I moved to Oregon in 2003 from the lands where pilsner was invented and perfected and where that was all we quaffed. “Liquid bread,” we called the golden, clean brews. For the life of me, I couldn’t find a good pilsner in my new home, just as I couldn’t get over the bitterness of the India pale ales the locals loved so much.
Thankfully, the landscape — the snow-capped mountains, the rolling hills covered in forests, the fields and orchards spanning the valleys — reminded me of my home country, Slovakia. The sharpness of Oregon’s mountains and the trees standing upright like nature’s exclamation points helped create an imperative to make a new home here. If a crispy pilsner wasn’t meant to be, the crispy outdoors was.
My journey to becoming an Oregonian (and an American) ran parallel to my transformation into a hop head. The gentle initial incline became a climb, rising and rising until that last steep bit when you push over a hump to reach the top — the same as the drive from Salem to Central Oregon over the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway.
I began with the Widmer Brothers Blue Boar (Irish Style Pale Ale) of the Willamette Valley, slightly hoppier and pinier than what I was used to but safely bland at the same time, then eased into the Portland Brewing MacTarnahan’s Amber Ale of the foothills, with deeper tones of malt overlaid on Cascade hops, the regional treasure. Up where the ski pistes dot the Cascades forests, the Bridgeport Blue Heron Pale Ale was a pinnacle of earthy, dry hoppiness that presaged the high desert. By the time I rolled down to Bend, the Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale ended up being an easy milestone whose balanced deliciousness made me wonder what the big deal about hops was. And what’s a pilsner?
It took me a few years to make my way up there — to Bend and to IPAs. The first time I saw Mirror Pond I felt confused, my brain failing to make the connection. Wait a second, it went, that beer is named after this place? The drawing on that bottle is of this lake? It didn’t compute, like in that old Slovak joke where a peasant sees a giraffe for the first time and insists it doesn’t exist.
But confusion soon made way for a sense of accomplishment and wonder. I am here, I thought, I am finally here. The place that gave the name to the beer. I toasted Mirror Pond with a bottle of Mirror Pond, the two reflecting in one another as I closed and opened each of my eyes in quick succession — now you see it, now you drink it.
When I reach a peak, soon I feel like I must climb another. From Mirror Pond I ascended through a series of hops across the state to Barley Brown’s Pallet Jack, Boneyard RPM, Fort George Vortex, Ninkasi Total Domination (and Tricerahops, don’t forget that beast), Terminal Gravity and many other big IPAs. Through beer I have traversed the state, a transplant seeking the most fertile ground.
After years of exploration, Mirror Pond today is a mild ale to me, a taste of the past, a memory of the immigrant’s struggle. The place still moves me, too, but in a nostalgic way, reflecting my former self to me, crisp and distant in the high-desert air.
Over the years, as they reached their own hoppy pinnacles, Oregon breweries swung in other directions, and several of them make pilsners rivaling the homeland’s. I enjoy them with all the gratitude of an immigrant, making small pilgrimages to their source.
I bike to Occidental Brewing in North Portland for the German-tinged Bohemian Like You pilsner that tastes like a beer halfway through a ride should. I walk to Baerlic Brewing in the Southeast for their odd and excellent and liquid-bready Oatmeal pilsner, pushing the style’s boundaries in a new direction. I drive to Buoy Brewing in Astoria for their Czech Pils, every sip a revelation of what home means to me (it helps one of the bartenders is a Czech immigrant). I stop by Heater Allen in McMinnville for their Pils, which transports me back across the ocean from my seat. Crux, Vagabond, pFriem, Upright, The Commons, Full Sail, Breakside, Seven Brides…
I keep traveling. Perhaps I’ll climb Mount Hood some day. That bottle of Zlatý Bažant (Golden Pheasant) Pilsner, the only Slovak beer available in Oregon, will taste like heaven.