07 November 2016

Specific north-west

Portland, Oregon divides roughly into two halves. The Willamette river bisects the city on a north-south axis, with downtown — the main commercial district — on the west side, and an industrial (and post-industrial) hinterland on the east, stretching out into residential suburbs. This split has a certain effect on the kinds of breweries you find in the respective zones. And I should mention here that by "breweries" I mean something other than the functional production facilities of European breweries. All of the breweries in the following posts offer some level of drinks service, whether it's just putting out a few tables a couple of days a week, or having a more serious bar and taproom, right up to a full-on pub and restaurant where the beer-making is almost an ancillary part of the operation.

But back to the split. I got the impression in this most-breweried of cities, that the west side attracted the bigger, more well-funded set-ups while the indies gathered more in recently re-purposed sites over on the east. Hopefully the difference will become apparent as we go through this week of posts. I darkened the doors of a mere 14 breweries — barely scratching the surface of Portland's brewing — but hopefully enough to get, and give, an idea of the place.

My explorations started on the west side, where a group of breweries are scattered close together in the Pearl District, where they form part of a large urban renewal scheme including restaurants, galleries and the like. Think Temple Bar, only bigger, and done properly. The first port of call was Deschutes, a Portland footprint of the much larger brewing organisation headquartered across the Cascade mountains in Bend. This place is pretty swish, all carpets and varnished wood, but you can just about make out the steel tanks behind glass above the bar, and they helpfully mark on the menu which beers are produced in-house and which are from the mothership.

I opted for a flight to start off with, intrigued in particular that Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA was available on keg and cask: an irresistible opportunity to assess the value of cask in America. Both arrived clear and cold although, perhaps unsurprisingly, there was less head on the cask one. The common flavour is a wonderful two-parter stacking spicy orange marmalade against soft and juicy mandarin. The cask is more softly textured and shows the oily orange skin bitterness more than the keg, where the hop flavours just seem brighter and better defined. Both fine drinking beers, and I've no qualms at all about how the cask was conditioned and served, but I definitely think keg suits the style better.

Clockwise from top: InVersion 2.0, Hop Slice, Fresh Squeezed cask,
Fresh Squeezed keg, Mirror Pond, Inversion, Pacific Wonderland.
A tough act to follow and Pacific Wonderland was next from the tray, a golden lager of 5.5% ABV. The name promises much but the beer doesn't deliver, being little more than a glass of fizz. Palate-cleansing, I suppose, but rather boring.

Next up is the session IPA Hop Slice, brewed with Meyer lemon, a fruit I'd never even heard of. It's 4.5% ABV and a deep gold colour giving off a clean and bright citrus aroma. The foretaste delivers a surprise musky sandalwood taste but it fades out quite quickly and there's little behind it other than a raw lemonskin bitterness. I was very surprised there wasn't more hop depth in the flavour, especially given that aroma, but I was thoroughly wrongfooted. Onwards.

Mirror Pond was next, an all-Cascade pale ale at 5% ABV. It shows off the hop wonderfully, making the best of its earthy orangey aroma and flavour for a simple, full-bodied and downright satisfying no-nonsense session beer. The secret, I reckon, is they've kept the bitterness levels low so it doesn't get twangy, as Cascade sometimes can. This is a real blue-collar quaffer and was done no justice at all by the effete measure I drank of it.

Last on the rack was Inversion. Billed as an IPA again, and 6.8% ABV, but a dark red-amber colour and smelling of hot ripe strawberries. I guess they must be going for an English style, despite the strength, as there's a big tannic quality to the flavour, some Harvey's-esque sandalwood spice and a raw vegetal bitterness. It's a big beast, but not terribly pleasant to drink. They also had a 2.0 version of it which was lighter in colour and with extra hop aroma. While it's certainly more approachable I think it lacked the better features of the original — the tannins and spice — while retaining the same hard acridity. No pleasing some people, though the missus enjoyed her pint of it.