Portland, Oregon: Brewpub Heaven

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Wednesday 13th October 2010
In this article
  • What’s going on in Oregon?
  • Beer tasting 101.
  • Looking for Mr. Good Brew.
  • What’s Going on in Oregon?

Everyone knows that if you want great coffee, Seattle’s the place to go. For world class wines, it’s the Napa and Sonoma valleys in California. But for good beer, pick another stop on U.S. Interstate 5: Portland, Oregon, where you’re never further than 15 minutes from a good brewpub.

Why Oregon? The Willamette River Valley in western Oregon has been a center of hop growing and beer brewing since pioneer days. So when the micro-brew revolution began, the history–and the hops–were already there, not to mention the mountain spring water, the grain and the fruit for summer beers. As a result, regional brewers and microbrewers sprung up like mushrooms after a Northwest winter rain.

It didn’t take long for the brewpub to follow. These beers were not just for washing down popcorn and pretzels (although they do a great job of both, if that’s your crunch of choice). The carefully hand-crafted beers of are also fine accompaniments to food and can even be used in cooking, just like wine. In Portland’s brewpubs, beer forms the base for salad dressings, spices up the marinades for meats and chicken, sweetens the desserts and livens up the chilis and soups. In other words, these brewpubs go way beyond beer-batter fish and chips.

Beer Tasting 101

Most brewpubs offer a sampler tray of the brewer’s art: a beer tasting. Think of it as just like wine tasting, but without the snooty wine steward. You sip small amounts of a selection of brews to see what the brewmaster can do — from the light and hoppy to the dark and sweet.

To make your beer tasting more interesting, show up with a few definitions and a heads-up on what to expect with these handy definitions:

Beer: A beverage brewed from grain (usually malted barley, but sometimes wheat or oats), yeast and water. Flavored with hops, a bitter tasting flower that balances the sweetness of the malt, and other flavorings–sugar, rice, corn, chocolate, ginger, vanilla, molasses, fruits, you name it.

Lager: The lightest beer.

Pale ale: Beer cooked at a higher temperature to deepen the toasted flavor of the brew.

Hefeweizen: Wheat beer which, because it is unfiltered, is cloudy.

Stout and porter: Heavier, darker cousins of ales and lagers.

Brewpub: A restaurant and brewery where more than 50 percent of the beer served is brewed onsite.

Microbrew: A beer produced in quantities fewer than 15,000 barrels a year.

Craft brewed: Malt and specialty beers brewed in small batches.

What to Expect from Portland Brew Pubs

  1. A good head on the beer. The head ensures you get a strong whiff of the brew, so pour it into your glass carefully.
  2. Always a glass. A clean glass. A very clean glass. In many brew establishments, the glasses are hand washed and air dried to make sure there isn’t a single speck of grease to deflate the head and leave big, soapy looking bubbles.
  3. Discovering that the English are right. Refrigerated beer is too cold to appreciate the taste. So in brewpubs, beer is served at a temperature that is cool but not cold. The iced glasses are saved for martinis.
  4. A new vocabulary. Beer has "mouth-feel" which describes the brew’s body — light, medium or full. The color of the brew can be misleading; light colored brews can be full bodied. Other characteristics of beer: hoppy (more bitter), fruity (yeast or a flavoring such as raspberries), sweet (malt), chocolatey (some stouts and porters).

Want to learn more? Go to www.bierland.org.

Looking for Mr. Good Brew

Now, where to practice these tasting skills? In a city known as "Munich on the Willamette," it’s not hard to find a good brewpub. All you have to do is walk a block in any direction or ask a local resident; they’re all-too-willing to tout their favorites. Here are a few to get you started:

The Legendary McMenamins White Eagle Cafe, Saloon and Rock and Roll Hotel (836 N. Russell;503-282-6810; www.mcmenamins.com)

The McMenamins are a brewpub industry of their own. Brothers who share a love for good beer and funky old buildings, the McMenamins have bought, rehabbed and opened brewpubs in a county poor farm (McMenamins Edgefield), an elementary school (Kennedy School) and an old hotel in a quiet Portland suburb (The Grand Lodge in Forest Grove), just to name a few.

The White Eagle is one of their best. Beginning as a turn-of-the-century bar and pool hall, the White Eagle has been, in turn, a brothel and site of bloody brawls, an ice cream parlor with hidden booze shop (during Prohibition) and, in the 70s and 80s, a place where local musicians like Robert Cray, Paul DeLay and The Holy Modal Rounders played. Now an atmospheric bar with separate hotel, the McMenamins brews keep the spirit of the White Eagle alive.

