Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt from the new book Oregon Breweries, a guidebook to all of Oregon’s 200 breweries (and counting). Check Brian’s website for updated book signing events around the state. (Excerpt copyright 2014 Stackpole Books)
Why Beer? Why Oregon?
How to put this even-handedly? All across the United States, from coast to coast, the Mexican border to the Canadian border, there are phenomenal brewing cultures to soak up and calling out one as the best above all others is not just difficult, it’s impossible and foolhardy. Having said that, Oregon can claim to be the best spot on the map for such a beer scene and boasts more than enough world-class breweries to support such a bold assertion. How many other states are nicknamed “Beervana?” Well, that’s just me gushing. Oregon’s brewers themselves don’t need to brag and boast; they just make a whole lot of great beers across the entire spectrum of styles and beyond) and welcome locals and visitors alike with open arms and honest pints.
I should add that while you’ll discover crisp pilsners, robust imperial stouts, and funky wild ales, IPAs reign supreme. We’re blessed by proximity to America’s two primary hop-growing regions. Washington’s Yakima Valley excels in bittering hops and Oregon’s Willamette Valley produces bushels of aroma hops that make sitting in a local beer garden a fragrant, divine experience. (No, it doesn’t rain all year long, so such outdoor patios are plentiful.) Situated between the Cascade and Coast mountains, the Willamette Valley straddles the North 45th Parallel, where the rainy, cool climate constitutes excellent growing conditions similar to Bavaria’s Hallertau region.
But beer isn’t just hops. It’s the barley that you’ll begin to find growing out in the eastern plains. It’s the water sourced from stellar watersheds and aquifers, thanks to pristine rainfall and snowmelt that enables brewers statewide to benefit from some of the softest, low mineral water one could hope for. It’s the yeast that more often than not comes from Wyeast Labs, founded in Hood River in 1986, a company that has directly fostered the craft beer revolution. But let’s not forget the growing number of brave brewers who rely on spontaneous fermentation, so clearly the atmosphere supports an exciting direction in the next wave of brewing. Last but not least, it’s the people.
Can it be any surprise that F. H. Steinbart, America’s oldest homebrew supply shop, established in 1918, is in the same city — Portland — that has the record number of breweries? The Oregon Brew Crew is one of the largest and oldest homebrewing clubs in the country, and many alumni have founded breweries. And credit must be paid to the group of pioneers including Brian and Mike McMenamin (McMenamin Brothers Brewing), Kurt and Rob Widmer (Widmer Bros. Brewing), Dick Ponzi (BridgePort), and Fred Bowman and Art Larrance (Portland Brewing), who wrote a bill that led to legalizing brewpubs in Oregon in 1985. Beyond these folks, it is common for brewers employed at one company to move to another or eventually launch their own. Brewmaster Larry Sidor began his brewing career at Olympia in Tumwater, Washington, but thanks to Pabst, who bought both “Oly” and Blitz-Weinhard, he has some Henry’s to his credit, too, and later became the brewmaster at Deschutes in Bend before co-founding Crux Fermentation Project. Brewmaster John Harris brewed from square one at McMenamins in Portland, then headed to Deschutes (before Sidor’s time) and later returned to Portland for Full Sail before starting his own Ecliptic. Stories like these play out over the years and throughout each region. I don’t call it turnover; I call it pollination. Craft brewers are fraternal and independent, and everyone adds his or her own style, ideas, and panache.
Take the Scenic Route(s)
The trickiest part about planning a “beercation” to Oregon is probably whether or not to focus on Portland. After all, Portland is home to more breweries than any other city on the planet (over fifty and counting). If that seems crazy — how could a city of approximately 600,000 people support so many breweries and brewpubs? — that’s just indicative of the way locally crafted suds are engrained in the culture. If there’s a bar or restaurant without at least a couple of Oregon-brewed options on tap or in bottles or cans, I’ve never found myself there. Taprooms offering twenty or more Northwest ales and lagers are the norm. Portlanders habitually explore new brews, making it fun for both the brewers and imbibers to experiment.
But Oregon is a huge state, and it’s preposterous to think Portland is the only place hopping. Most of the breweries are not within the larger Portland Metro. Furthermore, Oregon is one of the most picturesque states. A beer trip will bring you to verdant mountain villages, breathtaking coastal hamlets, outdoor playgrounds in the high desert, lush river valleys, college towns, and historic townships along the Oregon Trail. It’s my firm belief that Lewis and Clark secretly left St. Louis because they wanted to explore somewhere better for brewing.
Captain William Clark wrote of this area in 1805: “Welcome to the theater of majestic beauty — the Great Northwest.” Forty-seven years later, Henry Saxer established the Liberty Brewery in Portland when the city itself was only eight years old. Henry Weinhard contributed greatly to the local brewing evolution, launching his brewery here in 1856. (Oregon gained statehood in 1859.) By the end of the nineteenth century, he’d become such a successful beer magnate that he offered to pump in beer to flow from the Skidmore Fountain, today known as the area where the infamous Voodoo Donuts is located. While a few of the larger industrial breweries had outposts here, such as Blitz-Weinhard Brewery (that bounced around in ownership among the conglomerates like Stroh, Pabst, and Miller and is now the multi-use Brewery Blocks in downtown Portland’s Pearl District), it would take over a century for the Pacific Northwest to earn its place in the pantheon of epic brewing regions, thanks to the efforts of pioneers whom we’ll meet in this book.
Perhaps most telling about the depth and breadth of Oregon’s brewing history, as well as its present and future, is how many of the first wave of craft breweries originated here and the fact that they not only survived but are among the largest producers in the country. It’s not like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, which have sixth-generation-run brewing companies. What the state lacks in historical tradition it makes up for in entrepreneurship and innovation. In Portland there’s BridgePort (1984), Widmer Bros. (1984), and Portland Brewing (1986), plus the brewpub that started it all, McMenamin Brothers’ Hillsdale Brewery (1984). Then there’s Full Sail in Hood River (1987), Deschutes in Bend (1988), and Rogue in Newport (1988). As for the present, more than thirty breweries opened in 2013, as small as single-barrel nanobreweries in the most remote corners of the state and as large as 30-barrel production breweries in places like Bend, where it feels like new breweries will have to start opening on top of existing ones just to find room.
So where does it all end? It doesn’t! The story of Oregon brewing is never-ending. It’s like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books but without any dead ends. It’s ridiculously exciting and terribly thirst inducing. Whether you’re exploring Oregon for its breweries and taking in the scenery as a result or setting out to hike, bike, paddle, surf, kitesurf, ski, or roll on through, fortunately there’s a cold one waiting for you at the end of each day’s adventure, no matter where your expedition takes you. We can all drink to that.