Five Things to Know About Portland, Oregon

Last week, I prepared a guide to Portland’s Best Breweries for 2019. I hope visitors to the city will find it useful. But breweries alone don't paint the whole picture. There's a reason Portlanders immodestly call their town "Beervana," and this will help you understand why.

1. There’s a Lot More Than IPA

Cascade, Willamette, Mt Hood, Chinook—these famous hops take their name from the Pacific Northwest, where they are grown and have been featured prominently since the dawn of craft brewing. The association with IPAs is at least a generation old, and the city has been one of the main progenitors of the “West Coast IPA.” But you knew all that. What you might not expect is how much other stuff there is here.

Portland’s brewing culture has been established so long that it has created cottage industries in lesser-selling styles. Four breweries on this year’s Best of Portland list focus on other traditions in brewing. That diversity is reflected in taplists around town, whether you’re visiting a nice restaurant, a sports bar, or a craft beer bar. Somewhere around a quarter or fewer of the taps will be devoted to hoppy ales; the rest will feature lagers, British styles, Belgian and farmhouse styles, session beers, and experimental beers—a dazzling range for a city supposedly so besotted with humulus lupulus. (Though, sadly, don’t go looking for cask ales—that’s the one style Portland has abandoned.)

2. Pilsner is Our Secret Weapon

Brewers tried to sell pilsners in Oregon for decades with zero success. When Rick Allen launched a brewery devoted to lagers a dozen years ago (Heater Allen), I cheered his quixotic quest to sell pilsners to Portlanders, but feared he would join the list of those of failed. He did struggle mightily for years, but he persisted, and about five or six years ago something miraculous changed. I believe it was started by the city’s chefs, who were tired of IPAs nuking their delicate preparations. They started putting pilsners and saisons on their menu—no doubt delighted Heater Allen offered one. I was increasingly finding pilsners from Upright and the Commons and Breakside and of course Heater Allen on tap— classic German lagers, with gentle contours and low-impact flavor profiles.

Pretty soon they started to proliferate. It was the quietest of revolutions, but it was not peripheral. Pilsner became one of Breakside’s flagships. Breweries across the city put them on their year-round line-up. Each brewery has approached the style slightly differently, some favoring the Czech tradition, others the German, but they are now legion. I count at least a half-dozen Portland or Oregon breweries (which of course sell the majority of their beer in Portland) who have a pilsner flagship. Portland’s an IPA town for sure, but it’s also a Pilsner town.

3. Brewpubs, not Taprooms

You may notice a funny quirk about Portland when you visit: there are a lot of brewpubs here. There has been an explosion of taprooms across the country, but you still find very few of them in Portland. The big packaging brewery with a small tasting room is also not a thing in the Rose City. (Though Widmer Brothers may be trying to start a trend.) This dates back to the dawn of craft brewing in Portland, when all but one of the early breweries were brewpubs. Mike and Brian McMenamins were in that pioneering generation of brewers, and they almost immediately started an empire of brewpubs. (In fact, most were just pubs, but that wasn’t obvious to visitors.) If you added up all the McMenamins outposts along with the founding generation of craft breweries, Portland probably had a dozen brewpubs by 1990. For Portlanders, “brewery” means a place where you can get a burger and a pint, and that truth is as fixed now as it’s ever been.

4. Everyone Drinks Beer

Last summer, the Brewers Association’s economist Bart Watson released a finding that shocked many non-Portlanders: “Looking at individual markets, Portland Oregon’s craft drinker breakdown is 52.7% female and 47.3% male.” Portlanders were not shocked. We know that the population of beer drinkers in the city is identical to the population of the city. Walk into a pub, and you’ll see families with kids running around while mom and dad sip a cold one. Little old ladies may go our for tea elsewhere, but here they go for a beer—I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a pair sitting in a quiet corner with pints. Draft beer is sold in gas stations, grocery stores, coffee shops, and movie theaters. (It became so common for the independent theaters to serve beer that the local giant, Regal, had to start offering them to stay in business.) When people suggest getting together, they don’t say, “let’s have coffee sometime,” they say, “let’s grab a beer.”

5.  We Drink a Lot of Craft Beer

No, really, I mean everyone drinks beer, and in Portland, that means locally-made craft beer. It is difficult to impress upon non-Portlanders how pervasive it is, but let these numbers do the talking: two-thirds of the draft beer consumed in Oregon was made here, and that doesn’t include craft beer made elsewhere in the US. And that’s Oregon; in Portland, craft beer is so dominant that it’s actually hard to find a national brand mass market lager. A quarter of the total beer consumed is locally-made draft, and when you include non-Oregon craft, that number ticks up further. That’s more than twice the good-beer consumption of the nation as a whole. (And these numbers probably lowball the penetration, because they come from now three-year-old Oregon Brewers Guild statistics.)

Jeff Alworth8 Comments