I had for the longest time been under the impression that Portland, Oregon only boasted some 45 or so breweries, a runaway winner for the title of city with the highest population of breweries in the country. What a fool I was. Now, according to the Oregon Brewers Guild, the Portland metro area is 68 breweries strong, most of whom (not named Widmer) can be considered microbreweries or much smaller nanobreweries.
At least I’ve made a small dent into those 68 breweries, visiting a dozen or so over time.
It’s not easy to craft an IPA that stands out above the competition in this hops to the exponential power mad city. Somehow, Gigantic’s Gigantic IPA is the genre perfected. It is now one of the standards that top tier IPA must be measured by.
The Gigantic IPA has that perfect blend of hop and citrus, meeting at a silky smooth confluence that seldomly is achieved by the usually bitter and rough at the edges IPAs. Everything clicks in this handsome number, from the gorgeous tan body to the healthy head at the top. Nearly as impressive was the Black Friday CDA, a Continental Black Ale that effortlessly it seems pairs the usually fickle teaming of cacao-coffee notes with smartly blended hops. The impressive golden Royale Belgian Ale pleased, though needed a bit more depth to it to stand out, and the same story for the Old Man Gower’s Holiday Tipple that could use a bit more in the nutmeg-allspice area. Most controversial was the Ume Umai Black Rice and Plum Beer, a polarizing effort that toes the line of fruit juice, sake, and lager. It worked for me, with a fascinating red grape finish after a floral start, yet others stopped after the first sip. No wonder Gigantic calls it “an experimental haiku in a glass.”
Gigantic’s patio at the tap room and champagne lounge in far SE Portland will certainly be an in demand spot this summer. You’ll enjoy the intimate atmosphere inside right now, with the somewhat disturbing taxidermy and a guy watching over you at all times with a bladed weapon. Seriously, how can you cannot not adore a tap room that also is a champagne lounge? I’ve been to Moet et Chandon in Épernay, France. It’s a little different there. Just a little. Then again, they don’t have beer close to Gigantic’s level there at Moet.
If we’re talking about IPA’s, then we have to give a nod to one of the forefathers of the genre: Bridgeport. The brewery and brewpub for Bridgeport lies on the northern outskirts of the Pearl District along the streetcar line. It’s much more of a sports bar and restaurant than a tasting room, so prepare to focus on more than just the nuances of an IPA. Dick and Nancy Ponzi of the famed Ponzi Winery in Dundee opened Bridgeport in 1984 and sold it to the Gambrinus Co. in 1989. You know we’re talking about large craft breweries when they’re owned by “companies.” The IPA was first brewed in 1996. It’s won numerous international awards, and while very pleasant, it wouldn’t win any award for a top IPA in Portland, let alone the world. It’s too subtle, as is the meager Blue Heron Pale Ale, possibly the least impressive beer of their lineup.
The runaway winner surprisingly was Bridgeport’s Porter, closely followed by the Old Knickle Head Barley Wine and a very surprisingly complex for a light, yuzu and lemon heavy beer, the Summer Squeeze Bright Ale. I thoroughly enjoyed the contrast of the Kingpin Double Red Ale straight on draught versus on nitro. It was obvious that the ale was much smoother from the nitro cask. For something towards a brown ale with a twist, the Smooth Ryed Hoppy Rye Ale is very reliable. And for those disappointed by the signature IPA, go for a round of the Hop Czar Imperial IPA. The Czar clearly stole all of the healthy, expressive hops away.
Speaking of Portland classics, Deschutes might be headquartered in Bend, Oregon, but I’ve never been to the Deschutes Brewpub in Portland’s Pearl District and not had a challenging time finding space in the bar area. Some of the beers are actually made at the brewpub, including a Flanders Red on cask and the Saison de Perle. At least 75% of the diners order what looks to be a stand-out burger and at least 80% of customers appear to order a pint of the flagship beer that made Deschutes nationally known, the Black Butte Porter. Never has something made a butte so famous before.
I’ve always felt the Black Butte Porter comes at three quality levels. It is fair in a bottle and generally very good on draught. It is easily one of the most iconic beers always served at Santa Monica, CA’s Father’s Office gastropub, where I first learned about the beer years ago. However, Black Butte Porter almost achieves magnificence on draught at Deschutes. It truly is a whole notch higher at the source. The notes of toasted hazelnut and freshly roasted coffee beans with a denser body are beautiful, a stalwart porter.
So, how come the porter can be so terrific, but the Nitro Obsidian Stout always is a bit weak and one dimensional? The same story for the Inversion IPA, very similar to the Bridgeport IPA. I appreciated the coriander and citrus in the unique Chainbreaker White IPA and the steady, if not too remarkable Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Green Lakes Organic Amber Ale. The real surprise was the Red Chair NWPA, with a real complex Mandarin orange kick to the perfectly mixed dry hops in this vibrant riff on an IPA.
The Deschutes hands down winner this time was a Human Sacrifice Stout, brewed for the Mayan end of the world prophecy at the Portland pub. What a roller coaster work of art. Lots of Guajillo chili notes, with a bountiful supply of cacao nibs and Mezcal smoke, this is a thick, racy, layered stout that packs vast quantities of spicy punch. It’s not easy to love, but very rewarding.
