Journey to the source: Oregon's beer trail
The brewpubs and breweries of Portland provide a dizzying introduction to the city for John Lee
Saturday 16 April 2011
It's easy to believe that Americans drink only Budweiser. Step into almost any bar and the Missouri-based behemoth's neon signs and red taps dominate the scene like noisy drunks at a frat party. But instead of drowning their sorrows, those with more discerning palates should instead head to Portland, Oregon, or "beervana" as some glassy-eyed locals call it.
"This is a top location for beer drinkers – there are more producers here than in any other US city," claims Megan Flynn, editor-in-chief of Portland-based Beer West, a magazine which covers the brewing scene from California to British Columbia. "It's a very eclectic mix: there are bigger brewers as well as nano-breweries producing everything from traditional ales and IPAs [India Pale Ales] to experimental sours and barrel-aged beers."
There are apparently more than 40 breweries and brewpubs in Portland. I began my tour with a liquid lunch at BridgePort Brewing Company. One of Oregon's oldest – dating back to ye olde days of 1984 – it's in the Pearl District, a neighbourhood of gentrified warehouses with several breweries on offer. Its brick-and-beam-lined tasting bar was packed with chatty drinkers tucking into pub-grub meals, including some families; many Portland watering holes welcome children until about 9pm.
But while most of the high tables were topped with pints, I opted for an $8 (£5.30) sampler: eight small glasses placed on a laminated mat that tells you exactly what you're drinking. The mildly fruity Blue Heron Pale Ale and smoothly malty ESB slid down easily – both are top-sellers – but the lip-puckering Hop Czar won me over: a brash, hop-packed IPA. "It's really punchy," said BridgePort brewmaster Jeff Edgerton. "This region specialises in IPAs – hops are grown locally – and it's hard to find a brewer in Oregon who isn't a total hophead. But there's also diversity. If you can't find a beer you like in Portland, you're not really trying."
Determined to try harder than anyone, I wove my way to nearby Rogue Ales Public House for round two. Known for its bold bottle art and brews with knowing names such as Dad's Little Helper and Yellow Snow IPA, Rogue's beers are produced in nearby Eugene. The laid-back bar, in a former brewery building, lures locals with an eye-popping list of more than 30 drafts.
Already slightly merry – BridgePort's tasters were up to 7.5 per cent alcohol – I slid into a corner table and ordered another sampler: this one an $8 (£5.30) four-glass set. The bitter Double Mocha Porter and creamy Santa's Red Ale were a little heavy for 3pm, so Mogul Madness Ale emerged as the winner: a smooth, copper-red citrusy brew. At this point, it was easy to nod sagely over the Benjamin Franklin quote I found on the menu: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
Back outside in the sobering fresh air, I hunted down an early dinner to soak up up an afternoon of overindulgence. Alongside its drinking habit, Portland has a celebrated street food scene with innovative carts colonising empty corners and the edges of car parks. Far from the dodgy kebab vans that lure drinkers in Britain's city centres, there were hundreds of tempting options here, including anything from Thai and Mexican to Italian and Chinese.
I settled on a spicy Japanese curry and was soon back on the beer trail for an evening at downtown's smallest and most charming watering hole. Stepping into Tugboat Brewing is like nosing around someone's front room: its candlelit walls are lined with books, the tables thronged by groups of merry regulars and the barman works the room as if hosting a party.
Trailing him to the bar, I tried a swig of Imperial Stout before settling on a pint of Hop Gold, chased with a sample of Farmers Brown: a strong ale.
Needless to say, the next day I rose late. Breakfast was at one of Portland's other local legends: Voodoo Doughnut is a hole-in-the-wall that attracts long queues for its doughnuts topped with everything from crushed Oreo cookies to Fruit Loops. Then, after a quick visit to the Portland Art Museum (with its impressive Native American art), a little hair of the dog suddenly seemed in order.
Lucky Labrador Beer Hall is a cavernous, canine-friendly tasting room lined with doggy memorabilia – including a "No barking" sign. Locals are encouraged to bring their pets (bowls of water are provided).
After a sampler of fairly mild brews I wound my way back to the Pearl District for an evening finale at Deschutes Brewery. Deschutes takes the beer hall approach even further. The massive room, lined with glossy wooden tables and heavy wood carvings, was so packed that I had to wait for a table. It was worth it, though. I added a $6.50 (£4.30) six-beer sampler to a Brewer's Platter of sausage and cheese; the rich Super Jubel my favourite. A sweet and spicy winter ale partly aged in pinot noir barrels, it's surely the ideal after-dinner drink.
"Most of our beers are traditional English-style ales," said Deschutes' assistant brewmaster Ryan Schmiege. "But the full-flavoured seasonals are getting more and more popular – people wait for them to appear throughout the year." He said he encouraged out-of-towners to be adventurous with their Portland quaffing. "If you want to try something different, the best approach is to know your tastes and then ask people for tips as soon as you arrive."
Or, like me, you could just sample everything in sight.
Travel essentials: Portland
* There are no direct flights from the UK to Portland. You can fly from Heathrow with United (0845 8444 777; unitedairlines.co.uk) via a range of North American hubs.
* Use the Beer Places link on Beer West's website (001 253 468 1824; beerwestmag.com) for brewery and brewpub listings.
* BridgePort Brewing Company, 131 NW Marshall Street (001 503 241 3612; bridgeportbrew.com).
* Deschutes Brewery, 210 NW 11th Avenue ( deschutesbrewery.com).
* Rogue Ales Public House, 1339 NW Flanders Street (001 503 222 5910; rogue.com).
* Tugboat Brewing Company, 711 SW Ankeny Street (001 503 226 2508; d2m.com/Tugwebsite).
* Lucky Labrador Beer Hall, 1945 NW Quimby Street (001 503 517 4352; luckylab.com).
* Travel Portland: 001 503 275 9750; travelportland.com
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