No doubt you’re familiar with the best and biggest breweries around Portland, such as Breakside, Widmer Bros., Laurelwood. Maybe you’re a fan, maybe not—but you bloody well know about them and have likely formed your opinion based on visiting their pubs and sampling their beers (a lot) over the years. But how familiar are you with Gateway? What about Kaiser? You mean to tell me you haven’t been to any of the 27 breweries that poured at last week’s Nano Beer Fest? (“Nano” denotes how tiny these breweries are.) Of course you haven’t—in part because only nine of them even operate public tasting rooms.
If Nano Beer Fest—which began in 2008 as a celebration of the Davids among the Goliaths of the craft beer industry—proves anything, it’s the following: 1) There are a lot of breweries, not just in but around Portland, that find ways to provide beer to underserved towns and neighborhoods. 2) As with their larger brethren, some are making outstanding beer while others really shouldn’t quit their day jobs. This is not me being ironic, since | given how little profit there is in running a nano brewery.
I recently made pilgrimages to some of the beer makers outside Portland’s core. To the east, I visited Joel Sheley, co-founder of Gateway Brewing in the Gateway neighborhood just before you reach Gresham. Then I visited Steve Wesley’s Hop Haus in Gresham proper. These two run similar (and small) operations in out buildings at their houses. Sheley has over 15 years logged at real breweries (Nor’wester ‘til it shuttered, then Widmer Bros.) and says his beers will soon be available daily at Outer Rim Bicycles (and taps). Wesley says he’ll have his brewery and tasting room open by fall, possibly in Milwaukie—but for now, he’s happy trading beer for brisket (or salmon or razor clams or anything else you want to barter with). Find Gateway’s Mahogany Lager or Hop Haus’s Smokey Rye and you’ll learn there are as many reasons to break out of inner Portland as there are to break away from IPAs once in a while.
West of town, in Forest Grove, there are three treats in the form of Ridgewalker, Waltz, and Kaiser. Yes, Forest Grove has gone from no breweries to three since 2014. The first two offer more traditional pubs, while Kaiser’s residential tasting space has steady but wonkier hours, and sadly I couldn’t find time to trek out there. Both Ridgewalker and Kaiser poured their New England-style IPAs at Nano Beer Fest, and each was excellent. I’m gonna put Jon Kaiser’s “Wheeze the Juice” as the more destination-worthy, but Ridgewalker’s family-friendly atmosphere is the best thing going west of Cascade’s Raccoon Lodge. Then again, the lengthy tap list of house beers at Waltz (there are great guest taps, too) is good, while the actual character of the pub is what should put this at the top of your wish list. Between the banter at the bar and rows of vinyl to sift through, it’d make my Top 12 Portland breweries... if only it were in Portland.
Two other noteworthy beers from the nano fest, which I didn’t expect to dig but enjoyed immensely, were Little Dipper’s North Sky IPA made with macerated lemons and meadowfoam honey (the one that tastes like marshmallows), as well as Three Mugs’ Damsel’s Raspberry Desire—a blonde ale made with white-chocolate covered raspberries. The first one, from a brewery tucked inside Northwood Public House in Battle Ground, avoided tasting like a lemon meringue pie and put several of the grapefruit and orange-zested IPAs to shame. The latter, from the brewery tucked into Brew Brothers’ homebrew supply shop in Hillsboro, sounds gross, but was smooth and tasted like what you’d expect a candle with those ingredients to taste like, but pleasantly so.
The fact is, as mentioned above, not every nano brewery makes noteworthy beers, but some of these little sea monkeys lining Portland’s pond are worth exploring. And some are so off the radar they weren’t even featured at that fest. Like Bent Shovel in rural Oregon City, where the tasty, colorful array of ales and lagers matched the autumnal leaves during my last visit. Tiny Wolf makes small batches of barrel-aged beers worth leaving your den for. As the promise of sunny weekends approaches, maybe nothing beats your local taphouse if there’s a patio. But I was just at Vanguard in Wilsonville, and they’re building a nano biergarten that will be ready in time to soak up some summery IPAs and those rays we’re desperate for.