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 easier to find than in other cities (although 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, restaurants, and quickie marts. 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 stuff. 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 Northwest 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 Coors, and is brewed far, far away.
Portland beer’s story really begins in 1984, when BridgePort Brewing first started making beer and Widmer Brothers quickly followed suit. Sadly, those breweries are harder to visit now than they’ve been in years past: Widmer shut down their facility’s on-site pub in January 2019, and BridgePort closed up shop altogether a couple of months later. You can still find Widmer’s ubiquitous Hefeweizen at virtually every joint in town, though, and it’s a Northwestern take on its Bavarian namesake and one of the beers that defined the craft brewing movement.
Portland’s first actual walk-in brewpub came in 1985, when the McMenamin 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 may come across some exceptional one-off beers at any of their dozens of outposts in Oregon and Washington, but their Hammerhead always 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. In recent years, the Portland beer scene has undergone something of a bubble-burst, as breweries and taprooms in the city’s massively oversaturated market have begun to disappear, even as new ones seem to open every other weekend. We’re current in the middle of a fascinating second act that, amid some necessary contractions, has also given us an astounding number of new, great, creative Portland breweries and expanded the city’s beer palette to include diverse new styles.
One of the better recent developments is local brewers’ embrace of Belgian farmhouse brewing traditions and sour beers. Upright Brewing makes saisons and farmhouse-style ales that emblemize the heterogeneity of the current beer scene, sometimes with the use of open fermentation tanks. And Little Beast uses diverse cultures to ferment their beer, with uncommon and remarkable results. If sour’s your thing, the Cascade Brewing Barrel House has brewed, blended, and aged more sour beers than you can taste in an evening, so pucker up.
German brewing traditions have also gained a toehold. Occidental Brewing in the St. Johns neighborhood makes some of the best German-style beers in the city, including their authentic Bavarian Hefeweizen and a crisp, clean Kölsch. Nipping at their heels are Wayfinder Beer and Zoiglhaus Brewing, which offer worthwhile pilsners as well as the requisite IPAs. And Rosenstadt Brewing is the most adherent to German styles—fittingly, since one of their brewers was born and raised there—with excellent Kölsch and dunkel offerings.
Other breweries are a little tougher to pigeonhole, but IPA tends to dominate the tap list. Gigantic Brewing makes several IPAs, among other styles, and Breakside Brewery, one of the city’s most acclaimed beer-makers, boasts rotating IPAs, lagers, and barrel-aged beers every month. Ruse Brewing similarly runs the gamut, with inventive twists on saisons, stouts, and—of course—IPAs. Great Notion Brewing built its empire on the recent hazy IPA craze, while San Diego’s Modern Times opened up shop in Portland and are making some awfully good versions of their own. Looking toward future trends, Migration Brewing and Baerlic Brewing are among those who have delved into the emerging fad of champagne-like Brut IPA.
These are among the dozens of worthy breweries to check out in Portland; this is literally the foam at the top of the mug. Also keep your eye on local taps for excellent Oregon breweries from farther afield—like Hood River’s pFriem and Double Mountain breweries, Newberg’s Wolves and People, Baker City’s Barley Brown’s, and Tillamook’s De Garde.