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PORTLAND DAYS : How small beer became big business

"Where do you fancy going now?" I hear someone close to me asking his companion. "I was thinking of Phantom Canyon or perhaps the Oregon Trail." For myself, I am not to be distracted. Having been at a loss for direction most of the day, someone has just advised me to head towards the San Andreas earthquake. Head left, she had said, and stop before the Down South privies.

I am not lost on the walking paths of the Cascade Mountains, pleasant though that might have been. Rather, I am attempting to negotiate the hazards and joys of the Oregon Brewers' Festival on the banks of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. My befuddlement is only in part due to the hot afternoon sun and resulting liquid intake.

It is the variety that is disorienting. Here under two massive marquees, each the length of a soccer pitch, are bar-taps offering no less than 73 different types of beer for tasting. We are not talking about Millers or Budweisers. This is a show for micro-brewers; craftspeople, not corporations.

A medium-sized city that lies between the twin shadows of Mount St Helens in Washington state to the north and the majestic Mount Hood to the east, Portland has many characteristics that distinguish it from other United States cities of equivalent size. One is the slightly unsettling absence of any sizeable group of ethnic minorities, including black Americans. Another is its brick architecture and thriving street-life, and still another is its almost obsessive attachment to beer.

Nor did I need the festival to tell me. Step from your cab in central Portland, where, by the way, public transport on Belgian-made trolley cars is free, and you can smell it in the air. On still evenings, the place reeks of malt and hops. A principal culprit is the Weinhardt Brewery. Though only two blocks from the main thoroughfare in the centre of the city, and my hotel, it has a railway siding, set directly into the street, busy with shunting supplies in and taking waste out.

What is special at the festival, however, are the micro and craft breweries, most of which are pubs that produce their own beer. There are more than 30 of these in Portland itself, giving it the right to call itself the micro-brew capital of the world. Portland also credits itself with starting the micro-brewing movement that is vigorous now in states all across the US.

One who has benefited from the renaissance is Mark Garvey, an architect whose principal project today is a new brew-pub for one of the most successful Portland craft brewers, Widmers. He says the movement has attracted those looking to escape the air-conditioned mall-mentality of modern America. "It's more than just taste. There was a yearning for simpler times and a place that felt real to people, where they could maybe sweat a little and rediscover their humanity."

At a drinking binge such as an all-weekend beer festival, humanity, you would think, would quickly fall victim to that well-known frailty of squiffiness. What astonishes here, however, is the seriousness of all those attending. Armed with glossy festival programmes as if at the opera, they methodically make their way down the avenues of taps, sniffing, quaffing and critically comparing.

"Yuk" is the comment that Amy Harrington, a local school-teacher, scrawls next to the entry for Bandon's English pale ale from Oregon's southern coast. Armed with her plastic festival mug, with 6 ounce and 12 ounce marker lines, she has tried 11 varieties and so far has awarded her highest standard of two stars to only one - the earthquake porter from the San Andreas Brewing Company of Hollister, California.

I head over to earthquake with all the confidence of an old hand. Foolishly, I request the full 12-ounce double helping. Not such a good idea, when earthquake, "a deep copper ale brewed 20 January 1995 and fermented at 55 degrees with ale yeast", has an alcohol content of 8.2 per cent. From here on, I am lost completely.