Drinking for Charity

The rise of the philanthropub


At the Oregon Public House, every sip of barrel-aged imperial stout and apricot-tinged hard cider takes the edge off a cold, harsh world. And not just because many of the craft brews served by the recently opened Portland pub boast a higher alcohol content than a bottle of Budweiser.

This establishment is a "philanthropub." Along with the brews, a variety of non-profits are on tap here, too. When you place your order at the bar, you don't just choose beer, wine, or food. You also choose an organization such as Friends of the Children or Friends of Trees, which gets the profit from your order. In its first six weeks of operation after opening in May 2013, the Oregon Public House donated a total of $3,842.80 to eight local charities. Other philanthropubs have been established in Washington, D.C., and Houston, Texas.

These days, halos of virtue are poised to enlighten virtually any consumer impulse. A new pair of ivory linen strappy wedges from Toms can help reduce footborne parasitic diseases in Ethiopia. Your new hipster eyewear from Warby Parker mitigates astigmatism in Paraguay. The Oregon Public House takes this 21st century feel-goodism to an intoxicating new level-you can literally get hammered while you down yet another lager on behalf of Habitat for Humanity.

For anyone who believes that social justice cannot truly be effective unless it's painful, complicated, and compulsory-not to mention highly dependent on government bureaucrats operating outside the realm of market forces-enterprises like the Oregon Public House are no doubt anathema. But for anyone who sees the virtue in making efforts to improve the world accessible, enjoyable, and culturally embedded in the most pervasive and quotidian ways, philanthropubs are yet another sign that consumer autonomy and grassroots democracy are thriving these days. In the span of a few hours at the Oregon Public House, you can help a tiny sapling reach its full potential as an American Yellowwood Tree, fight child sex trafficking, catalyze economic development in Oregon's low-income communities, and underwrite microloans for people living in a Nicaraguan garbage dump. And all you have to do is lift your glass. Prosit!

Consumer charity mainstreams the lavish fundraising dinners that have long been a staple dish in the rarified realms of Big Philanthropy. That a neighborhood pub is the setting for such democratization is especially fitting. In general we tend to overmeasure the social ills associated with alcohol consumption and underestimate the community-building bonds of neighborhood imbibery.

Consider the backstory of the Oregon Public House. Several years ago, when Ryan Saari and his friends were brainstorming about how to get more involved in their neighborhood, Saari hit upon the notion of a nonprofit pub that would contribute its excess to local charities. Given Portland's reputation for craft beer and progressive altruism, the idea was a natural. And yet some of Saari's would-be collaborators wondered if the venue in question had to be a pub. Why not a coffeehouse? Or a brewpub specializing in craft root beer?

The fact that Saari is a minister at a church called Oregon Community apparently did little to mitigate their doubts about virtue emanating from a public house of potential sin. This attitude is hardly uncommon, of course. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Christine Sismondo notes in her 2011 book America Walks into a Bar, a rider attached to Congress's original relief bill "excluded bars from applying for aid or tax breaks on the grounds that they contributed nothing to the community."

But as Sismondo shows in her instructive and entertaining book, bars have played a crucial role in the evolution of American democracy. In colonial times, they often doubled as courthouses, lecture halls, and even churches. They were so integral to early Massachusetts that the state actually levied fines on towns that had not established a tavern of their own.

Whether it was disgruntled colonists planning to gain their independence-Boston's Green Dragon was known as the "headquarters of the American Revolution"-or 19th-century immigrant anarchists planning demonstrations, groups "denied access to legitimate and sanctioned forms of political representation" found safe harbor and sympathetic allies in the nation's saloons. Emboldened by alcohol, enlivened by the freedom to associate in a realm that was less formal and thus more naturally democratic than a courtroom, church, classroom, or workplace, "the bar was where the public proved itself…capable of economic and political self-determination."

In our own era, bars no longer play as primary a role as they once did -especially if their chief draws are beer, booze, and conversation rather than food, music, and giant flat screens showing a half-dozen baseball games. As early as 1989, The New York Times was announcing that the "corner bar was falling victim to new values." In 2012, the Chicago Tribune reported that the number of establishments with tavern licenses in Chicago had dwindled from around 6,400 in 1900 to only 1,000 or so. USA Today attributed this decline to "the economy, gentrification, changing tastes and city regulations that make it more difficult to operate in residential areas."

The once-ubiquitous corner bar has been replaced by cafes, fast food outlets, and bars that offer more ambitious fare than a handful of ashtrays filled with sugar-encrusted peanuts. Consumers enjoy a greater range of choices than they once did. In addition to boozy domains of promiscuous conviviality where everyone knows your name, we now have dens of placid sobriety where you can type on your laptop for hours without ever being disturbed by a strident, half-sloshed anarchist.

In many ways, this represents progress. And yet in a metropolis the size of Chicago, or even smaller cities like Portland, is it enough just to have a thousand or so locations where the primary appeals are a well-poured stout and the possibility of freeform discourse with your neighbors?

The Oregon Public House is hardly a note-for-note throwback to a midcentury corner bar filled with factory workers coming off the graveyard shift to knock back a few Miller High Lifes at the crack of dawn. It opens at 11:30 a.m. and last call comes before 11 p.m. on weeknights. Its menu features things like butternut squash ravioli, gluten-free chocolate tortes, and arugula and quinoa salads that "can be made vegan by request." There's a large play area for children.

It's family-friendly and foodie-friendly, and yet, like the taverns of centuries past, it envisions itself as a cauldron of community, an essential neighborhood gathering place where, thanks to the alchemy of fermented hops, passing familiarities deepen into friendship and slightly lubricated discourse blossoms into civic engagement. "We get customers who come in who have no idea what we're doing here," says Saari. "I love watching their eyes light up when we explain the concept. As much as we're a fundraising place for these charities, we're also a mouthpiece. We want our customers to get involved with them outside the pub experience too."

At a time when America is often cast as a deeply polarized place where unchecked capitalism is concentrating wealth and power into the hands of the ruling 1 percent and everyone else is disenfranchised and bereft of resources, places like the Oregon Public House tell a strikingly different story.

Nat West, the founder of Reverend Nat's, the hard cider brand featured at the Oregon Public House, started out using a retrofitted garbage disposal and other jerry-rigged equipment to produce the stuff in his basement. Ryan Saari thought it'd be cool to open a non-profit neighborhood pub, and after four years of development efforts it exists, with no corporate loan officers or deep-pocketed investors calling the shots. (Funding came through individual givers making relatively small contributions, donated labor and materials, and a couple of redevelopment grants from the city of Portland.)

Now the citizens of Portland have a lively resource for generating revenue to help other ventures with noble purposes achieve a greater measure of sustainability. But the Oregon Public House will only persist if it delivers experiences its customers find rewarding enough to support on a regular basis. It is, in short, a supremely democratic mechanism, an experiment in economic and political self-determination to which the drunken patriots and soon-to-be revolutionaries crowding the bar at the Green Dragon would have no doubt raised a toast.