1922 warehouse on Hawthorne and set to work converting it. They did most of the work themselves, from making their own bar to dismantling an unnecessary chimney brick-by-brick to creating and insulating a walk-in refrigerator (“we’ll never do that again”).
Initially, Stiles and Geist had planned to lease the building, but the opportunity to buy it arose, and they took out a Small Business Association loan and bought the old warehouse outright. They outfitted the new brewery with a mash tun and kettle, as well as some grundies from Cross Brewing Equipment, and by fall were ready to brew. In all, the process took 3 ½ months and, even doing most of the work themselves, they finished without a dime left over.
The Lucky Lab was a success from the start. Locals were immediately supportive and it remains a model for a neighborhood pub. In the years since it opened, the Lucky Lab has become one of Oregon’s largest brewpubs, brewing around 1,200 barrels of beer each year. Along with the McMenamins and BridgePort, where Geist and Stiles once worked, the Lucky Lab has become one of Portland’s signature brewpubs.
Once a month Stiles, Geist, and assistant brewer Dave Fleming sit down with several classic examples of a style of beer for research and development. They’ve tasted everything from abbey ales to Bavarian weizens to Irish stouts. You’d never know it from their beers, though, which all bear the same distinct flavor profile.
Most obviously, the Lucky Lab beers are hoppy. Even those without a lot of bitterness have layered hop character, starting with the nose and lingering after each sip. Hawthorne’s Best Bitter, the brewery’s best-selling beer, is a good example. With a mere 26 BUs, it is nevertheless densely citrusy from liberal Cascade hopping. More subtly, the beers all have a hard-water quality reminiscent of the beers produced by the famous waters of Burton-upon-Trent (though Lucky Lab beers are brewed with gentle Portland city water).
Most of the Lucky Lab beers are aggressive, which suits the taste of Portlanders, who like their beers to have intense flavors. Dog Day IPA is an exceptional example of an India Pale Ale, a notoriously strong, hoppy style. On the other end of the spectrum, Black Lab Stout is so impenetrable with dark malts that, unless it’s been cask-conditioned, it is likely to overwhelm most drinkers. For a milder beer, try Stumptown Porter or Königs Kölsch.
PHOTO: Kyle G. Grieser. Post updated 6/26/06.