Years ago sitting in the dark, cozy corner next to the darts board of the Horsebrass Pub on Southeast Belmont, I sampled my first Portland microbrew. It was the Hair of the Dog Blue Dot IPA on draft. Upon opening sip, I realized that this isn’t AAA beer territory. This is The Big Show.
Hair of the Dog remains the gold standard for not just Portland craft breweries, but quite possibly American craft breweries. Recently, I finally had the chance to visit Hair of the Dog’s tasting room right next to the eastern bank of the Willamette River, along with numerous other tasting rooms and brewpubs. Two concepts I had thought beforehand were re-confirmed boldly. Hair of the Dog’s brews are (with two exceptions) indeed worth seeking out by hour long drives as I have done numerous times at home (now a half dozen or so beer stores in San Francisco almost always have a couple bottles).
The second, with all due respect to Seattle, Denver, and San Diego, Portland is the King City of Beers. All contenders are terrific beer cities, but there really isn’t any debate.
Hair of the Dog’s tasting room next to the brewery is only about two years old, a young pup if you will. Here you can order a whole flight of the gold standards from the brewery: the powerful 10% but buttery smooth and beautifully floral Fred golden strong ale, the subtle, citrusy Ruth pale ale, the benchmark of barley wines known as Doggy Claws, and one of the ten best beers in America, the smoky, leathery Adam old world ale that transports you to a beer garden on your idyllic island. Hair of the Dog’s beers do tend to veer more toward the high alcohol, barley wine style. Yet they never hit you as overly boozy except the three year bourbon barrel aged Adam from the Wood that you could easily mistake for Maker’s Mark.
Founder and brewmaster Alan Sprints is a true genius when it comes to running a craft brewery. The portfolio of beers is small and focused. The tasting room’s options are terrific too, running from samples of any regular beer (except the Blue Dot IPA which we had to get by 22 oz. bottle but was as sublime as usual), or 12 ounce pours in almost elegant goblets. The only clunkers are the lighter beers– a watery, stinging bitter Little Dog ESB (at barely 3% this isn’t really even beer) and the disappointing Greg winter squash pilsner, named for Greg Higgins, the founder of Pacific Northwest cuisine in Portland and a beer aficionado. Higgins deserves better than this bland pilsner. At Hair of the Dog, you go for the heavy stuff. It’s as good as it gets when you have Doggy Claws or Adam in front of you.
Not far from Hair of the Dog in what can be considered beer central is the terrific pub Green Dragon with all sorts of Portland brews on draft, along with Apex Bar (covered later), and the Cascade Ales and Sours Barrel House. Cascade produces some of the most intricate sours this side of Belgium.
The potently sour Kriek Ale is the best example of the genre. The best brews however are the Sang Noir, tasting of a fine Bordeaux in brew form thanks to aging in bourbon and Pinot noir barrels, and the complex, exciting Blueberry Ale with a mix of wheat and blonde ales. The grape based Vine Ale lacked any dimensions and the blackberry laced Nightfall lacked a punch as well. The special High Class Blonde on the other hand was full of life, a terrific balance of sour with oak and apple. Cascade’s Ale House is much more civilized than any other I’ve been to in Portland, really more a restaurant/sports bar than a tasting room. Prices may be higher, but it’s because the beers required so much more effort than just mixing hops and barley with water. Cascade’s brews are really an experience.
Further north from Cascade and Hair of the Dog, you’ll find Amnesia in the historic Mississippi District and Upright in the basement of a random office building next to the Rose Garden (as in the basketball arena variety).
Amnesia’s samplers were no dud by any stretch, but the least inspiring of any in Portland. Only the Copacetic IPA stood out, a big bold, hop restrained version of the genre. It was hard to care for the wheat Alt Dusseldor or a basic Dusty Trail Pale Ale. The Slow Train Porter doesn’t wow with its thin body, but boasts excellent mocha notes. I did appreciate the Desolation IPA, even less hoppy than the Copacetic IPA, along with a restrained Dubbel Whammy Belgian without the whammy of a Kwak or St. Bernardus tripel. All of the beers seemed too restrained, meant more for sessions than for an eye-opening experience. It’s a terrific brewpub though with very friendly service and excellent grilled cheese and sausages to boot.
Upright’s awkward hours and sliver of a tasting room inside some nondescript office complex should not deter you from a visit. Like at Amnesia, no beers knocked me out of my chair. Closest to that was the excellent Monk and Mingus stout with strong hints of bacon. Very close to the stout was the hop forward, almost double ipa tasting Super Cool IPA. Upright is best known for their numerical series, which strangely was the weak point of the tasting.
Four, a wheat ale, was easily forgettable. Five was a solid if unspectacular example of a classic pale ale, while Six proved to be a much more enjoyable, peculiar rye ale. Seven was a Belgian ale with a touch of toffee, but less bite than the Dubbel Whammy at Amnesia. If you’re into a long session with a harmless, reliable pilsner, the Engelberg Pilsener is fine for you. Upright will easily be the most intimate, personal beer tasting experience. If only a few more of the beers can get the life the Super Cool IPA and Monk and Mingus Stout. Do note the outstanding prices at the tasting room.
From previous visits, I would certainly say a Black Butte Porter and Abyss filled tasting at Deschutes’ Public House in the Pearl (Deschutes is really from Bend, Ore.), a sampling of the rare brews (and ubiquitous hefeweizen) at Widmer, and a pint of porter at a Lucky Lab Public House are highly recommended. Only the tiny Tugboat Brewery’s beers and lack of tasting flights is unfortunately not worth a recommendation. If nearby in Downtown, go to the Bailey’s Taproom for a gigantic selection instead.
The Horsebrass Pub would be your classic old pub with a hophead’s draft list if there ever was one. Nearby, stock up on Oregon brews to take home at the Belmont Station bottle shop, always my last stop en route to the airport. Or stock up at Whole Foods in the Pearl with its shockingly impressive array of beers. Then go across the street to try those beers on tap at Henry’s 12th Street Tavern.
One other beer worth noting– a truly unique mix of sea and chocolate in an Oyster Strong Ale Stout from Burnside Brewing across from Le Pigeon, one of the youngest on the Portland brewing scene. Of course knowing Portland’s forte in beer, two breweries have probably opened since I left two weeks ago.
I would be remiss to not also mention the exceptional Tricerahops Double IPA from Ninkasi in Eugene, quite possibly the most complete beer from Oregon. An impromptu tasting of Mt. Hood Brewing Company’s brews at the spectacular Timberline Lodge revealed that Oregon beers can be produced and enjoyed just as well at high altitude. The Ice Axe IPA and Hogsback Oatmeal Stout were both sterling renditions, while the Multiporter Ale proved too elementary.
For a classic Portlandia experience, where there are as many bikes in the bike lot as people on the outside benches, go now to Apex. I was pointed there to try the numbingly hoppy Hop Venom Imperial IPA from Boneyard Brewing in Bend (competing with Portland for Oregon craft brewing supremacy).
Really though when you’re at Apex, go for the Hair of the Dog Adam. Adam was my last sip of Portland beer while in beer nirvana. It’s always best to end on the highest of notes.