Keeping Kids Off the Street for 24 Years: A History of Beer Nation

“I thought it was Steve Jobs and that guy from Blue Like Jazz. They use to do donuts in a ’60s Cadillac owned by the prez at the time in West Parking Lot and then get high and play D&D. The Blue Like Jazz guy and Steve Jobs created a microbrew and called it Apple Computer. Then Steve Jobs took a calligraphy class and founded Beer Nation and the rest is history.” – Colin Townes-Anderson ’13 delivers a cosmogony


“Beer Nation is not a joke. Never been a joke. That's not funny.” – Rob Mack ’93


I hazily remember being told, during my freshman Renn Fayre, that the reason Beer Nation members drink Old German is because one member was a professional bowler sponsored by Pittsburgh Brewing and so his Nation colleagues could get a discount. It was bullshit. I believed it wholeheartedly.

I don’t know whether it was because anything seemed plausible in the shimmering New World of that weekend, or if it was just because Nation seemed so enigmatic. All year, I’d seen gardens rise and fall in my periphery, and been taught vague stereotypes by frustrated, underage sophomores. Beer Nation, so I’d heard, was a coterie of hulking rugby thugs, the pockets of their Carhartt jackets stuffed with Student Body funds. It was half frat and half pyramid scheme, and I should Deep 6 it because I wasn’t going to get any of the free beer. I didn’t quite believe it, but the rumors still left me in the dark.

Of course, I soon learned better, but even two years’ worth of schlepping fence and selling passes didn’t give me the full picture. For this article, I’ve rolled out the keg of Reed institutional memory and hooked it up to the jockey box of journalism. Let me pour you a cup of history.

When the Beer Flowed Like Wine

The beer at Reed was “schwag” in the late ‘80s, Rob Mack ’93 ruefully admits. Before he founded Beer Nation, he used to drink nothing but Milwaukee’s Best. The first time he had a sip of craft beer it blew him away: “It felt like an orchard” in his mouth. Nevertheless, what campus lacked in quality brews it made up for in quantity. A skim through the Quest archives confirms that Reed Socials and SU dances notorious for cheap beer and cheaper bands, were by all accounts orgies of Student Body-funded suds with nary a fence in sight.

Mack was the student body’s Beer Czar in those heady days, in charge of ordering the kegs of schwag. As a freshman, he’d stolen a keg and set up his own all-ages beer garden on the porch of the old Commons, which used to overlook the Canyon. Thus was his reputation made, and during his sophomore year, he became Czar even before he turned 21. Yet when he took the reins in the fall of 1989, student life on campus was reaching a dramatic juncture. As the Berlin Wall came down, so too did some of the walls around Reed.

Alcohol Monitors

In January 1989, Reed student Michael Babic, on leave from the college, died of an overdose. Then-President Jim Powell’s patience with Reed’s drug culture was at an end, and in February of that year he convened a ten-member Commission on Drugs, composed of one trustee, two faculty members, three students, and three administrators. They were told to compile a report that would establish both “the minimum requirements that Reed must meet in order to be in compliance with all local, state and federal laws” on drugs and alcohol and “how much beyond these minimum legal requirements should Reed’s policies extend.”

By the beginning of the next academic year, the report was out. The Commission on Drugs, as well as urging Reed to pass a drug policy post-haste, also “recommended that the Administration make it all but impossible for students who are minors to get beer at socials.” The Quest article announced the report took pains to note that “the Administration’s policy of benign neglect” would continue for the foreseeable future and that “Beer will flow freely, as is customary, at the Orientation Week ‘Meat Market Social.’” (That name would definitely not fly today.) Nevertheless, as in the 2010s, Reedies’ open soft-drug use was about to become an unintended casualty of a hard-drug tragedy.

Throughout the fall of 1989, the issue moved at the glacial pace of all Reed policy, relegated to sidebars in the Quest and buried under voluminous arguments about South African divestment, the Berlin Wall and N.W.A.’s first album. According to Mack, it took another dramatic theft to push Powell’s policy into practice.

At some point, a particularly dishonorable student helped himself to one of Reed’s 35mb hard drives – an expensive piece of hardware in the late 1980s. At home, he had trouble getting it to work, so he called Apple’s tech support hotline. They asked him for the serial number, he read it to them, and they traced it back to Reed. The student was promptly arrested for grand theft, but before he went off to jail, he committed a bizarre act of revenge against the community that had caught him. He wrote a letter to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission telling them beer was freely available to minors at Reed. “I think he had a grudge against me,” Mack explained.

That did it – now that the government was involved, the law had to be followed. In January 1990, a team of administrators and students met with the OLCC. They were informed that beer paid for and distributed through Student Body funds counted as a “sale of alcohol,” even if it was being poured for free, and that beer distribution to minors at socials was thus illegal. As the Quest skeptically reported, “Reed Social events must be licensed if alcohol is to be served and must cease to illegally give minors alcohol…the Student Body must take out a one-day temporary license, set up a ‘beer garden,’ and strictly check the identification of all those who enter for their age, all subject to the scrutiny of the OLCC.”

