Gritty, alternative and with a diverse microbrewery scene, Portland is the new craft-beer capital of the world, giving cities in Belgium and Germany a run for their grog. WORDS GUY WILKINSON
Excuse me?” asks a man at the bar. “I was wondering if I could tempt you to try something a little… different?” Ordinarily such a question from a total stranger might seem unusual, but then again, this is a place with little tolerance for the mundane.
There’s an almost ceremonial hush as our drinks — beer, we’re assured — are poured into hefty cognac glasses, each illustrated with a picture of a bulldog wearing a fedora. From the bottle, its colour and texture are like crude oil and there are no bubbles. Is this even beer?
HOPS TO IT
We’re inside the tasting room at Hair of the Dog Brewing Company, an unpretentious, no-frills joint in Portland’s industrial district, now firmly established as a go-to place for hardcore beer aficionados. With its stone floor, stripped-back wooden furnishings and knowledgeable staff, it’s known for quality rather than quantity. The brewers here take an unusual approach, often ageing their beers for long periods in barrels or re-fermenting them in the bottle, meaning they improve with age, much like a fine wine.
It turns out my newfound friend is twenty-something Matthew Martin, a beer- obsessed traveller from Philadelphia who has come to Portland for just one reason: the brewing scene. If his pilgrimage seems strange, it shouldn’t. With 32 breweries inside the city limits and dozens more in the pipeline, Portland is now the craft- beer capital of the world, eclipsing Leuven in Belgium, and even Munich. So, what’s with the beer obsession here?
It started with home brewing. In Portland, everyone’s at it. Inspired by celebrated local beer writer Fred Eckhardt’s 1969 book A Treatise on Lager Beers, the first home-brewing club predates the first commercial craft-beer brewery. And although many an Oregonian still has something resembling an eccentric scientist’s lab bubbling away in their basement, things have since moved on.
One of the masterminds behind the modern brewing scene is Christian Ettinger, owner of Hopworks Urban Brewery.
“What I was originally fascinated with is this perfect marriage of art and science,” he explains, leading us around a labyrinth of rooms filled with kegs and fermentation tanks. We stop to try the Survival 7-grain Stout, a dark, coffee- infused porter that tastes something like a mocha Guinness. I ask him just why the hell there are so many microbreweries here.
“There is a certain natural bounty in the area, but I think it runs deeper,” he says. “Oregonians love to hate big business; we’re the opposite of that, when you become part of a community that is so locally focused, it’s a really authentic and endearing experience.”
FIRST PORT OF CALL
There is, of course, far more to Portland than beer. With a population of about 584,000, it still retains more of a small- town feel than many other US cities and isn’t easily categorised.
Split into east and west by the Willamette River cutting through its centre, Portland’sa strange mix; on the one hand gritty and alternative, known for live music, tattooed chefs, gourmet coffee, innovative cuisine and outstanding beer-anyone who’s watched TV series Portlandia will know the deal- on the other, a haven for windcheater-sporting outdoor types who enjoy its proximity to the windsurfing and snowboarding meccas of Hood River and Columbia River Gorge.
Aside from its numerous cultural attractions, Portland is only a two-hour drive from the scenic Pacific coast and there are more than 200 Willamette Valley wineries within 50 kilometres of the city.
Ace Hotel, located a short distance from the city’s Pearl District, is the perfect base from which to explore and absorb it all. Splurge on a stay in a deluxe room decked out with stacks of vinyls, vintage turntables, weathered brown leather chesterfield couches, freestanding tubs and eye-catching murals.
Downstairs in the lobby, guests are encouraged to make use of the wi-fi and sofas surrounded by stuffed bookshelves and, rather strangely, a photo booth. What could easily have become hipster hell has managed to balance a cool, indie feel with accessibility. There’s not a whiff of chain-hotel mediocrity here.
Adjacent to the Ace Hotel lobby are Stumptown Coffee Roasters, serving the best roasts in town, and Clyde Common restaurant where simple, stylish European cooking is complemented by a swish but informal bar environment.
While the Pearl District is sneered at by some locals as a tourist trap, it does offer some cool sights. At the Living Room Theaters you can watch art-house flicks in an intimate cinema setting, kicking back on comfy lounge chairs with a glass of red wine or locally brewed beer, snacking on gourmet pizzas.
