Why Portland (Yes, the Oregon One) Is the Best Beer City in the USA


Sure, there are a lot of great beer cities in America these days. But how many of them can say they've been great since—I don't know—the Reagan Era? Back in the 1980s, when America was awash in corporate lagers, a few brewers built some of the first small breweries in the country in Portland, Oregon (think Widmer Brothers, BridgePort, and McMenamins). They called themselves microbrewers. People thought they were crazy.

What's crazy is the beer culture they created, a culture that still exists here and nowhere else. Their pioneering spirit inspired other brewers to take risks, not only by opening breweries, but by making bold, experimental beers.

San Diego, keep clinging to your triple IPAs like they're cheap foam surfboards from the 90s. Here, we've moved on from having a single style define our city. Portland brewers don't follow trends, they create them.

A Portland beer sampler could easily include an elegant interpretation of a Bavarian Helles, a kettle-soured beer made with yogurt, and a saison brewed with Oregon-grown triticale.

Go ahead, mock our love of all things local. But it's that attitude that's made this city feel like a giant beer incubator. The water is enviably soft. Hops grow down the road at farms that breed hops just for craft brewers.

Local winemakers and distillers share barrels with brewers, which inspires an incredible range of barrel-aged beers. Brewers collaborate with chefs, salt makers, honey producers and farmers, who grow the flavorful fruits that end up in one-of-a-kind beers.

If you're still not sure if we have it all, you should know that we even have locally-made steel fermentation tanks. Yep.

In case you hadn't heard, there are 91 breweries in the Portland Metro area. That's right, 91. We still have more breweries here than any other city in the world. This quantity of breweries has helped land us on every "best beer city" listicle and round-up ever published, something we Portlanders notice like it was just another beer truck rolling down the road.

"Our gas stations have better beer selections than your average Tampa bottle shop."

What so many of those gushing pieces fail to mention is the real permeation of beer here. Our gas stations have better beer selections than your average Tampa bottle shop. "Here, it's not craft beer," Josh Grgas of The Commons Brewery once told me. "It's just good beer. And it's everywhere."

We drink barrel-aged saisons at movie theaters. We drink fresh-hop beers at bike shops. We drink local lagers and ales at hair salons, dive bars, art galleries, strip clubs, and sports arenas. (New York City, we tried to get excited for you when they started selling "imported" Goose Island beer during Yankees games, I swear.) At the airport, we fill growlers with Portland beer before boarding the plane.

My friend Jayme, who lives in Calgary and visits Portland at least twice a year with his wife, told me that they keep coming back because Portland has such a unique respect for beer. "It's not a lesser beverage," he said. "At so many places in town, beer is elevated above cocktails and wine."

When I moved to Portland in 2005, the city had 38 breweries in the metro area, and that seemed like plenty. But even though we have nearly 100 now, my expectations have changed. I swear I'm not complaining, but I want more. After all, I'm a Portlander. We're a people who want more beer, but not in an ungrateful way. We are proud of our beer city, but we've experienced how it can grow, morph, and produce beautiful beers our minds are incapable of imagining until we try them.

Some of my favorite beers right now are being made by Breakside Brewery, which, lucky for me, is just a short bike ride from my house. If you haven't had Breakside's medal-magnet of an IPA, which is juicy and perfectly balanced, you need to get with the program. If you're looking for some on-par IPAs, head to nearby Great Notion Brewing, which makes one of my favorite double IPAs, the Juice Box.

A lot of cities have sprawled-out beer scenes that leave visitors bribing designated drivers or spending more than their airfare on Uber rides. Not here. Portland neighborhoods cradle clusters of impressive breweries and bottle shops. And because neighborhoods are dense and easy to navigate using the city's progressive bike infrastructure, you can create your own beer bike tours. To learn more about this perfect combination, I'd suggest grabbing a copy of my book, Hop in the Saddle. In the meantime, here are a few of my favorite bike routes and beer stops.

In North Portland, pedal over to Ecliptic Brewing, where brewer John Harris makes beers named after celestial bodies, including the chocolatey Capella Porter and the warming Orange Giant Barleywine, which has a hoppy bite. Then head to Saraveza, a beer bar with a stellar selection of taps and bottles that always includes a few rare finds. Bonus: Saraveza has a Midwest theme, which translates to Chex Mix and bottle cap covered surfaces. It's all downhill from there to the taproom at Upright Brewing, a secret subterranean lair with open-topped tanks, barrels filled with fermenting beer floated with fresh fruit, and yeast-forward brews named after jazz music greats.

On the eastern end of Division Street, in Southeast, you can park your bike inside the sprawling patio at the beer bar Apex, with its deep tap list and unabashed affection for two-wheeled transportation. Across the street is The BeerMongers, with 8 carefully curated taps and bar stools occupied by local brewers and beer geeks. A few blocks away, the 10-barrel Baerlic Brewing Company has sidewalk tables built for breezy summer nights and a refreshing, but creamy oatmeal pilsner. If you're up for another stop, Loyal Legion serves 99 Oregon beers on tap and Olympia Provision sausages.

My most quintessential Portland moment happens almost every day, when I bomb down a big hill on my bicycle on Interstate Avenue, past the train yards and under the Fremont Bridge. At the bottom, I enter a sweet cloud—the smell of beer being brewed at Widmer, one of the places that started it all.

The aroma is part of the city's fabric, but the beer is the real thread.