09 November 2016

Into the cluster

In the last post we had just left Mt Tabor Brewing on the east side of Portland. We'd actually got there via a couple of other breweries, the ones grouped together in the neighbourhood just beyond the Willamette river. Crossing over the Morrison Bridge, the first brewery you come to is one of Portland's icons: Hair of the Dog.

Inside it's a sparse place, little more than tables on a bare concrete floor. The brewery itself is out back, and proprietor Alan was kind enough to take me through and show me around. They've been going for 23 years but, astoundingly, are still using the same brewkit cobbled together from old dairy equipment that they've always had. It still does everything required of it so Alan doesn't see the point in upgrading. There have been add-ons, of course: the serving tanks are new and there's an intriguing space-capsule-like concrete egg over in the fermenting zone. These are commonly used in the wine industry and apparently improve the texture and flavour of the liquid: the porous container allows it to breathe as it does in a barrel, but without picking up any flavours. The brewery's menu offers a variety of beers both "from the wood" (barrel ageing is up the other end of the room) or "from the stone".

But the demands of the schedule meant we didn't get to explore this as far as I'd have liked: just two beers and back on the road. My eye was caught by Little Dog's description as a mild. In fact this pale 3.2% ABV job is really more of a table beer, produced from the first runnings of a variety of stronger regulars. In this case it was Fred, the brewery's strong ale, which did the honours. Little Dog had a touch of saison about it, with a dry and earthy yeast bitterness, but also generously hopped, giving off oranges and lemons in both aroma and aftertaste. Nicely refreshing though might also benefit from a bit of cleaning up. I guess it's not designed to stay long on the premises.

For herself, the 6% ABV Cherry Lager. I was expecting lots of sticky sweetness from this, but no, it smells of properly dark sour cherries, in keeping with its blood-red colour. The dominant flavour is an exotic spiciness, a little like cherry pipe tobacco, perhaps — sweet but not sugary. This is closer to quality kriek than a novelty candy beer, clean but without the sourness.

Thanks to Alan for the tour and for comping the beers. On deeper into eastern Portland next.

A few blocks along the street (and one up), one comes to The Commons Brewery. It's a big open space, having been a tile and flooring warehouse until last year, and most of it is occupied by the 15-barrel production facility which wraps around three sides of a kitchen and bar area.

Originally founded in the owner's garage in 2010 and now in its third home, The Commons specialises in dry Belgian styles: anything wild or farmhouse is within its remit, and I had a great view of the big wooden foeder from where I was sitting.

L: Flemish Kiss; R: Stay Awhile
That vessel fulfilled its marketing role perfectly as my first beer choice was the foeder-aged Flemish Kiss, a pale ale with Brettanomyces. It's 6.5% ABV and a dark burnt ochre colour. The Brett doesn't make much of a funky contribution and fresh peachy hops are the centrepiece of the flavour. There's a refreshing tart edge to this, and a touch of woody cedar spice. Though not resembling anything I've tasted from Belgium, it is exceedingly well executed, being both boldly tasty and subtly complex.

Across the table, a rather more American session IPA, called Stay Awhile. This had a slightly alarming sweet aroma, sickly like orange cordial. Thankfully, on tasting, this pivots to become an oily hop character, adding an intense citrus acidity to the thick sweetness. It also tails off nicely quick instead of haunting the palate longer than it's welcome. Another great beer by The Commons and another brewery I wish I could have spent more time with. But onwards!

Very close by sits the Cascade Barrel House. It looks like a brewery, being a low-rise flat-roofed light-industrial building with a big front porch full of tables, leading into an open and airy bar room, but this isn't where Cascade makes its beer — that's further out of town, and there's a bar there too, of course. Cascade is another one that likes having fun with Belgian methods and styles so, with just one beer to judge them on I ordered Cascade Kriek. It's a bit of a monster: a dark red-purple colour, smelling funky and salty, like low-tide on a hot day. The texture is very thick while the flavour piles in unctuous cherry flesh, effervescent sherbet and a sharp acetic tang. It's like a child's drawing of proper kriek: all the prominent points exaggerated beyond real-life proportions. Which is not at all to say I didn't enjoy it. It's fun. Loud, brash, American fun.

Herself went for the IPA again, another knockabout beer, called Slamarillo, brewed with fresh hops, to 6.3% ABV. It's a hazy orange colour and has an insanely dank aroma, followed by a massive sweet and oily flavour. This builds on the palate, eventually coming to resemble chewing raw hop pellets — not recommended however much one professes to love hops. It's a bit of a palate burner and we both found it hard to enjoy. I pity anyone whose lupulin threshold has shifted this far.

Due north of Cascade we come to the last of today's breweries: Base Camp. As the name suggests this place is going for a serious outdoorsy theme, the bright and airy taproom bedecked with a kayak and mountaineering gear.

The wife's choice was Trailside ESB, which I guessed from the style designation wasn't a good idea, and I was right. Unlike real ESB this is all hot and cloying, tasting of toffee and marmalade with a dense and unpleasant mouthfeel. A bit like at Cascade, it seems to be all about piling as much flavour in as possible without considering whether it works or not.

I had much better luck with Bretta Livin' Apricot: a fairly self-explanatory farmhouse fruit beer. The apricots have been used very effectively, filling the aroma with their enticing scent and the flavour with a fresh juiciness. There's no funk, perhaps oddly, but I definitely get a certain tartness, one which helps the fruit shine even more. Perhaps this could be criticised for being one-dimensionally apricotty but I really enjoyed its simple and clean profile.

We'll be back on the east side for some pubbing before we go, but tomorrow it's north Portland's turn. And maybe the chance to stay in a couple of breweries for more than one beer. Luxury!


  1. Welcome to the Northwest!

    Feel like home yet?

    Hope you can get to Seattle.

    I am trying this now and impressed:


    Would love to know your thoughts.

    Picked up a 6 pack in the can. I looked on their site and I don't see where you can find it on tap in Portland but I'd guess you can pick it up a Portland Whole Foods. I found it at a Seattle Whole Foods.


    1. Thanks Michael but I've been back in Ireland for over a month now. Writing long-winded daily blog posts would not have been the best use of my time in the US, I think. Not that it's a particularly good use of my time at home either, mind...

  2. Ha, I was in Commons and Cascade in Portland (among others) on my US road trip a while back. Cascade was one of the stand-outs, so much so that I drank every beer they had and left with a t-shirt!

    1. I thought Cascade would be your sort of place all right.