Along the basalt cliffs and undulating hills of the Columbia River Gorge, beer lovers enjoy the excellent craft breweries as much as they love the storied waterfalls. Recently, the region has seen an increasing number of lagers inspired by styles from around the world. Oregon brewers are now putting their own spin on Italian, Japanese, American and Canadian lagers. It’s not surprising, as many brewers — and I know because I am one — choose a refreshing lager at the end of their day.
Josh Pfriem, brewmaster for pFriem Family Brewers in Hood River, is one of those brewers. He feels that lager transcends global barriers, political divides and — for the last decade — craft-beer prejudices. “Lager is the most nostalgic, historical drink out there,” he says. With a long past and humble origins, it is beer for everybody and comes in a diverse array of styles.
For those looking to take it easy, there’s more good news. Lagers tend to fall in the lower alcohol range — 4.5% to 6% ABV — and are typically drier than most ale styles. This means fewer calories per pint. Here are some to try if you’re planning on visiting the Gorge. (Always drink responsibly and appoint a designated driver or consider taking a car-free trip if you’d rather avoid driving.)
Sip Dark and Light Lagers in Cascade Locks
Most breweries in the Gorge brew at least one lager, which is pretty standard these days. Thunder Island Brewing Company in Cascade Locks on the west side of the Gorge had a trio on tap when I cruised through recently, and it was the Druish Princess Schwarzbier that made its mark. A lesser-known lager style that’s enjoyed popularity lately, the ebony lager smelled of brown sugar, freshly baked bread and coffee. Its lighter body and fairly dry, bubbly finish added levity, and it paired perfectly with a potato-sausage soup and the stunning view across the Columbia River.
Just down the street from Thunder Island, Gorges Beer Co. features two floors of indoor drinking and dining and a rooftop patio to get the full effect of the Gorge’s geology. You’ll find a pilsner on tap and perhaps a Mexican-style Vienna lager. Amber in color and with a bit of caramel-malt flavor, the addition of flaked maize keeps the body light and drinkable.
Experience a World of Lagers in Hood River
Hood River has the highest concentration of breweries on the Oregon side of the Breweries in the Gorge ale trail. Offering two breweries — Ferment Brewing Company and pFriem Family Brewers — plus Hood River Distillers and STOKED Roasters adjacent to an expansive recreation area along the Columbia River, the opportunities to just stay, play and relax are ample.
Taste Japanese and Czech Styles at Ferment Brewing
With two decades of brewery experience, Ferment Brewing’s Dan Peterson uses his degree in microbiology to brew a wide range of styles, from crisp lagers to tart-fruited sour ales and barrel-aged strong beers. If you visit during the day, you’re likely to see him at work; the upstairs pub offers a bird’s-eye view into the brewery; turn around and you’re looking out across the Gorge. Ferment’s expansive deck has a big fire pit and even small yurts, clever wintertime shelters for year-round outdoor enjoyment.
Hana Pils is the brewery’s top seller. It’s inspired by Japanese lagers and is brewed with a proportion of toasted rice. The rice provides a light, nutty sweetness and smooth, creamy body offset by European hops that evoke the first flowers of spring.
When I visited, a tank of red-rye lager was almost ready to keg. Peterson poured me a sample, still hazy with yeast. “There’s a right and wrong component” to lagers, he says. “If any component jumps out at you, it ain’t quite right. It should be harmonious.” As a brewer accustomed to tasting beer in process, I could tell the finished product would be a good showcase for the rye grain’s characteristic pepper-like spice flavor.
Another mainstay beer in Ferment’s “Bottom Ferment” lager line, 12° Pils is true to the same Czech inspiration as the original Budweiser. The first sip transported me back to Prague. It’s not sweet but offers just enough bitterness and a crisp, spicy-floral flavor with comforting bready notes. Pair it with Ferment’s own sauerkraut, kimchi and pickles.
Enjoy German Inspiration at pFriem
Founder and brewmaster Josh Pfriem of pFriem Family Brewers is a fellow world-beer traveler, and we reminisced about drinking lagers in Germany. Pfriem and I shared a dimpled mug of Export lager, modeled after the ubiquitous Bavarian Augustiner.
pFriem’s pub has everything: bar seating with a view of the shiny brewery tanks, a patio that looks out to the river and a menu of high-quality dishes that beg to be paired with something from the 20-tap beer list.
The brewery’s Canadian lager is a perfect example. “We use three different Canadian malts, and rice, but we use it in a different way than our Japanese lager,” Pfriem says. “Super light and easy with just enough malt intrigue.”
As for the classic lager profile that many know from parties and backyard barbecues, pFriem is making innovations there, as well. “We made an American lager for the Fourth of July,” he says.
“It was a huge hit. We got really great corn and were able to make this cool, dynamic, crushable beer that’s a far cry from Budweiser but may be more like what Budweiser was long ago.”
Other places to check out in the Hood River are Full Sail Brewing and Double Mountain Brewery. Farther south in Parkdale, Solera Brewery always keeps a lager on tap and has an impressive backyard view of Mt. Hood.
Taste Clean, Classic Lagers in The Dalles
The Dalles, a historic town just 20 minutes east of Hood River, offers a single brewery that is well worth a visit: Freebridge Brewing. Owners Steve Light and his wife, Laurie, moved from Bend to start the brewery in 2016 and live on Laurie’s family’s ranch. The brewery is housed in a brick-clad building that was originally intended to be a mint, built in the Oregon gold rush.
Light brews beer that fits the town and his personal passion. Farmers and ranchers, as well as contractors working on nearby projects, are the main clientele. “The beer couldn’t be flawed — they would know,” he says. “We don’t let anything slip through the cracks, and we are obsessed with having a clean brewery.”
Freebridge’s focus is evident in the four classic lagers I tasted: a Helles, pilsner, Oktoberfest and American lager. Side by side, the Pulpit Rock pilsner and Hillsider Helles look identical and are brewed with nearly the same ingredients, including Willamette Valley hops. While the pilsner is crisply malt-flavored with a gentle sizzle of bitterness, the Helles is more rounded and shows off herbal and light lemony hops. If you want “beer-flavored beer” with clean, harmonious flavors, this is it.