The Bartender’s List- Tyler Stevens

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The first time I met Tyler Stevens was at a pop-up event during Portland Cocktail Week. We were standing in the middle of Victoria Bar surrounded by industry folks and, me being me, I felt awkward, uncomfortable and completely out of place. So I did what I normally do in these types of situations. I introduced myself to someone with a friendly face and forced them into a 1:1 conversation so I wouldn’t have to mingle among throngs of strangers. That night, Tyler just so happened to be my target.

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The words “Tell me your life story” may have actually crossed my lips. Perhaps had I known at the time that Tyler had just come off one of the craziest years of his life, I wouldn’t have been so bold. My brazen approach, however, yielded a story that stuck with me, an honest account of a life which in the telling seemed to hold a set of experiences suited to a man of 43 as opposed to Tyler’s comparatively green 26. Do not take this to mean that Stevens inhabits a middle-aged life. Despite the weight and challenges of recent years, Tyler is very much a man in his mid-20s. From busboy to acclaimed barista to bar manager of the most well-respected cocktail programs in Portland, Oregon Tyler’s resume runs the gamut. A bartender, a barista, a cowboy at heart, his hats are plentiful and his story, unique. So let’s get to it, shall we?

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What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?

A cowboy. I dressed up as a cowboy until the age that it really wasn’t appropriate to do that anymore. Like fifth grade the teacher was saying “You need to dress a little more appropriately because next year is middle school and you’re going to be devoured.”

Do you remember your first sip of alcohol?

Yeah. I was 13. My mom is going to hate this. My brother came to visit. He was 19 and living in Canada. There’s a beer up there called Seven. He brought it back and it was luke warm. We were in my dad’s garage and my brother shared it with me and forced me to drink like half of it. I could barely stomach the taste. That was my first sip.

How did you get into the coffee industry?

I got fired from my first job at age 15. I was a busboy in wine country. I walked in on my chef getting a blowjob from a hostess. I didn’t think much of it. I was still too naive to really understand what was happening but my shifts just kept getting cut over the course of a month. I decided that wasn’t going to work out for me and school wasn’t going to work out for me cause I couldn’t stop missing class. So I got into the coffee industry at this combined drive thru coffee shop and carwash. I got fired from that job and I got fired from my next cafe job which was also a drive thru. I was a really irresponsible teenager.

After that my buddy in high school was managing this coffee shop. I decided that maybe the combination drive thru/carwash thing wasn’t working out for me. So I went to work at this cafe. My buddy hired me and quickly realized that I really cared about coffee. So we started doing latte art. This was around 2005 or 2006 and there was this revolutionary coffee scene happening up in Seattle. We would drive up there every weekend and learn from Dave Schomer back in the day. He was a legend. We would just mimic his techniques. From there it just took off. We started roasting coffee in Newburg, I got a really large hotel account and I tried selling my coffee at Barista to Billy Wilson but I never heard back from him. He probably never even tasted it. A few years later though, we got together and he gave me a job here at Barista. I put in a lot of time here and it paid off. That’s how I got into coffee.

How did you move from coffee to bartending?

Honestly it was from serving the bartenders from Teardrop at Barista. We were killing it. Bartenders love baristas. If the barista is good, they’re very hospitable and happy but if they see a bartender they speak a little bit quieter because they know they’ve been up since 4 in the morning. A conversation with Sean Hoard started to evolve. Sean had been talking to Daniel Shoemaker (my boss at Teardrop) and told him that we should meet. That evolved into them helping me with drinks for coffee competitions. From there I started working at Teardrop 1-2 days a week while still working at the coffee shop. And then I realized I liked the dark side so much more, just even from a service standpoint. It‘s just such a better vibe for me. Quickly over the course of that year and a half, I made the switch from Barista to Teardrop.

Do you know what Sean saw in you?

Honestly, I think it was a personality thing. Granted, I had a knack for technique. But those guys are smart enough to know that you need people who are nice and aren’t assholes and don’t take what they’re doing too seriously. I think you can learn a lot about somebody by visiting them at their place or work over the course of a year. You learn that they’re stable and pleasant. At least I like to think that’s what it was.

So you made the switch to Teardrop. How long did it take you to move into the position of bar manager?

I remember a few months in I was talking to Brian Gilbert (one of the other bartenders there). He looked at me and said “You know who’s next, right?” At the time I didn’t really know what he meant, but deep down I knew they were thinking of me hopefully. It was cool because it forced me to work really hard. It was about a year and a half to two years working at Teardrop that led to me managing that bar.

How long did you manage for?

About three years.

How did you make the transition back to not managing?