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“All throughout Reed, the chorus goes, somebody narked!” Thus began the Quest’s coverage of the emergency Reed Union on beer; a Union long on questions and short on good answers. The most obvious move would have been to let the Student Body apply for a beer garden license, but there was a precedent roadblock: it had always been Senate policy to only pay for events open to everyone, and a beer garden open only to a quarter of the student body was certainly not that. Mack recalls that the debate “created a rift,” which is putting it lightly.

Not only were beer gardens condemned as exclusive, but some Union attendees even called into question student competence to comply with OLCC rules in the first place. Bill Curtin, then Community Safety director, volunteered his force to check IDs and keep the Cleveland High kids out. That was shot down immediately; everyone recognized that having uniformed guards around a garden was, as the Quest report put it, “potentially damaging to the Reed Atmosphere.™”

In the end, Senate refused to fund beer. Their rationale still rankles Mack. “You can have a group, say something like underwater lesbian basketweaving, that I can’t participate in—but who am I to say no to you? You get some money, buy some scuba gear, fuck yeah! That’s how Senate works.”

Campus was in uproar. The Quest published furious yet fatalistic editorial cartoons. (Not everyone sympathized with the drinkers: one student sent in a diatribe against the “inexplicable, fraternity-like urge to drink large quantities of beer – bad beer – bad, American, factory beer” and expressed hope that soberer social attendees would now learn to tango.)

The loss of beer at socials soon became symbolic. All of these developments were taking place at a seminal moment in Reed history. In the years 1989-1991, Policy came to campus in a big way. The first Drug and Alcohol Policy, the first Smoking Policy, and a new Community Constitution all established rules and guidelines in what had previously been the realms of honor discussions and case-by-case negotiation. Some of this was unavoidable. The Drug and Alcohol Policy, for instance, was forced on the college by the Bush Administration’s knuckle-draggingly conservative “drug czar” William Bennett, the man who once cited Reed’s Student Body Handbook as an example of American colleges’ “decadence and moral decay.” If the policy had not been written, Reed would have risked the loss of its federal funding.

Nevertheless, it felt like the end of an era, and the imposition of external law in the form of OLCC rules felt like one more nail in the coffin of Olde Reed.

Trust Us, We’re Drunk

Yet student creativity, like life itself, always finds a way. Many students firmly believed, and still do, that as Mack explains, “It is better, safer and healthier to have [alcohol consumption] all in one place and in the open.” They believed that instead of drinking beer at a social, surrounded by their peers, students would slam down shots at home alone before heading out to party – a much more dangerous state of affairs. One group of them became determined to deliver safe and legal booze to the masses.

To work around Senate’s intransigence, Mack and his housemates at the Fridge, the legendary Reed house on the corner of 39th and Woodstock, formed the Reed Homebrewers’ Collective. They received Student Body funds for brewing equipment and started making beer in batches large enough to supply campus. Apparently, the whole process from picking out a keg in the Fridge basement to serving the first cup at Reed took no more than eighteen minutes. There were still hiccups – Mack vividly remembers half-fermented hops squirting out through the tap, splashing customers’ beer into their faces.

It was at this point, denied funds and operating out of a basement, that they coined the name “Beer Nation.” Queer Nation was the name of Reed’s LGBT organization at the time, and Mack and his friends took inspiration from them – not, he insists, as mockery, but as joking analogy: “We were being victimized for our love of beer!” That kind of parodic appropriation probably wouldn’t fly today at Reed either, although Mack recalls discussing the issue with members of Queer Nation who didn’t mind the joke. It is, after all, hard to stay mad at the man filling your cup of free beer.

Senate did eventually come around and begin to fund Beer Nation in the early 1990s. It was still a small-scale operation, with gardens few and far between and a looser membership than today. “I’m very last-minute-efficient,” Mack said. “It all worked out.” It was not until years after the first generation’s graduation that Nation received recognition “as an entity” from the OLCC and was able to obtain a permanent beer garden license. Yet the seeds of an institutional Nation had been sown – or, rather, had begun to ferment – on those eighteen-minute keg runs from the Fridge to the front lawn. They’d built something that would last for a generation.

Keeping Kids off the Street for 24 Years

As institutional, exclusive, and uptight, as Beer Nation might seem to thirsty freshmen, it is ultimately a product of student creativity and a quarter century of student work. It’s a far better solution than having the beer gardens run by the CSOs, or worse—by Bon Appetit, or not having gardens at all. The pre-Powell era when the beer flowed like wine is gone forever, and we should all pour one out for it, but once we do, it’s time to pick up that fence or shoulder that toolbox.

Reed is not a sovereign state, and from time to time student autonomy will be threatened not only by the administration’s actions and policies but by those of the United States government. The Multnomah County D.A. will call the President and demand drug law enforcement, or changes to federal rules will force Senate to rewrite the DHSM. The challenge when it happens is to do all we can to keep governance in student hands. Rather than throwing up our hands and bemoaning the death of Olde Reed, we have to brew up a bold new idea. That’s the Reed community spirit – and that kind of spirit can’t be regulated by the OLCC.