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It takes close attention and a lot of drinking to keep up with local beer when you're in Portland, Oregon. The City of Roses currently has the most breweries of any city in the world—and you don't have to go far to get to beer destinations like Bend, Hood River, Eugene, and the coast. There's always something new to taste and a new brewery opening its doors.
What will you find when you start exploring? While the West Coast has long been known for high-IBU, high-ABV IPAs, these days you're just as likely to meet a brewer specializing in sours, lagers, and session beers. Portlanders still love hops, but we also love revisiting our roots and exploring the strange and funky.
Every beer lover visiting Portland should be sure to visit the established favorites, including Hair of the Dog, Breakside, Upright, Cascade, Gigantic, Coalition, Lompoc, Hopworks, and Laurelwood. A tasting room visit can score you a chance to sip rare aged bottles and hard-to-find sours. You can also catch a taste of Bend downtown in the Pearl right near Rogue, with Deschutes and 10 Barrel in walking distance.
Got those 'oldies' checked off your list? Here's a handful of new Portland breweries that have us really excited, plus a five-year-old that just underwent a welcome transformation. These breweries are already making their way into the Portland canon, producing delicious beer while experimenting with new innovations and ancient techniques, tweaking common styles, and collaborating with locals and world class breweries across borders and oceans.
How to Get There
Portland is not only beer central, it's also one of the top bike-friendly cities in the country. Almost all the of breweries below are in close proximity, largely in the Northeast and Southeast, making it easy to hit a few in an afternoon bike tour. If you're visiting, you can rent bikes from places like Pedal Bike Tours, and even book a ride with them if you'd rather have a guide on your route. If you prefer walking or a tour bus, there's Brewvana. Leisurely biking is the best way to experience Portland; every time we do it we fall deeper in love with this city, its rivers and hills, its tree- and vegetable planter-lined streets, its gardens, its funk, and its beer.
Culmination Brewing is one of the newest kids on the block, celebrating its grand opening this June as part of Portland Beer Week. This brewery is filling a gap in beer destinations at its Kerns location just north of Sandy Boulevard. Beautiful Japanese redwood adorns the bar and tasting room, partially dividing the 7,000 square-foot open space. Come hungry—the smoked pork rillette tacos are killer. In back, you'll spy the innovative five-vessel five-barrel system—most smaller breweries have a two-vessel system, going from mash tun to lauder tun in the same tank, so while a typical brewery of Culmination's size often brews one batch a day, Culmination can manage three.
Now that their system's running, the small but solid lineup is quickly growing. The velvety Coffee Cream Ale is often served on nitro and there's a gose on the way, but as of now Culmination leans toward IPAs and saisons. They plan to have four IPAs each year, and the easy drinking IPA II, slightly bitter but balanced by hints of tangerine from Mandarina Bavaria hops, makes me excited to try the upcoming double IPA and Brett IPA. Their plans also include brewing a variety of Cascadian dark ales, and they'll be hosting the first Portland CDA Festival in November. Bands play shows among the barrels from time to time, and the proud staff and owners are another entertaining draw—they love to chat and show you around the brewery.
Beer isn't the only brew on the horizon at Culmination: owner Tomas Suiter is also a Certified Sake Professional and will eventually make sake onsite. Mead isn't off limits, either. Stung Fermented, the only dedicated meadery in Portland, is on the same property and there are talks of collaboration.
Must-Try Beer: Dry hopped with Cascade hops for a vivid aroma, the Saison II is just lovely. The scent is subtly sweet, and this beer has a bigger malt build than a typical saison, leaving you with bright, peppery light hops on the back of the tongue. The longer this beer sits in the glass, the more the pepper gives way to honeysuckle and lightly sour citrus.
Ex Novo Brewing Company
We've mentioned on Serious Eats that lager is craft beer's most exciting frontier, and Ex Novo Brewing Company only furthers that argument. While the brewery has an array of constantly rotating ales, they make a couple of flavorful, nuanced lagers that truly impress. Ex Novo means "from scratch" and their Vienna Lager calls to mind harvesting, milling, and baking, as well as having a drink after a long day of these tasks.
We asked brewer Jason Barbee (formerly of Deschutes) what makes his lagers so good. "I really like malt flavor and lagers tend to highlight that without muddling it with other flavors," he says. "Märzens and Vienna lagers are among my favorite styles—I like that toasted bread and graham cracker." He uses all German malts, noting that the money they save on hops can be put toward top-shelf malt: "The good German stuff makes a better beer in my opinion." Another thing that sets these beers apart: a Mexican lager yeast strain, which gives the beers "a different character than other lagers in town."
But Ex Novo's not limited to lager. With the Pinot Barrel Olde Ale and its hints of vanilla, the spicy rye-heavy Wonder Twins Rye IPA, the Apricot Gose, and even a malt liquor blended with orange juice and spiced rum oak chips, Ex Novo delivers on a wide array of styles.
The brewpub's airy wood- and mural-clad space is child-friendly until 9 p.m., and drinking a beer and having a meal here means not only enjoying the view of the tree-lined park across the street, but making the world better while you do it. The first nonprofit brewery in Portland, Ex Novo directs 100% of net profits to local and global charities including Friends of the Children, International Justice Mission, Impact NW, and MercyCorps.
