Portland’s craft beer revolution

A taste of North America’s best beer  — plus where to eat, what to do and where to stay in Portland, Oregon

  • Apr 27, 2023
  • 1,077 words
  • 5 minutes
Tasting a flight of beer in Portland. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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It was a simple time. We drank carbonated yellow swill, thinking this is what beer tastes like, as it always has and it always will. Back then, an India Pale Ale meant Alexander Keith’s, which didn’t stray far off in flavour or appearance from everything else. We knew some beers could be smoother or maltier, but all beer was a variation of a theme.  Until something stirred in Portland, Oregon, and beer was never the same again. 

There are more than 1,200 craft breweries in Canada, and probably a few more in the time it took me to write this sentence. Today’s beer drinker enjoys a staggering variety of lagers, sours, stouts, nitros, goses, wheats, porters and haze ales, produced with creativity across the brewing process. Driving south from Vancouver with my beer-obsessed brothers, I asked a pressing question: why Portland? What triggered a historic beverage revolution in this progressive yet politically volatile port city?

Wings at Grand Fir. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Seattle and Vancouver today boast a similar number of craft breweries, but Portland consistently gets recognized as having the continent’s best beer. It certainly pours enough of it, and our first stop at Rogue Ales showed why. Their Dead Guy Pale Ale and Flip Flop Pineapple Hef knocked my socks off. Whistles whetted, we headed over to one of the city’s newest breweries, Grand Fir, to meet with chef-owner Doug Adams. Partnering with an experienced brewer who happens to be his wife, Doug left a high-profile head chef gig to pair exceptional cuisine with exceptionally crafted beer.  Just don’t call it a gastro-pub. “If you’re not serving good food, this city will eat you alive,” Doug tells us over asparagus dressed with jalapeno caper relish, a mouth-watering blue cheese wedge salad, and smoked Calabrian pepper hot sauce wings that brought a tear to my eye. Accompanied by the pine, citrusy notes of Grand Fir’s Silver Tip IRA and a Czech-style Texas amber lager, heaven has an address in Portland.

For all the variety, beer is crafted from four basic ingredients: water, hops, malt and yeast. John Harris, an elder statesman of Portland’s craft scene and owner of the excellent Ecliptic Brewing gives us a crash course in both the history, craft and business of modern brewing. He explains that Portlanders have always been supportive of local business, and being a rainy city with a pub culture, it made sense for a few local pubs in the mid-1980s to start brewing their own product. Portland’s advantage over similar scenarios around the world is its outstanding supply of freshwater flowing from the Cascade Mountain Range into the Bull Run Watershed. Ninety per cent of beer is water, and this soft mountain water proved ideal for brewing. I’m proud to notice huge bags of Albertan malt piled up inside the Threshold Brewery, a smaller local operation packed with happy patrons. The malt and yeast that ferments malt into beer can come from anywhere, carefully selected to achieve desired results in colour, crispness and texture.  As always, the Canadian prairies deliver the goods.

John Harris. (Photo courtesy Ecliptic Brewing)
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It’s the hops that do the heavy flavour lifting, adding fruity, nutty and flowery notes that span a wide and wild range of profiles. With its favourable soils, climate and irrigation water, the Pacific Northwest has long been the USA’s main hop-production region and provides up to a quarter of all hops produced worldwide. Add fine water, excellent prairie malts, organic yeast strains, local passion, and an established pub culture, and you get the Craft Beer Revolution. We’re all better off for it.

Based on extensive online reviews, we hand-picked several breweries to sample. Getting around by Uber (you definitely don’t want to drive if you plan on a serious beer tasting), Portland’s breweries are located across the city’s eclectic neighbourhoods. Upright Brewing is located downstairs in a quirky office building, Ecliptic has stellar interior stylings and an excellent food menu. To maximize our time, we booked a guided CityBrew tour, visiting three different breweries in a van full of couples, birthdays and tourists. It starts a little awkward until the beer starts flowing. We learn the difference between ales and lagers (lager yeast ‘parties’ at the bottom of the fermenter, ale yeast does its thing at the top), discover new trends like Cold IPAs (which combine lager yeast and an ale process) and are told about meticulous cleaning regimens to ensure quality. Cheap lagers (still the world’s most popular beer) are the most expensive to produce, and fruits, spices and herbs can all be added during the brewing process. We pop into Leikam, Portland’s only kosher brewery, and finish the tour at the highly-rated and expansive Bearic Brewing. Chasing nostalgia, we see out the evening playing pinball and 80s arcade games at the fantastic Ground Kontrol arcade, which has an impressive craft beer menu on the wall. This is Portland, after all.

Bearic Brewing. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Four decades of steady growth in the craft beer industry has brought new challenges, including a younger demographic turning away from beer and wine, the legalization of cannabis, the impact of the pandemic, acquisitions by beer monopolies, and the increasingly high cost of production. Still, thanks to Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Denver, San Francisco, Toronto, and other craft beer capitals across North America, it’s impossible to go back to the bland fizzy stuff. Visit Australia, Asia, Africa or South America, and you quickly realize just how much you miss our fine, hoppy beer when it’s gone.

Tasting flights of beer. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Powell's Books. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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