PORTLAND, Ore. - Decisions, decisions. A visitor to Rogue Ales is confronted with a sign behind the bar listing microbrews available on tap. On this day, it numbers 24, which is nothing short of daunting.
Pale ale, amber ale, red ale, English brown ale. Pilsner, porter, bitter, Belgian. Then there are the names! Shakespeare Stout, Dad's Little Helper, Old Crustacean Barleywine ... and a real head-turner, Dead Guy Ale.
For the uninitiated, the same puzzlement will play out all over Portland. According to the Oregon Brewers Guild, there are 80 beer-brewing facilities in the state, 30 of which operate within city limits (this for a town with a little over half a million residents).
At each, it's not unusual to find taps sunk into two dozen diverse offerings, not one of which you've ever seen advertised on a national football telecast.
It reflects a convergence of tradition, opportunity, appetite, a spirit of experimentation and a healthy dose of brewer one-upsmanship.
"In Portland the culture helps that," said Karl Ockert, brewmaster at BridgePort Brewing Co. "It's an open-minded, fiercely local crowd. It latched onto the good coffee movement, the good bread movement, the organic vegetables movement. People here want food with flavor, beer with flavor. All that falls into that general category - enjoying the good things in life."
Portland's love affair with beer goes way back, at least to the mid-19th century and a fellow named Henry
When the city's Skidmore Fountain was due to open in 1888, Weinhard offered to pump beer from his Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Co. through the city's fire hoses to the fountain's nozzles. City fathers rejected the idea, not because they thought it too lowbrow for the civic image, but for fear citizens along the way would poke holes in the valuable fire hoses in an attempt to hijack the cargo.
That thirst doesn't seem to have abated much today, and as a result, brewers experiment like alchemists to produce ever-more-exotic varieties.
They work with prime Pacific Northwest ingredients: hops from Oregon's Willamette Valley and Yakima, Wash.; barley from eastern Oregon and Washington; even yeast from a laboratory in Hood River, Ore. The municipal water source, meanwhile, is the Bull Run Watershed east of town, rainwater so clear and soft that you don't have to waste money on bottled water while visiting this city.
And even with all those breweries, the people making the beer engage in a surprising amount of cooperation, eschewing the customary cutthroat practices of the business world. "It's a slacker mentality with a creative edge," said Tom Bleigh, lead brewer for Pyramid Breweries. "It happens on the music scene as well. It's a sense of fraternity that lends itself to experimentation."
It also contributes to a roster of microbrews that can be downright perplexing.
One way to navigate your way through it is to inquire about a sampler, an assortment of six or so tastes, offered at most of the brewpubs. Bartenders will also provide a tasting sample of a particular beer, if asked. And it never hurts simply to inquire as to a particular pub's best seller - its flagship, if you will.
But perhaps the best orientation to Portland's vast society of suds is the Portland BrewBus tour, which rolls on occasional Saturday afternoons (and some Sundays), visiting four or five of the city's most noteworthy breweries. You might get a brewery tour to hear how it all comes together, but the real treat is sampling a broad spectrum of Portland's microbrew offerings, with running commentary provided throughout.
Best of all, someone else drives.
"Your heads will buzz with brew knowledge," tour guide Jim Long promised as our group of 15 set out one recent Sunday afternoon in a bright-yellow school bus.
Over five hours, the tour made five stops, calling at Pyramid Breweries' MacTarnahan's Taproom, Lucky Labrador Beer Hall, BridgePort Brewpub, Amnesia Brewing and Roots Organic Brewing. Along the way we sampled and learned about 20 different beers, from light and creamy Apricot Weizen at MacTarnahan's to molasses-scented Black Lab Stout at Lucky Labrador.
Fortunately, Long handed out tasting-note forms at the outset and encouraged us to write down our impressions. It was a good call, because, uh, memory can turn a little fuzzy on this trip.
On our sheets, terms like "bite," "bitter aftertaste," and "mediciny"
showed up - it's all part of the educational process.
But we also found ourselves enthusing over the "crispness" of Curve Ball Kolsch at MacTarnahan's, the "robust flavor" of No Pity Pale at Lucky Labrador, and the "floral bouquet" and "apple aftertaste" of Hop Harvest Ale at BridgePort.
The latter is what is called a seasonal beer in Portland brewing parlance. When a particular ingredient is fresh in the fields - in this case, hops in the Willamette Valley, in late summer - the brewers rush out to get it, then make a special beer with the greens.
"We'll actually start the brewing, drive down and get them, then come back and put them in," BridgePort's Ockert said later. "You have to hope there aren't any traffic jams."
