I've heard about this place. I'm going to have to find it.
First rule of Dean’s Scene: You cannot buy beer at Dean’s Scene.
You can drink beer—there’s plenty of suds spouting from four taps inside the pub Dean Pottle built in the basement below his plumbing shop on Northeast Fremont Street—but you can’t buy it. That would be against the law, because Dean’s Scene isn’t a licensed business, let alone a bar. Dean’s Scene is, as far as we know, Portland’s only noncommercial homebrew pub. Strangers who’ve heard about the Scene come to drink in this dimly lit cave. They sit in a haze of tobacco and medical-marijuana smoke below a coaster-covered ceiling next to special bottle-sized shelving built to house the most honored of dead soldiers.
It’s low key and apparently legal: Pottle says both the cops and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission have dropped by in the last seven years, and both seem to be all right with the model since there’s no booze sold and people serve themselves. Legally, it’s a house party with a keg fund at the door. Though some think of Pottle’s place as a speakeasy, it isn’t exactly low-profile. He was filmed for the Oct. 29 episode of the Esquire Network’s Brew Dogs. This Saturday, the coconut-brown ale Pottle made with his neighbors at Alameda Brewing will be on tap at Portland’s first Pro-Am Beer Festival (buy tickets here). Pottle hopes to someday convert his space into a commercial brewery.
Though he’ll expect to replace his brewing equipment if he makes that jump, Pottle already has his one-barrel system rigged for efficiency, complete with faucets that pour automatically when positioned above the vessel they’re meant to fill. Currently it’s half-brewery and half-basement. A storage shelf holds six full glass carboys. Kegs of pumpkin brew for Pottle’s Halloween party are chilled by refrigeration panels salvaged from a plumbing job. There’s even a small commercial-grade glass-washing machine.
When Dean’s is open, a blue and green neon sign lights the window. Scenesters head down the heavy steel steps to his basement and stuff the $10 suggested donation into the box at the bottom of the stairs (“you don’t have to pay,” Pottle repeats) then grab a glass from the case which Pottle restocks at the 25 beer festivals he attends every year. Then, they sidle up to the double-sided bar. The brewmaster comes around to chat, an American Spirit between his fingers. He may or may not be wearing one of his Dean’s Scene T-shirts, which bear the slogan “The place where you never drink the same beer twice.”
Pottle is wiry and young for his 62 years, with a gray ponytail and mustache and square metal-rimmed glasses. By his count, Pottle was 41 the first time he had a “real beer.” It was 1991, and he was living in his hometown in Fairfield County, Conn. The beer was an amber ale from New England Brewing Company, and it made such an impression that Pottle wanted to learn how to make it himself. His wife, Misty, gave him a homebrew kit for Christmas. “I started brewing and I never quit,” he says.
In 1997, during his divorce from Misty—they were together for 20 years, split for 12, then got back together again four years ago but say they’re planning to split again—Pottle made his first pilgrimage to the West Coast and fell in love with Portland during a stay at the hostel at Edgefield. “I’d heard Portland had good beer, but we had no idea because we didn’t have the Internet back in those days,” he says. He spent the last night of his trip drinking in Edgefield’s packed Little Red Shed. “I was from the East Coast,” he says, “and I was like, ‘This is it!’’’
So Pottle moved to Portland in 1998. “Out here they really cared about shit, and that got to me,” he says. “That’s why people move here from all over the country, because they’re too good for where they’re from. And I feel bad, because they really needed me back there.”
After spending the summer in a hostel and a couple of years living off Southeast Foster Road, Pottle bought his Beaumont home for $140,000 in 2001. “Cheaper than shit,” he says, though the basement required more hours of work than he cares to count.
Shortly thereafter, he got back together with Misty, who’d been living in Tucson, Ariz. She became a fixture in the place and remains so. Even as they plan to divorce, she’s still there playing dominoes and calling for Dean to crack a framboise. They went to see The Heat last week, and have a couple’s Halloween costume planned.
Dean’s Scene isn’t much of a secret these days. Over the summer, his basement was a stop on the Fremont Festival’s pub crawl, closing out a night that began at Fremont Ridge bar and Smallwares. He’s had Yelp reviews over the years and, just this month, received a letter from Yelp congratulating him on the impressive reviews of his place. So, yes, it’s OK to talk about Dean’s Scene.
Just remember the second rule of Dean’s Scene: You cannot buy beer at Dean’s Scene. “People ask me for kegs and I say ‘I can’t sell you a keg,’” he says. “But invite me to the party and I’ll come and bring a keg.”
It didn't take long. Last week it was hot and sunny, and now we're getting rainstorm after rainstorm coming in from the Gulf of Alaska. Saturday night the basement was dry when I checked on my laundry. When I came back an hour later there was standing water. And a bigger storm is coming in tomorrow.
It's a little different than those years of drought down in California.