From Bangkok to Berlin, craft beer has emerged as a global phenomenon, which comes as no surprise to the brew-loving people of Portland. Here’s a look at the city that started it all.
Photographs by Leah Nash.
It was a snowy and blustery night in Portland, Oregon, when I ducked into the cabin-like bar at Ex Novo Brewing Co. I figured such weather was typical for February in this corner of the United States, but apparently it’s rare. The waitress asked me how it was out there in “Snowmageddon.” I told her I’d survived just long enough to make it here. Then I joined the happy-hour crowd, ordered a pint of Liquid Sweater red ale from a wool-swaddled bartender, and watched as the streets outside turned white.
I never thought I’d be braving snowstorms to seek out beer. Between my father—a devout Scotch drinker—and a rye-loving bartender whom I developed a crush on in college, my coming of drinking age was primarily fueled by whiskies. Little did I appreciate the craft brewing revolution that had swept across the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s and 2000s and elevated American beer to the status of wine and spirits, the Scotch of the Stars and Stripes. Breweries were becoming labs for culinary experimentation, brewers with PhDs in beer science were earning name recognition, and bottles were selling in the hundreds and thousands. By the time I was of a more discerning age (and income), beer was something to appreciate.
At the forefront of the scene was Portland. In part, this was due to geography; the compact river-side city is nestled between Washington’s Yakima Valley to the north and Oregon’s Clackamas Valley to the south, which together provide more than 90 percent of America’s hop production. Its water supply is also ideal for brewing, fed as it is by mountain streams. And then, as anyone who’s ever watched the sketch-comedy series Portlandia knows, Portland takes food sourcing as seriously as the law—it’s a near crime if a menu doesn’t list farmers’ names. This obsession has carried over into the brewing industry, ensuring an avid fan base for local brewers and hop-growers.
“It’s very dense here, very creative,” Jeff Edgerton, the brewmaster at BridgePort Brewing Company, told me on my visit last February. “All the most artistic brewers in the U.S. somehow have a connection to the Pacific Northwest, and Portland in particular. We’re still considered the cradle of craft brewing.”
BridgePort, which operates out of an old cordage factory in the heart of downtown, is a pioneer of the city’s craft-brew scene. It was founded by two winemakers in 1984, not coincidentally the year before Oregon’s state legislature passed a bill allowing breweries to sell beer on-site, paving the way for the now-ubiquitous brewpub. “That’s when things got crazy,” Edgerton said.
BridgePort’s particular contribution to the brew boom was popularizing a type of beer that has since become a mainstay of the U.S. craft scene: India pale ale, or IPA.
“It’s a variation of the English IPA, which emerged in the early 19th century for export to India,” Edgerton explained. The brew was strongly hopped to help preserve it on the long voyages. “But it was still pretty mild. Here in the States, we don’t tend to put restrictions on things. Our idea was that if some hops are good, a lot of hops is better. We push those limits.”
While the bitterness of hops made the renegade batches of IPAs ill-received at festivals 15 years ago, now, at any given brewery, nearly half of the draft beers on tap will be IPAs. The specific hops used are often listed on beer menus, so you know exactly which flavor of bitter you’ll be getting—fruity Mosaic hops, perhaps, or citrusy Cascade, or earthy Simcoe. For its part, Bridge Port was experimenting a rosé IPA for summer, which speaks to the seemingly infinite horizon of brewing here.
“Since the beginning, the craft scene here has been about doing something that’s different,” said John Harris, the owner and brewmaster of Ecliptic Brewing. “It was like, ‘Throw a candy bar into the beer, man, and let’s see what happens.’ We embrace that approach, and want to push it even further.”
After working at various other big-name breweries around town, Harris opened Ecliptic in 2013 to combine his two passions: beer and astronomy. It’s not uncommon to find drinkers at Ecliptic’s bar Googling the celestial objects for which beers like Quasar Pale Ale and Callisto Blackcurrant Tripel are named, while a big orange wall mural of the solar system adds to the place’s unique, er, atmosphere.
When I asked Harris how he fares in a city that now has more than 70 craft breweries, he shrugged. Competition leads to differentiation—hence Ecliptic’s space theme—and this is a good thing. It gives drinkers more options, and it doesn’t seem to be hurting business. He can’t recall more than a few breweries that have failed.
It turns out that snow days, when there’s nothing better to do than stay warm, are a great time to succumb to the domino effect of beer drinking, by which I mean Harris insisted I visit another brewery, whose brewmaster in turn pointed me in the direction of another, and so on. Thus, I spent a few days tipsily acquainting myself with all the different identities a brewery can have. Do-gooder: Ex Novo, the country’s first nonprofit brewery, whose profits go to charities like Friends of the Children and Mercy Corps. Health nut: Ground Breaker Brewing, which substitutes hops for gluten-free lentils, chestnuts, and sorghum. Old-school romantic: Hair of the Dog, seducing with high-alcohol European-style beers and rare vintages.
“When I started brewing in the early ’90s, most breweries were still doing light and draft, so I did high-alcohol and in bottles,” Alan Sprints told me in the wood-beamed beer hall at Hair of the Dog, which he founded in 1993. “The idea of 10 percent [alcohol by volume] was crazy to bar owners. I was told that if someone wanted to drink something that strong, they’d just drink wine. But here we are all these years later.”
Sprints’ most-sought-after creations come from his collection of aged beers that he says is quite possibly the largest in the world. Ever since he started brewing, he put some bottles of each batch aside, letting them develop soft, lush flavors that new beer doesn’t offer. His 23-year-old barley wine, named Dave, now goes for upwards of US$2,000 a bottle.
But for Sprints, experimentation has always been more of a motivator than profits. Back in Hair of the Dog’s brewing facilities, alongside the standard steel casks, he has stacks of wooden barrels as well as an egg-shaped, unlined concrete tank that “makes the flavor of the beer softer and rounder, just like the tank.” He often brews the same recipes in all three containers to explore the range of a single beer’s personalities, then holds tasting sessions for drinkers to try them and compare.
“Beer is one of the earliest beverages, going back to Egyptian times,” Sprints said. “So I like to think that humans have some instinctual appreciation of beer. We don’t understand why we like it so much, but it’s been around for so long that it’s just in our bones.”
On a Saturday around noon at Hopworks Urban Brewery’s Powell Street brewpub, the sun was shining through walls of windows, indie rock was playing at a considerate level, and kids were drawing on chalkboard-covered walls as their parents caught up over farm-to-table pizzas and a round or two.
Hopworks is primarily known for being a global leader in sustainable brewing. It is certified as a “B Corporation,” an accreditation given by the nonprofit B Lab to companies that commit to ambitious social and environmental goals. It sources hops from farms that protect downstream salmon habitats. And, at the smaller of its two locations, it has stationary bikes that customers can pedal to offset electricity use. But what I—slung back in a bar chair, deep in a book and a coffee stout made with grounds from local roaster Nossa Familia—found more impressive than Hopworks’ green ethos was the drinking culture it fosters. Alongside brewing fantastic beers, it’s destigmatizing not just beer but drinking in general by making its bars gathering places for all ages, all activities, all appetites. In every sense, it embodies responsible drinking.
“We’re just trying to make the world a better place through beer,” a bartender explained. Telling him that was a mission worth toasting, I ordered an Uber to take me home through the snow.
1313 NW Marshall St.
825 North Cook St.
2326 North Flint Ave.
2030 SE 7th Ave.
61 SE Yamhill St.
2944 SE Powell Blvd.
Ever since he started brewing, Sprints has put aside some bottles from each of his batches, letting them develop soft, lush flavors that new beer doesn’t offer.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Craft City”).