Beervana's Best Pub Crawls: Downtown

Best pub crawls: Downtown| Southeast | Division St. | North

A lot of people come to Portland on vacation. A lot of them want good beer. Unfortunately, very few of them have the kind of time and money it would take to do a thorough tour. They--perhaps you--must therefore be choosy. But how? Look no further than your friendly neighborhood blogger. Below is the first in a series of neighborhood-based pub crawls that will take you through the best the city has to offer.

Small Print
My choices are based largely on beer quality, but not exclusively. A pub crawl shouldn't be antiseptic and calculating--you're out to have a good time. These crawls will deliver the best in beer, but also a few oddball places that are fun and worth seeing. I've tried to limit stops to four--any more would be irresponsible. Finally, do yourself a favor familiarize yourself with Portland's legendary public transportation, which GPS tracking and free apps like this make a breeze. Leave the rental at the hotel; with your feet and public transportation you can enjoy the beer more.

Stop One: Full Sail at the Pilsner Room (309 SW Montgomery)
Unfortunately, the Full Sail test brewery is located at the south end of downtown, somewhat distant from the other cluster of places on our tour. You don't have to be particularly intrepid to pull it off, though, and the results are well worth your effort. Let us count the ways: 1) John Harris, a legend in Oregon brewing, mans the brew kettle there. He started at McMenamins and then went on to be the founding brewery at Deschutes--where he created the recipes for Mirror Pond, Black Butte, Jubelale, and others--before going to Full Sail in the 90s. 2) The location, on the marina overlooking the beautiful Willamette River. 3) The beer--all of Full Sail's regulars plus some home cookin' from Harris and at least a couple well-tended cask engines. 4) The happy hour (between 3-6), where you can get ridiculously cheap food, including a $3 half-pound burger.
Travel. (Click map to enlarge) You have a few options. Easiest but slowest: walk. Almost as easy and almost as slow--but air conditioned!: walk south to the streetcar stop at River Dr and River Parkway, and ride it (it's free) to the Powell's stop at tenth and Burnside. From there you're two blocks away. Fastest but trickiest: Walk west along Montgomery, and wend your way across Naito Parkway (there's only one way to go) and proceed to Harrison Street (a jog to your left--or the south--a half block). From there you walk to Sixth Ave and wait for the free Max Light rail at stop 7774. Ride it three stops to Pine and Sixth (stop 7787) and then walk to blocks to the next stop.
Stop Two: Bailey's Taproom (213 SW Broadway)
Not counting duplicates, there are forty breweries in Portland. That's just a third of all the breweries in Oregon. Since you can't travel to each of them, and since you may not be able to travel beyond Portland, you need to find an alehouse where the publican has selected some choice pours. One of the best places in the city is Bailey's, where owner--and probably the guy handing you your beer--Geoff Phillips regularly assembles an amazing group of beers. At least half will be from Oregon, and many will be from smaller breweries you may not have heard of. It's a great place to find some gems from around the state. Geoff is happy to make recommendations so you get the perfect beer.

Stop Three: McMenamin's Ringler's Annex (1223 SW Stark)
The McMenamin brothers got into the pub business in the 70s and in the 80s helped change the law so they could get into the brewing business. But what they really excel at is the ambiance business. Over thirty years they've snapped up some of the most impressive properties in the Northwest and bent them into psychedelic little time capsules. They brew very mainstream beer, and not always with the greatest care, but never mind that. You go for the vibe. Ringler's is in a slice of building at the fork of Burnside and Stark. If you descend into the basement, you enter a space that recalls equal parts speakeasy and Portland's shanghai-ing history. It's worth a stop.

Stop Four: Deschutes Brewery (210 NW 11th)
If you only make it to two or three breweries on your visit, Deschutes should be on your list. The Bend-based brewery opened this pub in the chic Pearl District, but brought plenty of Central Oregon with them. Inside the obligatory warehouse space, Deschutes has created a mountain lodge with chainsaw art, lots of wood, and a huge fireplace. The real attraction is the beer. In addition to all the regulars, you'll find pub-only specials created by Ryan Schmiege on the pub's 10-barrel system. He has a real talent for subtle beers and lagers. Deschutes also offers their specialty beers on tap at the pub (The Abyss, The Dissident, Mirror Mirror, etc.) when they're available. Finally, Deschutes maintains two cask engines, and they are reliably among the best in the city.

Other Options
These four stops aren't the only places to see downtown. If one or more of them don't float your boat, here are a few alternatives:
  • Higgins (1239 SW Broadway). Higgins is one of Portland's best restaurants, but relevant to our purposes, it is one of the nation's oldest gastropubs. Since the mid-1990s, chef Greg Higgins has been pairing his regional, sustainable cuisine with some of Oregon's and world's best beers. He has a selection of a dozen taps and over 100 varieties of bottled beer. If you're looking for a place to eat downtown and you're willing to spend a bit, this is the place to go. And not to worry--the waitstaff is as knowledgeable about beer as they are wine. You can also pop into the bar for a pint.
  • Rogue (1339 NW Flanders). This outpost of the Rogue empire is a non-brewing pub, and is the location of the first Portland Brewing brewery (now called MacTarnahan's). You'll find a large selection of Rogue beers and a decent menu. The downside is the cost--pints and plates are quite a bit more money than comparable fare elsewhere. Since Rogue is available in most states, it's a tweener. Go if you love Rogue, but skip it otherwise.
  • Henry's Tavern (10 NW 12th). Henry's takes its name from the brewery that once stood at this location for 150 years--Henry Weinhard's. The building is still there, and it still feels like sacred ground to me. Unfortunately, Henry's is a pretty bland yuppie restaurant. The virtue are the 100 taps, including a large selection of regionals. Like Rogue, though, you pay a lot for the privilege of drinking a pint there.

Places to Avoid
Even in Beervana, not every place is a winner. Your time is valuable, and you shouldn't spend it at these places:
  • Rock Bottom Brewery (206 SW Morrison). Until very recently, Rock Bottom was home to Van Havig, a very talented brewery who was given free reign to follow his bliss so long as he brewed a few of the chain's standards. Until very recently, Rock Bottom wasn't owned by a private-equity firm. But now they are, Van's out, and the beer is mall-ready. Don't bother.
  • Tugboat Brewing (711 SW Ankeny). Tugboat is the polar opposite of Rock Bottom--a funky little hole-in-the-wall that feels like a cross between a beatnik coffeehouse and your best friend's basement rumpus room. It is not without its charms, but beer, sadly, is not among them. It's not much larger than a home-brewery, and the beer is totally unpredictable.