Must-Try Beers: Ex Novo wows us with the Vienna Lager's full toasty malt body, which is dark both in color and in flavor, with aromas of grain and crusty bread. Given all that, it's surprisingly crisp and refreshing. Another favorite, the Most Interesting Mexican Lager, is clean and far lighter up front, with the grainy malt making an appearance toward the end of each sip. Grab a stainless steel growler-full—this is the beer to bring to the river this summer.
Baerlic Brewing Company
While many breweries lean on tasty additives and fancy tricks, it's the expert combination of core beer ingredients—malts, yeast, hops, and sometimes sugar—that makes Baerlic Brewing Company's best beers shine. Even when brewers Ben Parsons and Richard Hall are experimenting, the results are still subtly complex and consistent. The seasonal Delight is a Belgian blonde ale with big floral esters and slight apple pie flavor, not in an overbearing Calvados or winter spiced cider way, but rather with a baked Honeycrisp scent backed up with pie crust-like wheat and sweet malt.
Residing in a warm, comfortable space on a tree-lined street near Ladd's Addition, Baerlic is steadily growing at its first anniversary with two new 20-barrel tanks and a varied, rotating roster of beers. It's one of the city's coziest places to drink, whether you're on the sidewalk below the tree canopy or along the windows indoors under the wooden beamed ceiling. There's no food served here, and because of that, children are not allowed, but if you're hungry, you can walk down the street to Ned Ludd's new pizza restaurant P.R.E.A.M.
Must-Try Beers: The Delight is the best seasonal offering at the moment, along with the Shop Class single hop Cascade IPA, which highlights the Cascade hop's beloved pine flavor, with malty sweetness up-front and a rich body. The Cavalier Classic Cream Ale is our favorite of the core offerings. Brewed with Himalayan basmati rice, it's refreshing but round and solid, with a lemony, spicy hop profile balanced by bready, nutty malts.
Ecliptic owner John Harris is a serious heavyweight in Oregon's brewing history. He was there at the very beginning, brewing at Oregon's first brewpub, McMenamin's Hillsdale Brewery and Public House. Soon after, he moved on to Deschutes, where he created the recipes for the ubiquitous Mirror Pond, Black Butte Porter, Jubelale, and Obsidian Stout. Before starting his own brewery, now a year old, he was Full Sail's brewmaster for 20 years.
Harris brings his relationships to the mix, and some of Ecliptic's most exciting beers are collaborations, such as the juicy, full-bodied Sagittarius B2N, a saison made with Delaware's Dogfish Head. Ecliptic's regular cast of beers is small in comparison to its large array of new and rotating seasonal beers, and it's definitely worth a trip to try a flight.
The food menu changes every six weeks with the solstices and equinoxes, aligning with Ecliptic's deference to astronomy and the seasons. While the interior is spacious, clean, and bright, Ecliptic's large, bustling patio is one of our favorite spots in North Portland. It faces west toward the sunset, with bucolic views of Forest Park's hills and the river's bridges in the distance.
Must-Try Beers: Ecliptic's collaboration with Stone Brewing Co, the White Asteroid Imperial Wit IPA, is a must-try even for those normally put off by wits. It's not heavy on the wheat; IPA lovers will approve of the rich, full malty body supporting the citrusy essence of Motueka hops. Together with the spicy Belgian yeast and its hints of banana, those big flavors balance out the wit's use of orange peel and coriander.
And don't miss the Points Unknown IPA, created by Ecliptic and Stone in collaboration with Wicked Weed in Asheville. Two beers were brewed and blended for this recipe: An Imperial IPA and a Belgian-style tripel spent four months mingling in barrels that originally aged red wine, then tequila, before graduating to this beer. You really taste the tripel up front, with hints of peach and banana, then the subdued hops of the aged double IPA in the middle, wrapped up with tannic barrel flavors at the end. Considering everything going on with it, this beer is shockingly balanced.
The Commons Brewery
At five years old, The Commons Brewery has just traded up, leaving its tiny industrial space this past March for a gorgeous, 10,000 square foot corner building on SE 7th and Belmont. The area is now officially a rare beer lover's destination as this local favorite focusing on farmhouse, sour, fruit, and barrel aged beer is now just a short walk from Cascade, another fantastic producer of sours.
Commons stands out from the pack with crisp pilsners and tart beers aged with fruit. Stop by for seasonal offerings like Myrtle, a kettle-soured farmhouse ale fermented with Lactobacillus. It's light but funky with a definite yogurt-like sour bite. They also offer experimental, highly sought-after bottles meant for aging, like the Belgian dark strong ale Brotherly Love, and Créme de Pêche, a cream ale aged with peaches in gin barrels with Brettanomyces bruxellensis. The brewers are also curious about bridging the gap between beer and wine: "We really love wine and are exploring some things that are considered taboo in the wine world," says head brewer Sean Burke, "such as using Brettanomyces to ferment wine must that will later be blended into the beer." In their fabulous recently released Rouge Mélangé, Syrah and Grenache must are added to a Belgian single, mingling subtle grain flavors with a bold grapey finish.
