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.

L: Sagefight; R: Pinedrops
For round two she switched to Pinedrops, a pale IPA of 6.5% ABV: now we're really on the west coast. A banging whiff of grapefruit and lime greets the nostrils, though the flavour is a little more muted, with a bit of garlic (despite no advertised Mosaic) and plenty of fresh mown grass which I suppose could pass for pine if you squint a bit. It's decent stuff but definitely one of those beers that smells far more delicious than it tastes.

And for me a double IPA (or "imperial" IPA, as America seems to insist on calling them — sounds more stately, I guess) to finish: Sagefight. It's not all that often that double IPA gets dicked around with, unlike its weaker siblings, but this one has had sage and juniper stuffed up it for fun. It's a deep red colour and smells of sage and sugar. As expected, sage features heavily in the flavour, as sage normally does when it's let near a brewing vessel, but the oily herbiness is offset with a more traditional pine bitterness, and while I wouldn't say the two fight exactly, they do hold each other in check. And the drinker gets to enjoy this because the rest of the beer is lightly textured with no horrible boozy heat. Not a classic, of IPA or herbal beer, but a fun and interesting experiment.

L: IBUsive; R: Head Hunter
That's a lot of beers and we're still on brewery one. Time to pick up the pace. Around the corner is Fat Head's, and this time the head office is all the way over in Ohio. It's an altogether brighter and sparser space, and unlike Deschutes was almost deserted when we wandered in.

7.5% ABV IPAs all round: IBUsive for me, an orange-gold colour with lots of fresh dank hop resins plus a slightly dry acrid burn, but then balanced very nicely by luscious mango fruit. Almost boringly predictable, but beautiful to drink. And for herself, Head Hunter: the same colour and with similar banging hop resins, but this time with spices rather than fruit. It's a little harsher than the other one though still a classic hop-heavy US IPA and probably just needed a bit of getting used to. But who has time for that? On to the next brewery.

Here we cross into the dark side, to 10 Barrel: once a darling of the Oregon beer scene (HQ is in Bend) but having since taken the poisonous adjunct-crusted shilling of A-B InBev. Not that most of the punters seemed to care: the place was packed, especially its sunny rooftop terrace. By this time we'd been joined by Mr Beervana himself and his other half, and we sulked indoors with our beers. I went with Saazall, a pilsner the brewery seemed very proud of but which I found dry, musty and badly lacking in fresh hop character. Also around the table there was XS IPA, a super savoury 5.2% ABV job with a delicate sprinkle of hop spicing but not nearly enough to make it noteworthy; and Simcoe Smash Bro, a golden, 6.9% ABV IPA which, like IBUsive, pulls off that trick of balancing heavy hop oils with lighter fruit, in this case peaches. It's a winning combination and one I think I'd find it very difficult to tire of.

So those are the big fish on the west side, and I'm sure there are shoals of smaller fry around them too. We went to just one: Pints. Far from an elaborate multifunctional gastro-zythological destination, this is a simple neighbourhood tavern that happens to have a brewkit out back. From their surprisingly extensive line-up I picked the single-hopped Citra Pale Ale. It wasn't quite what I expected, having a bubblegum candy flavour and none of the edge I'd have thought given the hop variety used. It suffers from the one-dimensionality that can sometimes affect single-hop beers, though beneath the hopping the malt plays a strong game, giving it a nicely rounded mouthfeel. I didn't feel too gypped.

Though we only stayed for one, I liked Pints. It has the feel of a proper local about it, and it would have been nice to explore the menu more. But, as always, there are more places to go and more IPAs to drink. Jeff was quite keen we visit one of his favourite Portland breweries — one out beyond the reach of most tourist pub crawls — so it was into the car and off to the suburbs.


  1. A couple of notes. Deschutes' Inversion is something like ten years old and suffers for being an "old school" IPA. Fresh-Squeezed and Pinedrops are more contemporary products. This is a big issue with every brewery that has IPAs from an earlier era.

    "Pacific Wonderland" is a great name--it's the old motto of the state, and used to appear on license plates.

    People in Woodlawn are going to chuckle when they hear their 'hood described as "the suburbs." We would probably not use that particular adjective, but it's not necessarily inaccurate. Locally people tend to say things like "transitional neighborhood."

    On brewery type. Portland, more than any other city I know of, is a brewpub down. This goes back to the first days of the craft movement here, and I think it is one of the lesser-examined reasons the city became so beery so fast. By offering people a place to go to taste the beers, they became more quickly embedded in people's minds. Now we tend to assume you can always "go" to the brewery.

    Great write up!

    1. Thanks Jeff. I am aware that the word "suburb" has a different meaning in American and European English -- I'm very much using it in our sense. I think what you'd regard as a suburb we'd call a "dormitory town".

  2. I drank cask Fresh Squeezed in that very place about exactly two years ago. Beer of the trip and possibly the best beer I drank that year. I didn't try the keg version. The cask was so delicious. And I wasn't exactly in a comparey sort of mood. I sort of wish I had now. What struck me was how dangerously drinkable it was. I had four pints then decide that I really needed to leave while I still could.

    1. I'm always happy to provide a proxy nerd service to those who just want to enjoy a few pints.

  3. I recall your love of that beer on cask, Ron. I was so pleased to hear it. I get weirdly anxious when visitors come. What if they don't like us?! This is the sure sign of a small town not ready for its debut. And indeed, that's what Portland really is.