Portland Archived Features
•  Beer Town USA

Beer Town USA
Joseph Streckert
5/4/2010



Craig Nicholls of Roots Brewing
"Frankly, in this town, nobody makes a bad beer. Nobody," proclaims Craig Nicholls, the owner of Roots Brewing Co. and the North American Organic Brewers' Festival. "I would drink any Oregon beer any day of the week." Nicholl's brewery, just off SE Hawthorne, is only one of Portland's myriad craft breweries. "We're the brewing capital of the world, literally," he says, "we're all beer geeks here."
   
Nicholls' statement is no hollow boast. With thirty two breweries inside the city itself, Portland, Oregon does indeed have more craft breweries than any other city on the planet. Beer production does not stop at the city's edge, either. Microbreweries are liberally scattered across Oregon, from Rogue in Newport to Ninkasi in Eugene. It's no wonder that Portland is now known as "Beervana," and local Oregon brews dominate the bar taps. "Even the most divey of the dive bars, even the worst titty bar is going to have a nice selection of microbrews," says Nicholls.




The Tugboat's signature IPA
Portland's geography had done much to produce a population of beer geeks. "Bull Run water is some of the most pure in the country," says Aaron Burget, assistant brand manager at Widmer Brothers, one of Portland's oldest microbreweries, "it comes right down out of the foothills of Mt. Hood.  It's great for brewing. You go back East and it's a different kind of brewing, in terms of how you have to treat the water. And, the Northwest itself is a really good hop growing region.  The Yakima Valley and the Willamette valley. The same reason it's great for growing grapes, it's great for growing hops."

Shawn Duncan, brewer and bartender at The Tugboat Brewing Co in downtown Portland, goes one step further. "We're a bunch of drunks out here," he says,  "the weather out here in the Northwest is a very weird pattern... It just dumps water out here and gets dark. Coffee and alcohol are great antidotes to that bullshit."

The microbrew scene in Portland started in the 1980s with small breweries like Widmer Brothers and Bridgeport, both of which now distribute nationally. Instead of cornering the local beer market, though, these companies acted as a growth agent for several other small breweries.  Nicholls, again:  "We are where we are because of what they pioneered. They helped make this such a great beer geek community, they helped culture this whole environment."  The result is an entire city that not only makes and consumes a great deal of beer, but also beer that is much more extreme, flavorful, and unusual than anything you'll find coming out of a can.




Bailey's Taproom
At Bailey's Taproom in downtown, there's quite a few brews to challenge the taste buds. Michael O'Connor, the bartender, serves up murky and imposing beers from around the region. "What you're drinking right here is a Hopworks Ace of Spades," says O'Connor, standing before a wall of chrome taps and glass bottles. "Something like that would be too aggressive in other parts of the country, but it's really caught on here." The Ace of Spades does indeed have a bite to it, a pleasant assault of hops. It tingles, in fact, and macrobrew beer is watery and impotent by comparison.

"We have twenty taps on at all times, they're all rotating, so they're always changing... We try to encompass the whole range of styles," says O'Connor. "We try to keep half the tap list Oregon. The other half is West Coast."  Even if Bailey's doesn't have a beer on tap, though, it's still worth asking after your favorite local brew. Behind the bar with O'Connor are over one hundred varieties of bottled beer. "With so many good breweries around, it's hard to pick a favorite," says O'Connor. "Any of them can make a mistake at any time, and any of them can knock you out."




Chris Spollen of Amnesia Brewing
Portland beers are not only numerous, but often unusual as well. Nicholls at Roots got his start in organic brewing when he adapted a Pictish recipe dating from 2500 B.C. into a modern heather beer. The result, a smooth, sweet brew, a hopless beer unlike most others. Amnesia Brewing in North Portland has a few beers that it regards as standbys, like its Copacetic IPA, but frequently pushes the envelope with what it can produce. The Damnesia golden ale, a brew redolent with alcohol, makes the name of the brewery extremely apt. The Dolly Dubble, named after the cloned sheep, is an attempt to make each batch of beer exactly like the last. Thanks to such regular oddities, the Portland beer scene stays vital.
  
Widmer Brothers, one of Portland's oldest and largest microbreweries, still experiments with new recipes and beer types on a regular basis. "We just did a bragget," says Doug Rehberg, head brewer for Widmer Brothers, "it's traditionally considered a mead, but blended with ale. For legal reasons we had to basically make an ale with honey in it. This area where we're standing [the brewing floor at Widmer Brothers] was covered in honey because we had to hand bucket it out of drums. We did two batches, nine drums of honey each. We also put prickly pear in that. We like to figure out how to make a beer that we haven't made before, and likely will never make again.  It's kind of a challenge. Seven of us in here, schleppin' honey."




Widmer Beer in action
Beer geekery is not just limited to the insides of Portland breweries, by any means. "You take the mainstream beer drinkers in this town," says Widmer Brothers' Burget, "put them somewhere in the Midwest or on the East coast, and they're close to beer experts." Indeed, the whole beer culture gives off a whiff of nerdy expertise. The Oregon Brewers' Guild sells plenty of t-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming "S.N.O.B.: Support Native Oregon Beer," and home brewers and self proclaimed experts abound. "There's always a home brewer who comes in and thinks that he just kind of knows more than you do," says Nicholls.

The level of local beer enthusiasm and criticism, though, is mostly a good thing for the brewers. "It keeps us on our toes," says Rehberg, "pushes us to come up with creative stuff, pique their interest, show them what you can do." Rehberg and his coworkers at Widmer Brothers regularly hold competitions for home brewers, and submissions from local beer geeks can often find their way to taps around Portland.

Despite the commercial success of microbreweries, though, Portland beer very much remains a local craft business. The city may be overrun with infrastructure dedicated to making, transporting, and selling beer, but it is by no means a massive industrial process. As much beer as Portland produces, the brew process is still fueled by craft, love of beer, and and a level of geekery that drives brewers to experiment with prickly pears and Pictish recipes. The fermenting tanks at Widmer Brothers may look massive, but success does not seem to be spoiling Portland. "Guys are still dumping in the ingredients by hand, every time," says Burget. "It's still a craft brewery.  We just make more."




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