You hear a lot of bar managers in the industry saying that they’ll never manage a bar that’s not their own. I just feel like fuck that. I loved managing. I loved leading a team of people. That’s honestly the position that I thrive in. But I’ve also been doing that since I was 16 and when you get thrown into that role from a younger age, you don’t really mature in the sense that you never really absorb other people’s talents as well. That’s one of the key parts for me. I had a crazy year but it was just taking that personal time to go fishing and hiking and camping. It’s a thing that I never really did for the past 5 years. Doing that was really important at this point in my career. You need to listen to the sound of your own voice for a while to get a gauge of where you’re going to navigate over the course of the next ten years.

Was there a specific conversation, moment or experience that made you decide to make a career of bartending?

Part of it was losing USBC. But I also remember watching Sean bartend. I turned down the job the first time that Teardrop approached me. I told them that coffee was my thing, I had been doing it for 5 years and I loved it. But I went to Teardrop that night and watched Sean buzz around the room. It was cool to watch somebody serve in a really free, open way in terms of hospitality. When somebody came to Barista and asked for a Caramel Macchiato, Starbucks-style, there’s nothing I can do that’s going to make them happy. But when somebody comes into Teardrop and loves drinking Appletinis and boxed cocktail from Montana, they can ask for the same thing and there’s a way to make them happy as long as you don’t take what you do too seriously. There’s always a way to please your guest in terms of what you’re serving them. And that’s always been my goal at Teardrop. Watching Sean was the first time I really got jealous of what somebody was doing. I felt I could do that, I could be like that. It just seemed really fitting. That was probably the week after I turned down the job. Luckily, they asked me again.

What’s your favourite word?

Illuminate.

What’s your least favourite word?

Gargle.

What turns you on?

A southern bell.

What turns you off?

Chewing with your mouth open. Or insecurity. Actually what’s funny is that insecure people have the best table manners. It’s actually really fucked up. So I guess it’s chewing with your mouth open.

What’s your favourite curse word?

Fuck

A sound or noise that you love?

The sound of rain when you’re sleeping in.

A sound or noise that you hate?

Anything coming from that asshole behind me in a movie theatre.

A profession other than your own that you’d like to attempt?

I would say being a cattle rancher.

A profession that you would hate?

I hate to bring it up twice but working concession at a movie theatre would have to be the God damned worst job ever. My older sister managed a movie theatre and she always came home smelling like stale popcorn. Not only that, she got severely injured by the butter. The butter burn is not worth it.

If god exists what would you like him to say when you arrive?

You’re late.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I think it’s absolutely embarrassing that I don’t speak a second language. So to be multi-lingual.

Who is your favourite fictional hero?

John Candy’s character in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. He’s an open book. What you see is what you get. I love that guy.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

King David. I think the way that he is such a strong man and religious things aside, the way that he can wear his heart on this sleeve. I remember reading Psalms and it would just tear me apart. There was something there that really spoke to me.

What is your most treasured possession?

My father’s painting. When he was about 26 years old he went through a big life change. As I was 26 and going through a big life change, he gifted me this painting. It was of a memory of this old, red truck outside of this barn with the grass and wheat growing over it. It was a memory of his happiest place as a child. My dad is an amazing artist and that’s how he supported us growing up. That painting- I would lose it if something happened to it. That’s without a doubt the most important thing I have. I can burn everything I own as long as I have that.

If your best nights behind the bar had a theme song, what would it be?

Mavis Staples- old school gospel gal. Kind of R&B-ish. She’s just kind of cheerful. It’s kind of strange though because Friday and Saturday nights are great but my favourite shift is 10:30am on a Sunday in a cafe playing Mavis Staples.

One cocktail book that should be behind every bar?

The Savoy.

One non-cocktail book that should be behind every bar?

On the Road.

If you could only have a 5 bottle bar, what would they be?

Lillet Blanc, Belvedere Vodka, Beefeater, a really killer blanco tequila, and a bottle of rose.

What would be your death-row drink?

Pina colada. Strawberry. You’d look like a crazy motherfucker going out drinking a pina colada. And it has to be in a super tall, lime-green, see-through plastic cup.

If you could only be known for one drink that you made, what would it be?

It would be The Brightwood Breakup. What’s funny is it only lasted about a week on the menu at Teardrop. Clearcreek Mirabelle Plum Brandy, Cocchi Rosa, Dolin Dry Vermouth, a little bit of Galiano and Elixir Vegetal. Yeah…..that’s why it only lasted a week but it was the best drink I ever made. It was named after my buddy’s band, Brightwood, that was a super tween sensation in 2008. When they broke up there were streams of Youtube videos of emo-girls singing the Brightwood songs. It’s fitting that it only lasted a week.

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Picture Above: A More Perfect Union

1.25oz Lillet Blanc
0.75oz Belvedere Vodka
0.25oz Rothman & Winter Apricot Liqueur
Stir ingredients over ice. Strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with a grapefruit peel.

 

  • elaine laurin

    great interview, what sweet dimples he has.