Beervana! Portland, Oregon
With more brewpubs per capita than any city in the United States, Portland, Oregon, has acquired the nickname "Beervana."
There are plenty of reasons why Portland has become a destination for beer lovers. Grains and hops are found in abundance in Oregon. Local residents are sophisticated about beer; they also drink a substantial percentage of it on draft, which makes it easier for upstart brewers to reach them. State legislators have amended the laws to make them less of a burden for small brewers. Even the local climate plays a part; wet and chilly days lend themselves to drinking beer in cafes and alehouses rather than at barbecues or on the beach.
But Portland's craft brewing revolution wouldn't have gotten started without the people who brew the beer. People like Kurt and Rob Widmer, who fell in love with the beers of Germany and began replicating them when they got back home. And another pair of brothers, Mike and Brian McMenamin, who opened the state's first brewpub nearly 20 years ago and haven't looked back since.
A summer weekend in Portland provided just enough time to sample the brewpubs in and around the center of town. Widmer Gasthaus (929 North Russell Street; 503-281-1437), located across the street from the brewery, is a cheery establishment serving German and American food to accompany the beer. The Widmer brothers pioneered Hefeweizen beer in the United States; it's been Oregon's top-selling draft microbrew for years. If you've enjoyed Widmer beers in bottles, you'll like them even more on tap at the Gasthaus. There's also a rotation of seasonal beers you probably haven't seen.
Beer and pizza are a classic pairing, and one of the best places in town to enjoy both is BridgePort Brew Pub (1313 N.W. Marshall; 503-241-7179), about a mile north of downtown. Established in 1984, BridgePort is Oregon's oldest craft brewery. The brewpub is a converted 100-plus-year-old warehouse that gets downright lively at times. It's divided into a family area, where the pizza ovens churn out dozens of huge, topping-laden pies made from unfermented wort; and a pub area, where the award-winning beers are poured. Step up to the taps (it's strictly self service here) and order whatever they're serving out of traditional firkins. When I visited, the cask-conditioned beers were porter and India pale ale.
One of Portland's most elegant venues for craft brewed beer is McCormick & Schmick's Harborside Restaurant and Pilsner Room (307 S.W. Montgomery Street; 503-222-5343). Many of the beers on tap are made by Full Sail Brewing Company, which operates a small satellite brewery next door to the restaurant. The brewery makes seasonal and specialty beers; the current offering was "Lupulin," an appropriate name for a beer that even Portlanders would describe as "hoppy"). The Pilsner Room also serves McCormick & Schmick's line of beers, along with a selection of guest beers. Lucky Labrador Brew Pub (915 S.E. Hawthorne; 503-236-3555), which is located in a warehouse district east of the river, has the atmosphere of a cabin in the mountains, with wooden tables and walls and high ceilings with big wooden beams. It's a laid-back establishment, catering to a predominantly local clientele.
Lucky Labrador serves at least three ales on tap, plus a cask-conditioned and a nitro-kegged beer. The Dog Day India Pale Ale I enjoyed provided a great example of the difference cask-conditioning makes. Even though it weighed in at 62 International Bittering Units, it went down with--pardon the pun--no bite at all.
The collection of McMenamin's pubs has grown to nearly four dozen; wherever you are in Portland, you're not far from one. A blend of classic British pub decor and Grateful Dead funkiness is a McMenamin trademark. All of the pubs have friendly servers, a decent pub menu, and McMenamin's beers on tap. They include medium-bodied Crystal Ale; Ruby, a raspberry wheat beer; and Hammerhead, a hoppy, chestnut-colored pale ale. You'll also find a wide range of guest ales from all over the Northwest.
Downtown Portland is relatively easy to navigate without a car. Much of the area west of the river is designated "Fareless Square," where rides on city buses are free. An all-day pass, good for both the buses and MAX light rail, is $4: a good deal if you're thinking of paying a visit to establishments away from downtown. Portland is also reasonably easy to navigate on foot...but be sure to have an umbrella handy.