Portland has the Best, Best, Best Beer Venue in the World—Bar None!
OK, I’m sticking my neck way, way out. But I want folks to take a good look at what is happening here and in the rest of the U.S.A. The great beer districts of the world are no longer located only in Belgium, Germany and England! We are developing some fantastic new beer venues here in this country, and the U.S. has become (in Slow Food terms) the Ark of World Beer, preserving the best of the world’s great beer styles.
Here in Portland, we have no less than 31 breweries and brewpubs within our city limits (a city of about 530,000), and if we allow the usual 40-km/25-mile stretch beyond those (pop. 750,000 plus), we have something like 47 brewers, producing close to 500 brands among the over 80 different beer styles we actually produce here (forget American Lager or American Light).
The great European brewing centers mostly produce a particular genre of beer. In London, there is a wide variety of wonderful pale and brown ales, porters and stouts. In Belgium, the beers include that country’s lambic or abbey styles, and in Southern Germany the pilsen/Bavarian style of lager beer dominates. Not so here among U.S. craft brewers, and that is especially true of Portland’s brewing community. There is tremendous stylistic diversity among our brewers and their products. These are all very individualistic brewers.
True, we make a number of fantastic India pale ales and what have come to be called “Imperial” or “double/triple strength” brews of many types; but so do most American brewing centers. Please note, I don’t want to denigrate the great brewers of New England, Pennsylvania, California, Delaware, Wisconsin and certainly not our Colorado friends.
Our great Oregon beer festivals (and there are an increasing number of them appearing each year) feature some of our best brewing efforts. The Holiday Ale Fest (November-December), the Spring Beer Festival (March-April), the Oregon Brewers Festival (July), Portland Brewers Festival, Organic Brewer’s Festival (June, and nearly unique in the world of beer festivals) plus numerous small barleywine festivals appear annually. There was even an IPA festival here last year!
We call ourselves Beervana. That’s Beervana on the Willamette (the beautiful river that runs through downtown Portland). But to compare München am der Isar to Portland am der Willamette is akin to comparing apples to oranges and peaches to pears. We have many more beer styles right here in town than you’ll find in any of those great European brewing districts. We have good (not excellent) public transportation; but not in comparison with almost any city in Europe. So it is only fair to ask, “How did a relatively small/large city like Portland manage such numbers of brewers in a mere quarter century?”
Portland’s Head Start
Portland’s great beer scene did evolve rather quickly. In 1976, the first American “micro” brewery, Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, CA, opened its doors with a great new concept of small. By 1980, Sierra Nevada (Chico, CA) and Boulder Brewing (Longmont, CO) had appeared. In 1982, the first successful Northwest breweries appeared in Seattle (Red Hook) and Yakima (Grant’s); with BridgePort and Widmer opening later here in Portland, in 1984 and 1985.
Also in 1984, the city’s largest newspaper (Oregonian) started publishing one of the nation’s first regular beer columns, thus educating beer lovers in the city about the varieties of beer beyond the Bud-Miller-Coors empire. That helped to create a body of educated beer aficionados in the city.
In 1985, the Oregon State Legislature passed the nation’s first enlightened laws for the new brewing scene. This law allowed a small (“micro”) brewer to pay lower beer taxes and escape the requirement to distribute beer by way of a middle-man beer distributor. Brewers would have a choice between distributing their own beer and opening a brewpub to sell such on their own premises. Even today, most states severely regulate the ability of brewers to market their own product, by demanding that all must use mid-level distributors.
The nation’s beer and wine distributors are very jealous of their status; but here in Oregon, where small brewers are not required to have distributors, the beer distributing industry has benefited greatly from all the successful small brewers who have graduated to a point of such success that they need to market through a distributor. Everybody profits from that.
McMenamin brothers Mike and Brian opened Oregon’s first brewpub, the second in America, on Halloween of that year, 1985. They were followed shortly by BridgePort’s new brewpub built at their site on NW Marshall St.
The Widmer Brothers chose to self-distribute their beer in town only, opening a brewpub much later. This ultimately gave them a leg-up in the total production sweepstakes. Portland Brewing (now Pyramid) opened for business early in 1986. By 1994, Portland was already America’s brewing capital with no fewer than 15 brewers and six more in the surrounding community.
Members of Portland’s brewing community have always encouraged one another and shared information. Most companies allow their brewers a great deal of brewing freedom. Mike McMenamin said it all when he told me that his brewers are “artists.” This from a man who, with his brother Brian, has built a substantial family fortune by purchasing some of Oregon’s most treasured buildings to build an empire of 54 mostly historically important establishments including breweries and brewpubs, a vineyard, winery, distillery, golf course, theaters and several bed and breakfast hotels. Each of those 23 McMenamin breweries allows their brewers a great deal of freedom in beer design and innovation, not an uncommon Oregon phenomenon.
Brewers Old and New
Our brewers are a truly amazing group. The largest is Widmer, with a recently expanded brewing facility. The 250bbl/7,750gal brew kettle and new keg filling system will increase their capacity to 550,000bbl/17Mgals annually. They have a second small 10-bbl pilot brewery in the nearby Rose Garden (Portland’s professional basketball stadium). Brewer Ike Manchester has free reign here and he is responsible for the award-winning Collaborator series of remarkably diverse and creative beers designed by the area’s homebrewers and described on these pages in AAB’s last issue.
Our newest brewery is Portland’s second organic-only operation (opposite Roots Brewery ). Hopworks Urban Brewery is a 21-month work of love by Christian Ettinger, with his architect father Roy Ettinger’s able assistance. This, a brewery-restaurant-pub in southeast Portland, is the city’s second organic brewery (many other Portland brewers produce the occasional organic, but that’s another story). This is a remarkably well-designed 9,200-square foot edifice.
Every aspect of this brewery is “green” in every sense that word has come to mean in this day and age. It is dedicated to Portland’s growing bicycle culture and gives really new meaning to “organic.” They utilize biodiesel fuel from cooking oil and recycle or reuse the heat produced all across the brewery. Even the rain and brewing water is cleaned and reused in a remarkably creative and wide-ranging system centered around a 5,000-gallon water tank that produces energy savings of 15%. Experienced brewers Ettinger and associate Ben Love hope to produce a substantial 1800-bbls (558,000-gals) this year; entirely possible, since they started brewing with their 20-bbl system late last year. Their motto: “Local, Organic and Sustainable.”
OK. So Portland has the brewers; but is the beer world-class? Well, obviously not all of our beer are world class, but a good portion is of an exceedingly high quality and some is award winning and, indeed, world class! Gold medal winner BridgePort IPA and their friendly Old Knucklehead barleywine could start the list. Widmer’s award-winning American-style hefe-weizen tops their list as the beer that made craft beer acceptable across the country and Snowplow Milk Stout (a Collaborator contribution) highlights just a few of their award-winning beers. Pyramid offers delightful MacTarnahan’s Amber and Blackwatch Cream Porter. Of course, I dare not leave out venerable Hair of the Dog’s world class Fred. Moreover, there’s another 26 or so award-winning, definitely world-class beers here in town. And remember most of our brewers don’t get their beer to arenas like the Great American Beer Festival to be judged properly.
We lack space here to get into this too deeply, but the reader can pursue the subject further with Oregon Public Broadcasting’s documentary DVD “Beervana” and a small but exceedingly well-produced and informative booklet “Letters from the Monkey—Beervana” (see sidebar).
Fred Eckhardt lives and drinks maybe too much award-winning, world-class beer here in Portland, but he’s a good fellow anyway! Hey! Don’t listen to that person over there. Just ask Fred if you doubt it.