Next week thousands of people who make beer, distribute beer, sell beer, make brewhouses, grow hops, grow barley, culture yeast and write about beer will be in my hometown, Portland, Oregon, for the Craft Brewers Conference. Welcome! As honored guests in our fair city, I hope you have a wonderful time and manage to find a good pint of beer or two. (Or 47.)
Portland is simultaneously one of the most famous beer cities in the world and also one of the most hidden. Oregon has three nationally distributed beer brands (Rogue, Full Sail, Widmer Brothers), but only one from the Rose City (Widmer). We have something on the order of 60 breweries (though what constitutes a “brewery” is a question for philosophers, not bloggers), and yet most people have heard of maybe 10. What follows is a thousand-word primer on Stumptown. If you spend a few minutes with it, you’ll learn all you need to understand our beery ways.
1. Portland has been a beer town since 1852.
If you look at the enclaves where new breweries started sprouting back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you’ll notice a strong correlation with those places that had pre-existing local breweries. So it was here. The city of Portland was just a wide spot in the Willamette River in 1843 when two pioneers filed a land claim on what was then a trapper’s rest stop. Just nine years later, Henry Saxer opened the first brewery in the tiny settlement, and there has been a brewery in downtown Portland ever since.
For most of that time, it was the giant Weinhard (later Blitz-Weinhard) brewery, an orange-brick building on West Burnside Street that still stands—even though the brewery closed in 1999. Oregonians had always had the notion that beer was something that came from home, and for over 14 decades, the scent of downtown Portland was boiling wort. Oregonians, who love to fuse their identities with local fixtures, had always thought of their beer as the best. When the first “microbrewers” started humping kegs of beer to local pubs in the early ‘80s, they could at least point to Henry’s as an example of what they were trying to do (sort of). It’s one of the central reason Oregon took to beer so fast.
2. Portland’s a draft beer town.
Chuck Coury opened the city’s first new brewery in 1980 and tried to sell his bottles of Cartwright beer to Portlanders. Subsequent brewers didn’t repeat the mistake—they sold draft beer instead. McMenamins, BridgePort and Portland Brewing, the next wave, all started with brewpubs. (The Widmer Brothers, the fourth member of that club, didn’t have a pub, but wouldn’t bottle its beer until 1996.) When you visit Portland in 2015, you find it much the same. The vast majority of breweries—about 85 percent by my reckoning—principally sell draft beer. There’s a reason, too: In one of the more astonishing facts, 53 percent of the draft beer sold in Portland is brewed in Oregon.
3. Many of Oregon’s most-celebrated breweries are located outside Portland.
Portland is the economic, cultural and population hub of Oregon. If you want to visit many of the state’s best breweries, though, you have to leave the city. In any roundup of the state’s best breweries, you’d have to include Fort George, Pelican, Double Mountain, pFriem, Solera, Logsdon, Boneyard, Crux, the Ale Apothecary, Barley Brown’s, Agrarian, Falling Sky, Flat Tail, Block 15, Oakshire, Heater Allen or Caldera. And that is without mentioning the non-Portland giants (Deschutes, Full Sail, Ninkasi, Rogue) nor the impressive newcomers like Arch Rock, Buoy and Worthy. Portland does have a group of very special breweries, but they constitute just half or less of the state’s best. (Stay tuned for some recommendations later this week.)
4. Portland is an IPA town.
OK, you probably knew this. The Oregon Brewers Guild rattles off the stats: Portland was the No. 2 market for IPAs in the United States and also had the second-largest number of IPA brands on the market—though if you include sub-styles (black, white, lagered, imperial, etc.), we sneak to the front of the line. That said …
5. A lot of breweries don’t specialize in IPAs.
A couple of months back, I gave the English beer writer Mark Dredge a tour of Portland breweries. As I started thinking about which ones he should see, it occurred to me that there aren’t a ton of IPA houses in the city. We’ve got a gluten-free brewery (Ground Breaker), farmhouse breweries (the Commons, Upright), German-inflected breweries (Pints, Occidental), a sour brewery (Cascade), experimental breweries (Breakside, Burnside, Buckman Botanical, Gigantic) and polymathic breweries (Deschutes, Widmer Brothers). But pure hops-first breweries? Not so many. In fact, when you think of the state’s most prominent hop houses, they’re all outside Portland: Boneyard, Barley Brown’s, Double Mountain, Ninkasi and Fort George. A lot of the IPAs Portlanders drink were brewed outside the city.
(For the hopheads among you, visit Ecliptic Brewing when you’re in town. It’s the new brewery by legendary brewer John Harris, and he’s all about the lupulin.)
6. You’re unfamiliar with Oregon beer because we drink it all.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve encountered the names of a lot of breweries that probably aren’t familiar to you. Oregon has over 200 breweries, and the vast majority of them don’t sell beer outside the state. There’s no reason to: Even though it’s a sparsely populated state, Oregonians drink a ton of local beer. There are some well-known stats documenting this, but let me illustrate it with an example from the eastern part of the state.
It’s a vast tract of high desert where cows outnumber humans and where you would expect to find 1) no breweries, and 2) no good beer. Instead, that’s where you find Barley Brown’s, easily one of the most decorated breweries in the U.S. Last summer, I was speaking with owner Tyler Brown and he mentioned some amazing facts. Barley Brown’s has 55 percent of all draft sales in its hometown of Baker City, a place you still expect to hear the jingle of spurs when you walk around. It also commands a 27 percent share of the draft sales in Wallowa, Union and Baker counties. Most of these sales are of Pallet Jack IPA, an aggressive, super-hopped beer that regularly takes home GABF medals in the American IPA category. And this is just one brewery. What once was Coors country has become craft (apologies to the editor) instead. When you can convert Oregon ranchers to IPA, there’s really no reason to bother shipping it to San Francisco.
Over the course of the week of the Craft Brewers Conference, attendees will have the chance to try special beers from around the country that have arrived for the event. If you have never been to Oregon, I encourage you to resist the temptation to indulge in too many pints of illustrious non-Oregon beer. Look for beers from the Beaver State breweries mentioned in this post instead—you won’t be getting another chance anytime soon.
Click here to read recommended beers and places to drink in Portland.
Read more posts from The Beer Bible Blog.
Jeff Alworth is the author of the forthcoming book, The Beer Bible (Workman, 2015). Follow him on Twitter or find him at his blog, Beervana.