Beer and Loathing in Rose City
Thirty-six hours isn’t enough time to even begin to explore the many sights and flavours of the Willamette Valley. Stretching from Eugene, Oregon, in the South, all the way up to Portland, and bordered on either side by picturesque mountain vistas, the valley is one big, luscious garden. It’s really no wonder that the region has developed such a rich local food and beverage industry – and I was lucky enough to have experienced some of it on a recent business trip to Portland. Ah Portland, known to some as the beer and food truck capital of America (if not the World) – just one small taste has left me pining for so much more.
I knew, even before leaving for the airport, that I would be short on time to take it all in. It didn’t help matters that hours of delays and flight cancellations (apparently caused by some very inconsiderate weather in Chicago) lay ahead of me. After spending most of the day waiting on the weather in the midwest to improve, I finally decided to reroute through Denver where, surely, it wouldn’t be thunderstorming.
Yes, it had been a disappointing and tedious start to my trip, but the excitement I experienced on that flight from Toronto to Denver was some of the most uncomfortable and down right scary of my life. Thunderstorms. Apparently the whole damned United States was covered by them that day – or so it seemed as we circled back and forth between Denver and Colorado Springs, slowly using up our fuel, just looking for a crack in the clouds to land. The skies wouldn’t clear for us and we (the pilot) were left without much choice… so we made for Denver, lightning and all. As we shook about in a fog of storm clouds, flashes of light blasting on both sides of the aircraft, my neighbour all-too-casually pulled the safety features card from the seat and read up on ‘not-dying best practices’. The landing felt like a queasy eternity.
As you might have guessed, in the end we made it safe and more or less sound. In fact, there was a bright side to the chaos in the skies around Denver: all flights were delayed. This gave me the opportunity to sit down, have some supper and calm the nerves; and I stopped at the first restaurant I saw. As luck would have it, I the New Belgium Hub was the first one I saw. It was 7:30 in Portland, and I wasn’t dining at my much anticipated Horse Brass Pub, but I was at ease. I was just happy to be eating and, furthermore, New Belgium is nothing to scoff at.
I would highly recommend the spot to anyone travelling through the Mile-High City. I ate a fantastic chipotle-steak sandwich, cooked perfectly, and sampled a couple great brews. My favourite was Hop Kitchen #6: FOCOllaboration, which is an American Pale Ale brewed with Odell Brewing. It was a remarkably fresh tasting brew with nice citrus, stone fruit, bitter dark berry and pine. It has a nice sweet malt character that drinks lighter than the appearance would lead you to believe, and finishes crisp and dry.
The visit to New Belgium was a small win on a day full of frustration. When I finally arrived in Portland, at 2:30 AM (a full twelve hours late), I received one final jab for good measure. Exhausted and knowing that I had to be up in three and a half hours, I set out for my hotel having just been told that my luggage was still in Denver.
From a business perspective everything began to run much smoother the next day and overall it was a successful trip in that sense. On the other hand, my overall experience would continue to be marred by instances of bad luck. But despite the negatives, there were some great moments as well; and from those moments, I started to get a real sense of what Portland is all about.
Firstly, craft is king. No matter where you go, there is craft beer; from hotel lounges to the ‘chain restaurants’, or from gas stations to one of the bagillion microbrew pubs in the area – even wineries served craft beer. Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale was as common at our business functions as Stella Artois or Heineken would be here in Ottawa. As such, you’d probably expect a specialty beer shop in Portland to be something of wonder compared to what most of us Ontarians are used to… I’m not going to lie, it is.
I only visited one while I was in Portland, but believe me it’s the type of place that could bankrupt a beer lover – and I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s expensive, but rather that the selection was so good it made my brain hurt. I mean really, really good! Belmont Station is the type of place that I wish I could live down the street from. Located in a gorgeous residential neighbourhood, streets lined with beautiful homes overflowing with vegetation and friendly neighbours offering passersby lettuce from their garden (no catch), it’s such a one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other sort of place that would seem so unlikely if you weren’t looking for it.
The bottle shop is a beer nerd’s candy store; a dizzying collection of craft beers from the US and beyond, so much so that your eyes don’t know where to look. While I was geeking-out, performing laps of the store and mentally listing the names and the styles that were vying for a spot in my all-too-tiny backpack, locals were casually walking in as if they weren’t in the coolest store ever. In the end I purchased 8 or 9 bottles – though never feeling fully settled, I was pretty happy with my hoard.
As great as the bottle shop was, I think what I would come to appreciate the most about it, as a local, would be their taproom. The bar is set up in the middle of a tight, café-like, arrangement with walls dressed-up with tap-handles and beer paraphernalia of diverse origin. For those who prefer more space, or who want to take advantage of perfect summer days, such as I did, there is a staircase that leads down to a spacious, garagey area and outdoor patio. The atmosphere is great no matter where you sit, or stand for that matter- and standing near the bar is not necessarily a bad idea either, given the excellent selection of draught beer available, including some rarities that disappear quickly. I was able to try Firestone Walker’s 2013 Parabola Imperial Stout right before the keg ran out – one of the best Imperial Stouts I’ve had, and I’m not just saying that because they use Zeus hops! Their beer is available in $2-$3 samples and larger, also very reasonably priced, formats. They also offer growler fills on a number of the lines.
