How Many Breweries Are Getting Lost in the Shuffle?

Astoria, Oregon is a cool little town that until recently had a hard time attracting tourists. It’s nearly two hours from Portland and, although close to the ocean, not actually on the beach. It’s nevertheless a gorgeous setting on the mouth of the Columbia, a body vast enough that William Clark mistook it for the Pacific in 1805. (“Ocian in view! O! The Joy!”) The hills that tumble into the river offer a lovely vista for the Victorian homes perched there, many sporting a rooftop cupola, or “widow’s watch,” for monitoring husbands at sea.

But, because Astoria is a working town and not a beach community (logging, fishing, and canning have served as successive eras of industry), tourists used to skip it and head to points just south at Seaside and Cannon Beach. For decades, it has been a gritty town of hard work and constant downpours, trying to lure visitors who would drive two hours and still not be in sight of the ocean--a tall order.

Photo: Fort George

A transformation started when Chris Nemlowill and Jack Harris decided to covert the long-abandoned Fort George building into a brewery. They tapped into Astoria’s history of building and industry, and eleven years later there are now four breweries (plus a Rogue pub), a distillery, coffee roasteries, and a burgeoning tier of crafts and small manufacturing businesses. Astoria Brewing actually came first, but like so many tourist-aimed businesses, never flourished and went through change after change. Fort George was conceived as a brewpub for the town and soon became its living room and social center—and a model for other businesses. Astoria still doesn’t get the hordes of tourists beach towns do in the summer, but the economy and city are vibrant again. 

This past weekend Sally and I decided to beat the heat and fled to Astoria. We took in both the coastal beauty as well as a beer or two. We make it there two or three times a year, and Fort George or Buoy always figure into our plans. Fort George has exited an awkward adolescence to become one of Oregon’s premier hophouses, rivaled only by Breakside on that score. (Beer note: the current 3 Way IPA, their anticipated summer collaboration, this year with Modern Times and Holy Mountain, is fine. It’s an over-the-top hazy with so many dry hops the chlorophyll is up to 11. The real jewel, though, is City of Dreams, a hazy pale that hits the juiciness perfectly, but which is in balance and finishes more dryly.)

Buoy has gone the other direction, focusing on dialed-in lagers and fruity Belgian ales. With a brewpub site to die for, it gets gawkers who gaze out at the spectacle of giant ships slowly moving up and down the river. Fort George and Buoy are  therefore an excellent duo. I haven’t been to Astoria for years because it had been mediocre for so long it didn’t seem worth the risk to spend a precious pub slot there. I’ve heard good things about it, lately, though, and have experienced a hint of FOMO. Just a hint, though. 

But to throw a monkey wrench into my tenuous equilibrium, a new brewery opened last year called Reach Break. And it’s good—really good. The first time I visited, the brewers seemed to be focused on modern IPAs. That has shifted a bit in the direction of a balance among IPAs, stouts (a legacy of Fort George’s February stout fest, the Festival of Dark Arts), and very accomplished wild ales.

This weekend they had a smoked oyster stout on tap that married salinity, roast, and smokiness in an unusual but delicious melange. Then there was something called Astoria Wild-Flavel. The brewers, it turns out, collected wild yeast from Flavel House, an ornate Queen Mary home that has been turned into a museum. How did they do this? No idea. But against the odds, whatever they found there makes a really wonderful beer. The aroma is mildly acidic with hints of nectarine. Despite the smell, the acidity is restrained and doesn’t overwhelm the lightly grainy note the beer finishes with. The flavors are harmonious rather than intense; white wine and stone fruit, a hint of juicy sweetness, and the mildest note of funkiness. It's a wine-like and elegantly-composed beer. (Although this isn't a proper Beer Sherpa Recommends, do try to track down a pour, and get the oyster stout while you're at it.)

It is clear that in future visits, I will be juggling at least three breweries in my delicate balance, and this brings me to a larger point. How many breweries are there out there, further than an hour and a half from a major city, that have beer as good as Reach Break's? At present, just 72 people like Reach Break on Untappd--Fort George has more than 11,000 and Buoy more than 3,000. Astoria has a population of just under 10,000 and pubs from five breweries in town. Tourism adds thousands more, but they arrive in a trickle more than a flood. Reach Break has gotten some attention, and their taproom had a decent scattering of drinkers when we arrived. But this is one of those breweries that, were it located in Chicago or New York, would have set the city abuzz. In Astoria ...?

If Beervana were an online magazine and not a blog, and if I had access to a dozen good writers, I'd send them out to the country's remote towns to compile a list of unheralded gems people just don't have the bandwidth to track amid 6,500 active breweries. As it is, most of these will languish, like Astoria once did, outside the attention of people who would really love to know about them. Perhaps we could crowd source such a list. In the meantime, Oregonians should consider a trip to Astoria--perhaps during the next heat wave--and a stop at Reach Break. It's today's nominee for "breweries to put on your radar."