Two of the most well known of the McMenamins brews are Hammerhead Ale, a nice, hoppy brew, and Terminator Stout, rich, dark and creamy. You can also get salad dressed with a raspberry-flavored Ruby Ale, chicken tenders accompanied by a barbecue dipping sauce flavored with Hammerhead Ale and a Terminator bratwurst.

The McMenamins Web site gives much, much more information, such as their many locations, schedules for special events, the movies playing at their theater/brewpubs and the newest seasonal brew. It’s all there.

Widmer Brothers Gasthaus (929 N. Russell; 503-281-2437; www.widmer.com)

The other set of Portland Brews Brothers are the Widmers–Kurt and Rob. They run a traditional German type gasthaus (i.e., guesthouse or small inn) where they sell their brews along with schnitzel and steak, Bourbon Bock Barbecued wings, bier cheese soup and lots of sausage. To accompany the food is a selection of beers ranging from Sweet Betty Blond Ale, a lighter, flavorful brew, to Hefeweizen, the unfiltered wheat beer, and Widberry, a wheat beer with a touch of blackberry flavor.

Across the street from the brewpub is a regional brewery where Widmer beer is bottled for local grocery stores — a great way to stock up on your new love. Both the gasthaus and the brewery are in an industrial part of Portland, giving the place a slightly seedy feel that adds to the experience.

The Widmer Web site introduces the brothers’ brews and even includes a virtual tour of the gasthaus.

Laurelwood Public House and Brewery (40th and Sandy Blvd.; 503-282-0622; www.laurelwoodbrewpub.com)

Truly a neighborhood brewpub, Laurelwood Public House is in a commercial district on the edge of an upscale residential neighborhood. During the week, the pub is full of young professionals and families looking for a good meal after a busy day. On the weekends, it’s more of a couples and singles crowd with sports on the television sets in the bar.

Laurelwood is the "Little Brewery That Could" — working hard to raise the profile of its beers, "free range organic ales." Free Range Red is their recent release, but two English style ales, a German altbier, a stout and a porter are available year round.

There are also occasional "meet the brewer" nights at Laurelwood, when patrons can learn more about the art and craft of beer making. And they brew their own root beer, too.

Food is standard pub grub: hearty chili and sandwiches, beer-battered onion rings to accompany burgers and brew. There are also salmon and chicken entrees. The complete menu is available on their Web site.

Bridgeport Brewing Company (1313 NW Marshall St.; 503-241-3612; www.bridgeportbrew.com)

One of the oldest craft brewers in Portland, Bridgeport pioneered the idea of pairing food and good brews with a pizza/beer place that has been a hophead gathering spot for years. It’s still a great place to grab a beer and a bite.

The beers Bridgeport pours include Blue Heron Pale Ale, a great India Pale Ale (IPA) and a decent Bridgeport Amber. Their new offering is BridgePort Streetcar Ale, named after the new Portland trolley car.

Bridgeport also offers one of the best brewery tours around. Available every day, the tours give a complete behind-the-scenes look at craft brewing at its best.

Portland Brewing Company (2730 NW 31st; 503-228-5269; www.portlandbrew.com)

The beer is great. MacTarnahan’s Amber Ale, Zig-Zag River Lager, Haystack Black Porter and Oregon Honey Beer: the names reflect both the local geography and ingredients. The Portland Brew Co. beer is available on tap at the brewpub and in local grocery stores. In town for the weekend? Try Portland Brewing Company’s brewery tour to learn more about craft brewing.

Bell Tower Brewhouse (707 S.E. 164th; Vancouver, WA; 360-944-7800; www.thebelltower.com)

OK, this one isn’t a Portland brewpub, strictly speaking. But it’s worth the 15-minute trip across the Columbia River to Vancouver, Washington to taste the beer and see the building. The Bell Tower is attached to an old church now converted into a brew pub. Complete with sports bar and a balcony with big, overstuffed chairs in which to sit and sip, the Bell Tower pours an IPA, an amber lager and a dark porter among its offerings.

Oregon Brewer’s Festival (www.oregonbrewfest.com)

Can’t decide which pub to visit? Which brew to taste? Come to Portland the last full weekend in July and you can find them all in one place. That’s the weekend of the Oregon Brewer’s Festival, the oldest and the biggest in the state. Featuring 72 beers and a variety of food to go with them, the festival is the place to go if you can’t get to Munich for Oktoberfest. Information on the festival is available at www.oregonbrewfest.com .

In fact, if you’re a microbrew fan, the only reason to put off a visit to Portland is that the longer you wait, the more brewpubs will open for you to visit.

This article last updated on Wednesday 13th October 2010
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