Mama’s CrowBar, a popular watering hole on Portland’s Munjoy Hill, will serve its last beer this Labor Day. Owner Tricia Pryce Henley will be hitting the road this fall in a refurbished camper, nicknamed “Honey,” leaving her beloved city of Portland to visit friends, family and fellow poets while figuring out what’s next.
It might be easy to let a bar in a city full of them close without much acknowledgement, shrugging and muttering something like, “Oh well, guess that’s how business goes these days.” But Mama’s was not just a bar. This place had a significant impact on its rapidly changing neighborhood, on the landscape of craft beer on the peninsula, and on the community that gathered around its taps. And the CrowBar isn’t simply going out of business. Its closure is the culmination of a long and tangled legal battle between Henley and the building’s owners — which is a particularly painful way for a well-loved establishment to meet its demise.
Though its story is unique, the closing of the CrowBar seems symptomatic of the development pressures affecting the now-trendy Munjoy Hill neighborhood, as well as working–class enclaves facing gentrification in other cities. “I think what’s happening to this bar is happening to little huts and taverns all over the place,” Tricia said when I paid her a visit at Mama’s last month.
This 10-stool Congress Street bar, formerly George’s Tavern, had been sold and was operating as Awful Annie’s Irish Saloon for several years before Tricia took it over in 2009 and made it Mama’s. She arrived with a mission. When she first sat down with the beer distributors to place orders, eyebrows raised over her refusal to serve Pabst Blue Ribbon (on grounds that it contains corn syrup). People told her she couldn’t run a bar in this town without carrying PBR. Tricia raised more eyebrows when she insisted on making Allagash Black (her favorite beer) a flagship of the bar, instead of the much more popular White. Her opening tap lineup consisted of Allagash Black, Allagash Curieux (a bourbon-barrel-aged tripel), Brooklyn Lager and Sebago’s Frye’s Leap IPA. The draft list made some people think she was crazy.
Allagash Black has remained a fixture at Mama’s. I’ve yet to find another bar (or even brewery) that features a Belgian-style stout atop its offerings. Mama’s CrowBar has also been a supportive home for new breweries. “I met Nathan Sanborn [co-owner of Rising Tide] right here, sitting at the end of the bar with an unlabeled beer in his hand,” Tricia recalled. “Oxbow delivered their first keg for the bar on a skateboard.” Not one can of PBR has been served.
As we sat and talked, Tricia checked in with everyone coming and going. She made sure her customers had what they needed, even if all they needed was to sit at the end of the bar and read a book. As one of the relatively few female bar owners in Portland, Tricia has been an outspoken advocate for women in a male-dominated environment where bars are often considered places for men to either pick up or get away from members of the opposite sex. She established the CrowBar as a “safe space” where harassment of any type — hate speech or degradation of anyone based on their beliefs, race or sexual orientation — was not tolerated. As patrons witnessed Tricia and her staff make good on their promise to intervene when harassment took place, the number of female customers grew along with the overall diversity of the clientele.
Any new bar on the Hill will have a hard time replacing or replicating the ethos Mama’s established — assuming its owners even care to do. “New businesses in Portland are disconnected from the people in Portland,” Tricia said. “The people of Portland do care how their actions affect other people, and then these businesses roll up and they open and they don’t [care]. They don’t think about their neighborhood.”
It would be naïve to believe our favorite neighborhoods and taverns will never change. My hope for Portland is not that everything remains the same. I hope that throughout the inevitable changes, bar owners and brewers and proprietors of small businesses of all kinds will have the courage to defy conventional wisdom and stand up for the people and the values of their neighborhoods. If the story of Mama’s CrowBar can teach us anything, let it be that.
Note: This column is published in the September issue of The Bollard. When the online issue of The Bollard is put up, this article will link to the version on that page.