Deschutes may be the most iconic brewery in Oregon, but it faces quite the competition from Full Sail in Hood River, along the spectacular Columbia River Gorge. Why? I don’t know. Not one of Full Sail’s beers was particularly noteworthy and certainly not worth a 90 minute drive (though the drive itself is worth it for the scenery). The famed IPA and Amber Ale were fine, much more impressive than the Session Premium Lager that lacked the pristine clarity a lager should have. None of the seasonal ales (Wreck the Halls, Wassail, or LTD 04) had the spice and caramel notes you hope from wintery beers.
I did love the 25 Lager, a Northwest Style Pale Doppelbock at 9% ABV, with beautiful hibiscus and cardamom notes. The 2012 Old Boardhead Barleywine was spot on, not too sharp with the right hybrid of sweet and malt, and so too was the pub exclusive Lord of Darkness, an alluring Cascadian Dark Ale, that showed tremendous potential for the brewery that focuses on lighter beers. Unfortunately those beers are much more inferior in body and taste than some of their heftier offerings.
For a lesson on lagers, head deep into a slightly gritty area SE Portland to one of the youngest and most impressive tiny breweries of the city, The Commons Brewery. Mike Wright started The Commons as a home brewer and now has a cult following, crafting some attention- grabbing European inspired lagers and ales. The number one thing I noticed in each of The Commons’ offerings at its tap room (also known as the barrel room) was just how clean these beers are. You can taste the malt. You can taste the freshness. You can even tell the water is just more pure and healthier here, like what Pete Coors always said was the case in Golden, Colorado. Somebody knows how to make pristine beer here.
In a craft beer world where enormous amounts of hops and daring blends command everyone’s attention, here is The Commons with beer done properly and flawlessly. And you’ll be challenged to find a beer above 6% ABV here. The Urban Farmhouse Ale is a very faithful, distinctly floral and slightly bitter flagship. The Walnut Belgian Porter was the only weak link, lacking any depth or character. Fortunately, the Flemish Kiss American Pale Ale meets Belgium with the additions of Brettanomyces is very pleasantly dry without being puckery and the Ciel de Gris Farmhouse Ale thrived with its addition of Pinot Gris providing an intriguing spritz of character.
The real triumph was the Fleur de Ferme, a Dark Farmhouse Ale with a formidable, thorough body that boasts a very unique chai dimension thanks to added hibiscus, lavender, and chamomile. It’s the type of different and unique beer people should stand in line for. Whether it’s Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, or another European brewing tradition, you can taste the Old World clarity here. You also can’t help but root for such a charming microbrewery with roots in a garage.
While The Commons keeps ABV and hops down, it’s the total opposite story over at Hair of the Dog, located in industrial SE Portland not far from the Willamette River. Barley Wines, Strong Ales, and barrel aged beers are the name of the game here. Alan Sprints started the brewery in 1993 and continues to grow, producing some of Portland and the whole country’s most sought after beers. Adam, Hair of the Dog’s initial beer continues to be what I consider the finest beer in the country, so eloquent with its mix of smoke, ripe red berries, and hints of potent espresso. Doggie Claws continues to be an exceptional Barley Wine, though the 2011 version is even more distinct and well-rounded than the 2012. The Blue Dot IPA was my first ever beer in Portland, so it remains on an Olympia level pedestal for yours truly. However, recently it’s been on and off. Sometimes it’s the paragon of a Double IPA and sometimes a few hops appear prickly, disrupting the beer’s cohesive flow on the palate.
The Fred Golden Strong Ale may be the most unique beer here, bright with elements of smooth lager, spice, and bright maple sap. Recently I admired the Bourbon Barrel Aged Fred, tasting much more like Makers Mark than Fred. Do be aware of that. At the low alcohol end of the spectrum, Ruth remains a standby, beautifully balanced American Pale Ale, while I don’t know why anybody would waste their time with the bland, ultra mild Little Dog, clocking in at 3.2%. Greg, a Winter Squash Pilsner, named for famed Portland chef Greg Higgins, remains strangely unbalanced with lots of unpleasant, checkered clove notes.
Hair of the Dog gets bonus points for serving its tasters in elegant Port Wine glasses, but somehow they need to crank up the heat in the wintertime inside. The tasting room could have been outside for all I could tell on a 35 degree night. It was quite the juxtaposition to my first visit, enjoying the outdoor tables on an 80 degree spring day.
Lastly, two other beers of note. Fort George’s Vortex IPA is magnificent, every bit as robust and distinct an IPA as the Gigantic IPA. Fort George brews out in Astoria on the Oregon Coast and the Vortex IPA can be enjoyed at SE Portland’s legendary Horsebrass Pub. When dining at the eccentric Japanese izakaya Tanuki, do seek out the Aztec Strong Ale from Breakside Brewery on NE Dekum. The body tells you deep, dark stout, but is much lighter in reality, pulsating with no skimpy levels of Habanero and Serrano chilis, and cacao nibs. Lots of exciting vibes here, a unique beer at a truly unique place to eat.
Soon Portland will have a triple digit number of breweries, so there is still a a gigantic amount of tasting to be done. I don’t have a problem at all if the newcomers are anything like the Gigantic IPA.