Literary devotees should pay a visit to Powell’s City of Books, which claims to be the largest independent bookstore in the world. Live music can also be found nearby, with venues such as Al’s Den at Crystal Hotel or Jimmy Mak’s jazz club, as well as several art galleries, and clothing and record stores.
That’s not to say all the action takes place around the west side or downtown. Across the Fremont Bridge, the central east-side district has also enjoyed resurgence in recent years. Bolstered by the renovation of Jupiter Hotel, a former rundown 1960s motor lodge given a rock- star face-lift in 2004, a number of bars, restaurants and breweries are flourishing in a relatively compact area.
IN BEER WE TRUST
“[Our] beer culture is less routed in national tradition and more in experimentation,” says head brewer of Breakside Brewery, Ben Edmunds. “People have learnt a lot from European brewing but at this point, American brewers are increasingly looking to each other for inspiration.”
Breakside’s styles are among the most diverse in Portland; there’s everything from the smoky, fruity Alanbier to the sweet, spicy copper-coloured Aztec Ale and all things in between.
It’s a similar story for Adam Cassie, co-founder of Burnside Brewing Co. “We don’t filter any of our beers and we never will; we feel that strips the soul out of the beer,” he says as we peruse the extensive chalkboard beer menu. “We set out to do something different here; we want our beer to complement a cutting-edge fine- dining menu not commonly associated with brew pubs.”
Tasked with overseeing the menu is head chef Ronnie Vance, who combines a form of molecular gastronomy with locally sourced ingredients and meats.
I try the Cohiba, a seriously earthy duck confit rolled in crispy crepe, then wrapped in collard greens and sublimely paired with the braised boar collar, spicy unfermented kimchi and a rich, malty Alter Ego Imperial IPA beer.
The longer you’re in Portland, the clearer it becomes there’s a level of devotion to craft beer, and indeed food, that sets this city apart. It is a passion partly fuelled by the taverns, with plenty of bars and pubs serving top-quality beers.
Drop by NorthWest Public House, Saraveza Bottle Shop & Pasty Tavern, The Bitter End Pub, Henry’s 12th Street Tavern or Horse Brass Pub, a traditional English- style pub complete with dartboard and a tap menu longer than Matt Preston’s grocery list.
Often there’s a disconnect between bars and the food scene, but here the passion runs deep enough to inspire people to do both. Portlandians believe in doing everything they do in the best way they can.
Turns out, obsession isn’t always a bad thing.
Where to stay
Ace Hotel 1022 SW Stark St; http://www.acehotel.com.Jupiter Hotel 800 East Burnside St; http://www.jupiterhotel.com.
Where to eat
Burnside Brewing Co
701 East Burnside St; http://www.burnsidebrewco.com. Clyde Common 1014 SW Stark St; http://www.clydecommon.com. Little Bird Bistro 219 SW 6th Ave; http://www.littlebirdbistro.com. Stumptown Coffee Roasters 1026 SW Stark St; www. stumptowncoffee.com.
Where to drink
Bailey’s Tap Room
213 SW Broadway; www. baileystaproom.com.Hair of the Dog Brewing Company 61 SE Yamhill St; http://www.hairofthedog.com. Henry’s 12th Street Tavern 10 NW 12th Ave; www. henrystavern.com. Hopworks Urban Brewery 2944 SE Powell Boulevard; http://www.hopworksbeer.com. Horse Brass Pub
4534 SE Belmont St; http://www.horsebrass.com. Saraveza Bottle Shop & Pasty Tavern 1004 N Killingsworth St; http://www.saraveza.com.The Bitter End Pub1981 W Burnside St; www. portlandbitterend.com. Northwest Public House2327 NW Kearney St; www. northwestpublichouse.com.
Al’s Den Crystal Hotel, 303 SW 12th Ave; http://www.mcmenamins.com. Jimmy Mak’s 221 NW 10thAve; http://www.jimmymaks.com. Living Room Theaters341 SW 10th Ave; www. livingroomtheaters.com. Powell’s City of Books 1005 W Burnside St; http://www.powells.com.
Story originally published in Voyeur Magazine July 2012 issue: http://voyeur.realviewtechnologies.com/#folio=1