While Belmont was a tough place to leave, there were more treasures hidden amongst the green streets of PDX to be found. One such treasure was The Woodsman Tavern.
The Woodsman is another cool venue, fit in along another lively green street – residential, but again not out of place. The decor is sort of a dressed up rustic, with walls hung with paintings depicting he region’s lumber heritage. It seemed like a mix between an Belgian brasserie and English pub, housed in a cottage, and at them same time felt both old and modern, fancy and casual. The bar area, in particular, the raw oyster bar is a very nice feature. Located front and centre as you enter the restaurant, it was a very enticing sight. The oysters were what drew me there in the first place and they certainly didn’t disappoint. Incredibly fresh tasting and served with a delicious champagne mignonette, they really hit the spot. The rest of the food was also more than up to par. Some of the other highlights were the grilled corn, the salmon crudo and the lamb bacon (wow).
From what I can tell, The Woodsman Tavern usually has pretty good selection of craft beer on hand, but I was in for a special treat the night of my visit. The day prior The Woodsman Tavern hosted a Sierra Nevada tap takeover featuring their new collaboration series ‘Beer Camp Across America’, and they were kind enough to have left some in the kegs for me to try. ‘Beer Camp Across America’ is a travelling beer festival of sorts. Essentially Sierra Nevada is hosting events in 7 cities across the country and they invited every brewery in the United States to attend. Sierra Nevada also got together with 12 of the biggest names in American craft brewing to create a one-off series under the ‘Beer Camp’ brand. The result, also available in limited edition 12-packs, was what I was fortunate enough to sample.
‘Beer Camp’ is great in both concept and execution, at least as far as the beer is concerned. Though I didn’t taste them all, a few that stood out to me were: ‘Yvan the Great‘ a semi-Belgian Pale Ale brewed with Russian River (a crowd favourite), ‘There and Back‘ and English Bitter with New Glarus, ‘Electric Ray‘ a India Pale Lager with Ballast Point and ‘Chico King‘ an American Pale Ale with 3 Floyds. Not surprisingly, given the quality of the brewers involved, I really enjoyed them all. I just wish a Canadian brewer would take the initiative to organize something similar up North!
The final stop on my Portland beer tour was Apex, another one of those places whose menu could bring tears to my eyes. Besides having a standout draught list, they boast a superb bottle collection – enough to tempt even the most traveled beer lover. But where The Woodsman Tavern delivered on both selection and atmosphere, Apex really only appealed to me on the former.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. Apex seemed like a strange combination of a Biergarten, auto-repair shop, arcade and sports bar; bathed in roadhouse florescence. There is a huge patio full of picnic tables which, when packed with people, would be a pretty cool spot for a session. Two garage doors open up to the bar area, behind which there is a small pinball arcade, and to more seating. The bar stretches back quite a ways along with a great many taps and fridges packed full, and a variety of beer signs and other kitsch decorations hang all over the block walls on either side of it.
Unique as it was, I found it a bit alienating – and not just in appearance. The bartender seemed uninterested and quickly brushed away questions with short answers, everything had to be paid for in cash and there was no food. The last two I can live with; had I been better prepared, I would have loved to have grabbed some of Portland’s famous street food and chowed down on one of the picnic tables – but there was an unwelcoming element about the place that I just couldn’t get past.
I would go back again. Granted, I was only there once and you could probably chalk up some of the negatives to it being an off-night; but even if it were always like that, the menu speaks for itself. I had scoped the place out because of its menu weeks before I set out. I was really hoping to (finally) find out what all this Pliny the Elder fuss was all about and it had been listed on their live beer menu pretty much up until the week before I left. Unfortunately, when I got there it wasn’t on tap; but another Russian River beer on my bucket list was – Blind Pig IPA.
I won’t say that this is the best IPA I’ve ever had (which it may well be), but it really was exceptional. It had great body to it, with a biscuity caramel malt backbone that eased the bold hop flavours. A resinous, piney, grapefruit and deep citrus, tropical fruit and somewhat floral blend that was just fantastic. It was surprisingly easy to drink and one that I wish I could go back to over and over again.
After a few busy days filled with work commitments and a little, extra-curricular, craftbeerloving, I was gassed. On Saturday morning I had debated travelling south to visit Rogue Farms, or perhaps East, to Hood River, to visit Logsdon brewery, but in the end I opted to take a drive to the coast and experience more of the natural beauty that Oregon has to offer.
There is so much more to Portland and the surrounding area than could ever be absorbed in such an insignificant amount of time; and I sincerely hope that I have another opportunity (sooner rather than later) to go back. As far as I’m concerned, the Rose City is a must see regardless of your opinion of beer.