How to Drink Like a Local in Portland, Oregon
The Oregon Brewers Guild reports that there were over 200 brands of IPA sold in Portland last year—just IPAs. There are five dozen breweries, give or take, two dozen good-beer bars, and thousands of places to buy craft beer in the city. (Even the dive bars have amazing tap lists.) For the thousands of visitors descending on the city for the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC), this is too much of a good thing. Let me help.
What follows are good examples of Portland. When you visit a new place, you want to sample the distinctive elements of local culture, the things that make it tick. While any best-of list is just a snapshot—and a subjective one—I think locals will agree that these selections represent the city’s individuality very well. Put these names in your phone somewhere, and make sure to track them down (or visit) when you’re here. They’ll give you a sense of what Portlandia is all about.
Boneyard RPM/Gigantic IPA | There are a ton of great IPAs in Portland, all of them different, and a good proportion of Portlanders will point you to Breakside IPA (a gold medalist as the 2014 Great American Beer Festival (GABF)) or Barley Brown’s Pallet Jack (another 2014 GABF gold medalist). Here I’m going to guide you to the more Oregon-y examples. Both are cloudy, thick-bodied IPAs with heavy late-hopping. When Boneyard launched in Bend several years back, it sent RPM hurtling like an asteroid into the Portland market. Old dinosaur IPAs died, but in their place rose a legion of modern beers (pales and IPAs) bearing the Boneyard influence. If you don’t see either of these, Deschutes Fresh-Squeezed IPA is another good choice.
Cascade Noyaux | It’s been almost 10 years since Ron Gansberg started making his very strong, very tart “Northwest sours” (the brewery’s term). Made exclusively with Lactobacillus (Gansberg hates Brettanomyces), aged months or years in barrels, and usually flavored with local fruits, they are unique in the city and the world. Although I’d recommend Apricot Ale or Kriek, Noyaux best illustrates Gansberg’s approach. After shucking the fruit off for other beers, he takes the stone, cracks it and removes the meat—the noyaux—which gives this beer an amaretto-to-maraschino flavor. It’s hugely laborious and time-consuming, but you can’t argue the results. It’s worth a trip to the Barrel House to try it, particularly because during CBC, Cascade is hosting a mini-fest of sours from around the country.
Hair of the Dog Adam | Back when Alan Sprints founded Hair of the Dog, beer was still in its period of juvenilia—lots of British knock-offs, few very of any merit. When Sprints debuted with Adam, he showed Portland what mature brewing looked like. It’s a giant beer, dark and smoky and very, very rich. Oregon’s connection with dark ales is long and strong, and this is my perennial fave. You will have to go the brewery to find it, but it’s not far by streetcar. Another great dark beer currently pouring is Pints Mattika Baltic Porter, a lagered beer with a hint of smoked malt made by one of the most underrated local breweries.
Occidental Pilsner | About five years ago, something changed in Portland. People started drinking pilsners. Breweries have been making lagers for 30 years, but locals wouldn’t touch them. Then, perhaps because local restaurateurs realized they were great with food, something changed. Heater Allen was the first pilsner, and now very good examples come from Breakside, Ninkasi, Upright, The Commons, pFriem, and Ecliptic. My fave comes from a brewery way out in St. John’s, which to my palate has the richest expression of malt and hops.
Upright Six | Upright—a short walk from the Convention Center—makes barely more than a thousand barrels a year and is tucked away in a basement brewery. Nevertheless, brewer Alex Ganum has had a huge effect on the trajectory of Portland beer, helping direct the city’s palate toward complex, food-friendly ales. I could choose any of the regular line (including Four, Five, and Seven, which correspond to the beers’ gravity), but Six, a dark rye saison, is the most food-friendly and the most unusual. A worthy alternate is The Commons Urban Farmhouse.
Breakside Brewery | No brewery is more versatile than Breakside, the small Northeast Portland brewpub that opened in 2010. Before gaining instant fame for its IPA last fall, brewer Ben Edmunds and his team were known for experimental ales using culinary ingredients and approaches. What I appreciate is the brewery’s ability to make beer in any idiom, from German pilsners and kölsches to Belgian saisons and abbeys to American standards. The experimental stuff is just gravy. There are two locations—the original pub in the Woodlawn neighborhood (820 Northeast Dekum St.) and a production facility in Milwaukie, the suburb to Portland’s south (5821 SE International Way, Milwaukie). For CBC, Breakside will be pouring specials all week in the Milwaukie site.
The Commons Brewery | Portland’s brewery ecosystem is diverse enough to support not one but two farmhouse breweries. The Commons, which opened in 2011 and just moved to a bigger location, specializes in saisons and sours. Except for a few outliers, their beers form the most coherent family of any in Portland (in this way, they remind me of a European brewery). I’ve had exactly one beer there I didn’t love—their batting average is just phenomenal. They’re just down from the Convention Center, a short streetcar ride (or long walk) away (630 SE Belmont St.).
Deschutes Brewery | Okay, so you know Deschutes (210 NW 11th Ave.). It’s been around 27 years and is anything but new and hip. But you know what? Deschutes sells more beer in Oregon than any brewery, and nearly every beer geek in Oregon will agree it’s still on the shortlist for the state’s best brewery. What you may not know is how broad the selection is—rivaled only by Breakside—and how well it does everything from 4.5% cask ale to experimental Belgians to imperial giants. Let me smuggle in one more recommendation here, too: Widmer Brothers Brewing (929 N Russell St.), another dinosaur whose recent output has been peerless.
Gigantic Brewing Co. | Long-time Portland brewers Van Havig and Ben Love left positions at Rock Bottom and Hopworks to found Gigantic in 2012. It reflects the idiosyncrasies of Portland better than any brewery going. The lone regular beer is the IPA, and everything else is released on a one-time only basis. The brewery partners with artists who make the one-time, numbered label, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. Gigantic is indie, quirky and hugely accomplished. The tasting room is known as the Champagne Lounge, and attracts a large cadre of locals who start showing up—in classic Portland fashion—before 5 p.m. You’ll have to cab it to the industrial Southeast location (5224 SE 26th Ave.), but you should make the effort.
Lucky Lab/McMenamins | This last entry will make many Portlanders cringe. The Lucky Lab makes good but old-school (circa 1995) hoppy ales, and the McMenamins make serviceable beer when they’re really on their game. (And when they’re not? Umm, moving along…) But they represent a stratum in Portland’s beery history that still inflects everything still going on. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Portland was a working class, blue collar town with a definite hippy subculture. Breweries like the chain the McMenamin brothers set up, with their crunchy vibe, psychedelic art, and slightly country feel were the norm. The Lucky Lab mined slightly different vibe, the mellow, communal, lefty spirit that makes Portland both the least religious and one of the most liberal cities in the world. People gathered on the back patio of the Lab with their dogs in what could easily turn into a union rally under the right circumstances. If you want to understand Portland, you might stop in for a quick pint. Try the Cellar Bar at Ringler’s Annex for the McMenamins (1223 S.W. Stark) or the original Lucky Lab on Hawthorne (915 SE Hawthorne).
No matter where you end up, I hope you find great beer and convivial conversation. Welcome to Portland!