Written By: Aaron Forrester and Scott Keys – Collectively known as Beers N’ Buddies
For anyone who follows the craft beer scene, it is clearly understood that there are certain destinations, Meccas if you will, for craft beer and brewing. From Denver to Grand Rapids to San Diego, craft beer enthusiasts have a number of “destinations” to select from and literally thousands of beers to sample. Although each location is “epic” in its own right, there is one destination with a beer culture stretching back to the 19th century when German immigrants, including famed Henry Weinhard, began brewing beer and growing hops in what is today considered the number one beer location in the US. Claiming more breweries per capita than any other city in the world, Portland, Oregon is arguably the most sought-after beer destination in the US, and for anyone who enjoys craft beer, a Pilgrimage must be made: so, we did!
With such a density of breweries in the city, we recognized that any “beer-cation” to Portland would demand a well-defined plan of action, and so in an effort to “beer up,” we not only spent countless hours researching Portland beers and breweries, but we also spoke with those who had previously ventured to the City of Roses, a nickname first applied to “Portlandia” in 1888. (A Big Thanks to the staff at Ritual Brewing) With more than 75 breweries within a 15-mile radius, we knew that we did not have the time nor physical endurance to visit them all. We hoped to visit between 5-7 breweries a day—we eventually tried 21 different breweries plus 2 craft distilleries and 2 wineries— and, when walking could be sustained without the aid of others, check out other sights and locations, such as Portland’s beautiful Japanese Garden. Although we did not sample all 75 breweries, we feel that we have a pretty good “taste” for what Portland has to offer, and what we learned was somewhat surprising!
With our research in hand, we were prepared for Portland, but for one oversight: we expected, and hoped, to find beer styles as plentiful in Portland as they are in our hometowns of Southern California and Central Arizona. Indeed, with the surge of popularity of hop-forward IPA’s, both West-Coast and New England, and Bourbon Barreled Aged Stouts, we anticipated to encounter many of these beers, particularly stouts. What we encountered, however, was not quite what we anticipated. Rather than drinking palate wrecking hop bombs and dark fruit stouts, we generally encountered more traditional and balanced styles, although some places, such as Ex Novo Brewing, did, as Will Smith might say, “get hazy with it.” Although we generally enjoyed the beers we sampled, never once experiencing an infected beer, to our delight, our expectations were nonetheless challenged.
Unlike our hometowns, where stouts of all variety are brewed year-round, Portland brewers tend to be much more seasonal in their brewing schedule. As we came to understand, the colder the weather becomes the more malt-forward the beers tend to be, and although 45-55 degrees is cold to So-Cal and Phoenix natives, it is less so in Portland: ergo, less stouts. While we found many Irish Dry Stout just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, we located only one imperial stout on tap (Great Notion Brewing) and one bourbon barrel aged Russian Imperial Stout (Gigantic Brewing) but it had recently been taken off tap. Thankfully, they still had a few bottles on hand: so, we cracked one open. Yum! Despite our disappointment in not finding a large variety of stouts, we did find many hidden gems that lived up to the reputation that Portland has earned.
One such gem came at a location we did not expect, Ground Breaker Brewing, the very first brewery we visited. What sets this place apart is that this gastropub, both its food and beer, is 100% Gluten-Free. Unlike other award-winning breweries, such as Culture Brewing in San Diego who uses an enzyme to make their beer gluten reduced, Ground Breaker is entirely gluten-free, which is no small feat considering the high quality and range of beers they offer on draft and in bottles. Having had more gluten-free beers than perhaps we would have liked, Ground Breaker is ground breaking because their beer tastes, well, like great beer.
Another hidden gem (which is quite literally hidden) was Upright Brewing. With no obvious signage or indication that a brewery exists, we entered through a coffee shop and traveled down three flights of stairs into the basement; feeling a lot like a 1920’s speakeasy. Although not so easy to find, Upright Brewing is doing a lot of wine barrel aging and open fermentation beers, they are “wild,” proving the adage that all things old will become new yet again. Upright Brewing is bringing old-world brewing into the 21st century along with complex and rich flavors for the modern palate.
With the sheer number of brews tasted in Portland, we could go on and on about each of the 21 breweries we visited: but we won’t. Ultimately, we enjoyed the city, the food, the people, and, of course, the beer, but if there is one thing that struck us the most its that our expectations of what Portland beer would or should be, were simply not met. Each beer region is different, and Portland brewers have found the beers and styles their patrons enjoy and love: so, they brew them. And why the hell not, Portland knows Portland better than we do, and although we would have liked more stouts and experimentation, the beers we did encounter generally solidified Portland’s claim as a beer giant. Portland’s beer scene, like much of its culture, exemplifies the state’s moto of Alis volat propriis, “She flies with her own wings,” and in the end, Portland brewers in the 21st century are keeping airborne a tradition of brewing that extends back into the annals of history.