First there was water.
Then came the beer, first from one brewpub in 1980, then more through the decade.
By 2008, there were some 30---and today there are at least 50 beer brewing locations in Portland, Oregon, more beer outlets per capita than in perhaps any other large community in the world. Indeed, beer lovers call Portland "Beervana," a compact little city of bridges, bicycles, streetcars, a prosperous downtown and brewpubs by the dozen. In certain districts, such an establishment stands around every other corner---a fragrant place inside with steel tanks in the corner, polished taps along the bar, a colorful chalkboard menu scribbled with funny beer names, and often a scruffy man wearing overalls splattered with hop slurry serving patrons beer he made himself. Each of Portland's four quadrants---Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest---has its selection of brewpubs, and in some neighborhoods one must hardly walk three blocks before running into another bar that pours its very own oatmeal stout, India pale ale, barleywine and so many other beer styles. Locally brewed? The concept takes on a whole new scale of meaning in Portland.
So how did this small city get this way in a nation where not so long ago the populace was content to drink from a selection of five or six national canned lagers? Some believe it may be the water. Local beer journalist Brian Yaeger, also the owner of a beer-themed bed-and-breakfast called Inn Beervana, explained to me that the pipes under Portland flow with unfluoridated water, providing brewers with their main ingredient in top form---clean and pure, and virtually free. Yaeger also points out that Portland's proximity to the Yakima and Willamette valleys places this haystack-meets-hipster city within arm's reach of two of the world's most important hop-growing regions. It may be no surprise that India pale ales, or IPAs---heavily steeped with bitter hops as they are---is a staple of the Pacific Northwest, and that the Department of Agriculture's hop growing and breeding station is just 70 miles south, in Corvallis. Meanwhile, experimental beer styles have gained popularity, including sour beers made tart by the addition of various microbes into the brew tank, beers made buttery and creamy by aging in old whiskey barrels, and various styles brewed up black as coal using dark malts, like black IPAs, black lagers and black saisons.
The beers of Portland aren't always cheap. A Portland friend of mine, once a die-hard beer aficionado---and the first person I ever knew to ask a waiter for samples of several beers before placing his order ("You're making us look like snobs!" I cringed at the time)---now regularly drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon simply because craft beer has ascended beyond his budget. Indeed, many six-packs of local craft beer go $10, and single bottles of specialty beers commonly run $12 or more. But brewpubs often include their otherwise almost-dollar-per-ounce fancy beers in tasting trays---a fun way to try six beers or more at a sitting in two- or three-ounce sample glasses, usually for $8 or so for the whole array. But the variety and volume of Portland's beer may overwhelm even the hardiest beer drinkers---so don't bother trying to taste them all. Anyway, it's the beers untasted that may bring you back.
And don't forget to drink the water.
A Sampling of Classic Portland Brewpubs:
Bridgeport Brewing Company. 1313 Northwest Marshall Street, Portland. This popular downtown brewpub in the Northwest district claims to be "Oregon's oldest craft brewery," founded in 1984. Beers include a double red ale, an Imperial IPA and a black pale ale. NOTE: Cartwright's, which opened in 1980, is said to have been the first craft brewery in Oregon and the first pub to pull a tap handle on its own beer in modern-day Portland---but it closed in 1983.
Hair of the Dog Brewing Company. 61 Southeast Yamhill Street, Portland. Known for its eccentric beers often of high-alcohol and with one-word person names like Lila, Will, Ruth and Greg, Hair of the Dog was established in 1993 and once gained fame for making an ice-distilled barleywine named Dave of 29 percent alcohol by volume, hailed at the time as the strongest beer ever. Classics of the brewery today---like its strong ales Fred and Adam---can be found in bottles in many states, while patrons at the pub have the chance to sample onsite small-batch oddities, including familiar beers aged in barrels.
McMenamins. This widespread company of hotels, restaurants, coffee houses and distilleries also includes 24 brewing locations around Oregon. Popular McMenamins beers include the Terminator Stout, Edgefield Wheat, Black Rabbit Porter and Sunflower IPA. The first McMenamins brewpub opened in 1985. Today, the giant operation produces reputable beer, but the owner-operated, brewer-behind-the-bar feel vanished from McMenimans years ago.
A Few Well-liked Newcomers:
Gigantic Brewing Company. 5224 Southeast 26th Avenue, Portland. Freshly opened this spring, Gigantic is pouring some of the very newest beer in Oregon, including a very strange black saison called "The City that Never Sleeps," plus an IPA, to be poured year-round.
Upright Brewing Company. 240 North Broadway (not Northeast Broadway), Portland. Another infant of the local beer community, Upright was born in 2009 and is now a known maverick in creative brewing. Never mind the ubiquitous IPAs and brown ales of almost every other brewery---for Upright makes lesser known European styles with a Northwest flare. Look for the oyster stout, the blossom-infused Flora Rustica and the Fatali Four, brewed with chili peppers.
Hopworks Urban Brewery. 2944 Southeast Powell Boulevard, Portland. Bicycles and beer flow together at Hopworks. The tap handles are made of bicycle headset pieces and old hubs, while several dozen bike frames hang above the bar. The brewpub has six staple beers, including two IPAs and an espresso stout, plus four temporary seasonal brews when I recently stopped in. One of the latter is called Kentucky Christmas, a brawny brown ale aged in old bourbon barrels for a creamy, vanilla-and-coconut flavor. Hopworks has recently launched a satellite location in the Northeast district called, plainly enough, Bike Bar.
Also of Note:
Deschutes Brew Pub, 210 Northwest 11th Avenue, Portland. Opened in 2008, this pub and restaurant serves all the great beers brewed at the original location in Bend, Oregon.
Horse Brass Pub, 4534 Southeast Belmont Street, Portland. They don't brew their own beer, but the menu is an almost comprehensive sampling of the city's beer, and the pub itself is considered a Portland must-see essential.
Where Else to Find Beer? Refer to this map of the city's brewpubs.
Also, learn more from Hop in the Saddle, a new beer-by-bicycle guidebook to Portland's craft brewing scene. Written jointly by Ellie Thalheimer and Lucy Burningham, the book leads cyclists with a pedal-powered thirst from brewery to brewery, to those big and famous and those small and secret. Skeptics may ask if beer and bicycles have anything at all to do with one another. In Portland, they sure do. In the words of coauthor Burningham: "While the scientific community has yet to conduct a proper inquiry, we’ve conducted our own studies and can attest to one simple fact: beer tastes great after a bike ride. There’s something about how a cool brew hits the endorphin-fueled, post-ride body that creates maximum happiness."