Throughout the tour, Long, who sports a long, gray, braided ponytail and is partial to Pacific Northwest hippie garb, dispenses statistics, history and insight about each offering. As we sipped one of three India pale ales on the excursion, he said, "This is the beer that saved the British Empire. The beer would get warm and go bad on ships. They started adding more hops to it to preserve it."
The brewery settings can be as interesting as the beer flowing from the taps - whether you're on the bus tour or exploring independently.
For example, McMenamins, one of Oregon's largest brewpub operators, houses one of its family-friendly establishments in a converted World War I-era elementary school. A visit to the Kennedy School can unleash a torrent of memories, but with Lewis Carroll twists.
Remember how kids who got caught smoking were sent to detention?
Well, here the Detention Room is now a cigar lounge. Remember the trouble you could get into for eating in a classroom or in the auditorium? In its current incarnation, the Kennedy School's classrooms are banquet rooms for birthday parties and wedding receptions, and first-run movies are shown in the auditorium - and you're free to carry a plate of pizza, a glass of wine or a frosty beer in there to enhance your enjoyment of the film.
The wide hallways have glass cases exhibiting memorabilia from the school's history, and the walls are hung with photos that tell its story.
McMenamins has yet to meet the building it didn't deem suitable for one of its pubs: an old movie theater, a triangular building downtown, a chapel, and the power station of the former Multnomah County Poor Farm.
Other brewpubs are found in more conventional settings. Our favorite was the recently opened Lucky Labrador Beer Hall in the city's northwest quadrant. It's housed in a big, airy warehouse with a rough concrete floor. There is an outside seating area where patrons can bide time with their dogs.
At MacTarnahan's, in an industrial region of northwest Portland, you can peer in at huge, gleaming, hand-hammered copper kettles. And a side patio is a nice place to relax with a pint when the rain lets up.
BridgePort, in the Pearl District, offers the most upscale setting of the lot - exposed brick, mood lighting, dining fare that is a cut above the usual pub grub, and, frankly, a little bit of attitude at the tap.
Amnesia, in a slightly tawdry neighborhood north of downtown, has a wonderful vibe, with long picnic tables outside and an open grill that will entice you with its scents of meats cooking.
Roots Organic, in Portland's emerging southeast neighborhood, reflects a playful South Seas theme, with palm trees, tiki gods and surfboard handles on the draft taps.
The real benefit of being in a small city with so many brewpubs, however, is the opportunity to find your own neighborhood hangout. On our stay, this turned out to be Rogue, housed in a former dairy in the Pearl District.
After a couple of visits - and the education that the BrewBus afforded - that list of two dozen beer offerings was much less intimidating.
Honey Orange Wheat? Sure, that should be refreshing after an afternoon of walking around the city. A seasonal offering of Imperial Porter? Let's see what kind of chocolaty notes the malts have imparted to this one. India Pale Ale? We'll of course order it as "IPA" to sound as if we know what we're talking about, and then debate its degree of "hoppiness." And the Dead Guy Ale? Well, why not?
"Portland seems to have a little more of an educated beer drinker,"
said Bleigh, the brewer for Pyramid. "They know all the styles and want to experiment. There is cachet in having these beers that no one else is making.
"You just have to jump in there and see what you like and don't like."
IF YOU GO
PORTLAND BREWBUS: The five-hour tour, which is offered on some Saturdays and the occasional Sunday, costs $34.95 per person, which includes transportation, beer samples and some appetizers. It departs at 1:30 from the Doubletree Hotel, 1000 NE Multnomah Blvd. (in the Lloyd Center). Information and reservations: www.brewbus.com; (503) 647-0021.
AMNESIA BREWING: 832 N. Beech St. (503) 281-7708.
BRIDGEPORT BREWPUB: 1313 NW Marshall St. www.bridgeportbrew.com;
KENNEDY SCHOOL: An outlet of McMenamins. 5736 NE 33rd Ave.
www.mcmenamins.com (under pubs, look for Courtyard Restaurant at Kennedy School); (503) 249-3983.
LUCKY LABRADOR BEER HALL: 1945 NW Quimby St. www.luckylab.com; (503) 517-4352.
MacTARNAHAN'S TAPROOM: An outlet of Pyramid Breweries. 2730 NW 31st Ave. www.macsbeer.com/taproom.php; (503) 228-5269.
RINGLERS: Outlets of McMenamins. Pub is at 1332 W. Burnside St.,
(503) 225-0627. Annex is housed in a triangular building at 1223 SW Stark St., (503) 525-0520; www.mcmenamins.com.
ROGUE ALES PUBLIC HOUSE: 1339 NW Flanders St. www.rogue.com; (503) 222-5910.
ROOTS ORGANIC BREWING: 1520 SE Seventh Ave. (503) 235-7668; www.rootsorganicbrewing.com.