The brewery's new home features a new 15 barrel brewhouse in addition to the original seven barrels. With huge paned windows, exposed brick, and wooden barrels intermingled with tables, the rustic-urban loft atmosphere better represents Commons' generally clean yet complex Belgian, French, and German-inspired beers.
The best part of the scenery change, aside from bigger production and a few more taps, is that Cheesemonger Steve Jones, with whom we chatted last year, has set up shop inside the brewery. Cheese Annex offers masterful cheese and charcuterie boards, as well as excellent sandwiches and salads.
Must-Try Beers: Here's a rule of thumb: always try any Beetje Series release, like the Créme de Pêche mentioned above, which is bright and deliciously peachy, with a hint of cream from flaked corn and the juniper of the gin barrel. These experimental batches celebrate Commons' nanobrewery beginnings as Beetje, which operated out of founder Mike Wright's garage. Don't miss their collaborations with other great brewers, either: my favorite saison of all time just might be the Commons/Fort George Plazm farmhouse ale. Brewed in "blatant disregard of a hop-heavy culture," Plazm offers a light malt body with fruity esters from the yeast and gently hoppy floral aromas. Catch this bright saison while you still can.
Coming Soon: Great Notion Brewing
When you spend enough time around fellow beer lovers, sometimes you get lucky and happen upon the brilliant work of a friend of a friend of a friend who is in the process of going into business. A few months ago, I was casually drinking at a new friend's house, when his buddy showed up saying something to the effect of, "It's nice to meet you. You have to try this beer, it's amazing!"
In the glass: a barrel-aged Flanders Red Ale, rich and sour and swirling with the flavors of red wine and chocolate. I assumed the beer's source, Great Notion Brewing, would be a far-off dream, but it turns out longtime homebrewers James Dugan and Andy Miller, with partner Paul Reiter, will be moving into their brewery (at a location to be announced soon) this summer, with plans to be in production later in the year upon licensing and the commencement of their hop contract.
The brewery will focus on barrel aged sours and smooth IPAs—I recently had a chance to try a lightly floral, slightly tart, dry hopped kettle sour, as well as a barrel-aged passion fruit sour, in which the flavor of the sometimes-sharp fruit was discernible but restrained, allowing the beer to be multifaceted rather than intensely sour. This stuff isn't your standard amateur homebrew fare: it's expertly crafted beer that I can't wait to drink regularly.
Some of Great Notion's experiments incorporate ideas you'd normally associate with winemaking. The brewers embarked on camping and hiking trips to capture wild yeast from all over the region, including spots like Sauvie Island and the Hood River County Fruit Loop. They plan to age a series of beers in 60-gallon clay vessels. "Many of us have tasted sour beer aged in oak, but what type of character would the clay impart?" Dugan cites Cantillon as an inspiration. "I was intrigued when I read they were experimenting with fermentation in clay. When aging sour beer, the container plays an important role. Second-use oak barrels have been the best choice for making sour beer, but they're not the only choice. Much like wood, clay allows the beer to breathe through micro-oxidation, but without the added oak character. I'm curious to see if the minerals in the clay can impart some exciting new flavors." The vessels are unglazed but lined with beeswax, which both keeps the terra cotta from wicking away the moisture and influences the sours with the wax's local honey flavors.
Dugan says, "The goal is to create a regional sour ale which represents our local terroir. How cool would that be to drink a beer aged in Oregon clay, coated with Mt. Hood beeswax, and fermented with yeast collected in Portland?"
And If You're up for a Weekend Trip...
Escaping Portland means a breathtaking change of scenery and more outstanding breweries in virtually every direction. The coast is especially exciting these days, with de Garde Brewing being among the first breweries in the U.S. to focus entirely on spontaneous fermentation. This method, more common in Belgium, relies on natural cultures in the air to inoculate the wort as it cools—it's during this part of the brewing process that de Garde opens its big bay doors to let the outside air into the open containers. When deciding where to open their brewery, owners Trevor Rogers and Linsey Hamacher traveled the region to test out locally occurring wild yeast, finally settling on their rural location near the coastal breezes of Tillamook.
I've been collecting bottles since I first tasted their golden, slightly funky and pretty acidic Petit Desay farmhouse style ale. And while you can find a few of their beers in Portland's better bottle shops, it's worth trekking to the tasting room for a peek at the brewing system and rare tastes from their taps and available bottles. One of the best: Imperial Cherry Blu Bu, a tart, pink Berliner Weisse style brew aged in oak barrels with cherries and blueberries. If you're interested in how beers develop over time, this is a great place to nab a few bottles for cellaring.
Got a day or two to spend on the coast? Add in a visit to Pelican Pub & Brewery, Buoy Beer Company (it's right on the water with gorgeous views), and Fort George Brewery & Public House. (Don't miss the Plazm and be sure to taste the Overdub, a dank and fruity full-flavored session IPA.) Even amidst the attention-grabbing rock formations of Oregon's magnificent coastline, these breweries blow us away whenever we sit down for a drink.