FORGET THE FOOD, the music and arts scenes, the proximity to mountains and oceans. The actual best thing about Portland is the beer. I don’t simply mean it’s tastier, or cheaper, or more easily found than in other cities (although all of those things are very true). I mean there’s more of it—Portland is home to dozens of craft breweries within city limits, so you’re not going to have a hard time finding some sort of great local brew at most bars or quickie marts. And Portland—as well as the rest of the state of Oregon—is home to some of the most talented, creative brewers in the world, and both their competitive streaks and their community-minded urges have driven them to make some very, very delicious brews. You know how they say a rising tide lifts all boats? Switch out seawater with beer and you get the idea.
It wasn’t always the case. For decades, Oregon’s best-known beer was Henry Weinhard’s, an undistinguished, straw-yellow lager that came out of the landmark Blitz-Weinhard brewery, built in the 1860s and located at the southern edge of the Pearl District at NW 12th and Burnside. The brewhouse made all of downtown Portland smell like beer, which was cool—the Widmer Brothers Brewery does something similar for the Eliot and Overlook neighborhoods in North Portland—but the beer itself was a pale shadow of both the Bohemian lagers that inspired it and the terrific American craft brews that came after it. Henry Weinhard’s is now owned by the corporate behemoth that owns Miller and is brewed far, far away. You don’t need to drink it.
Portland beer’s story really begins in 1984, when BridgePort Brewing first started making beer and Widmer Brothers quickly followed suit. Those two breweries are still around today, and BridgePort’s flagship IPA and Widmer’s Hefeweizen are totally decent quaffs, although nowadays you’re likely to find better exemplars of the style done by smaller enterprises. Still, a visit to either facility is worthwhile, as they have other great beers to try: Order whatever cask-conditioned beer the BridgePort pub is currently offering, and try the Widmer pub’s limited draft-only experimental releases and you won’t be sorry.
Portland’s first actual walk-in brewpub came in 1985, when the McMenamins brothers decided to try making beer at one of their bars, the Hillsdale Brewery and Public House. The McMenamins chain has gone on to become a Northwest empire, for better or worse (mostly better). You won’t get an exceptional beer at any of their 65 outposts in Oregon and Washington, but their Hammerhead does the trick, or try the Rubinator, a combo of their raspberry-flavored Ruby Ale and thick Terminator Stout.
In the years that followed, Portland became a national craft-beer haven, and hoppy Northwest ales and IPAs dominated local taps for close to two decades. But we’re currently in the throes of a second act that has given us an astounding number of new, great, creative Portland breweries and expanded the city’s beer palette to include diverse new styles.
The most recent developments of note are local brewers’ embrace of Belgian farmhouse brewing traditions and sour beers. (The recent rise of cidermakers and cideries is another significant development, but let’s stick to the barley and hops for now.) Upright Brewing names their farmhouse-style beers by number; both Four and Five are great saisons that are dangerously drinkable, and also keep your eye out for their draft-only Engelberg Pilsner. At the Commons’ recently opened tasting room, you can try their masterful Urban Farmhouse Ale, which pairs terrifically with food.
If sour’s your thing, get to the Cascade Brewing Barrel House, an outpost of Southwest Portland’s Raccoon Lodge brewpub. They’ve brewed, blended, and aged more sour beers than you can taste in an evening, so pucker up. And Occidental Brewing in the St. Johns neighborhood makes the best German-style beers in the city, including their authentic Bavarian Hefeweizen and a crisp, clean Kölsch.There’s dozens more worthy breweries to check out in Portland; this is literally the foam at the top of the mug, so check out portlandmercury.com for a directory of more great places to drink.