When visiting Portland, it is easy to see how it is the greatest beer city in the United States. The quality of the breweries (and there are a lot of them), the diverse range of incredibly awesome beer (from fantastically fresh IPAs, to delicate yet complex Belgian and sour beers, to big and bold stouts), the world-class bars and pubs, and the great tradition of brewing all add up to make Portland truly great. When in San Diego, it is easy to see how it is the greatest beer city in the United States. The quality breweries (and there are a lot of them), the awesome beer (IPAs, Belgians and sours, and Imperial Stouts), the world-class bars and pubs, and the historic brewing tradition in San Diego are all great, as well.
Craft brewing and craft beer in the United States is such a small enough microcosm within the overall business of beer throughout the world that it does not make sense to engage in in-fighting, debating and struggling to select the most superlative anything when it comes to beer. Healthy competition is always a good thing, but blind criticism of a beer, a brewery, or of a beer city that many people love is generally never a good thing. To say that a particular beer or brewery or beer city is the “greatest” is such a subjective, personal, and often contextual opinion that it is almost meaningless. It likely is impossible to reach a definitive answer by any sense of a true qualitative means.
“It is certainly arguable, but not absolutely proven and true, that San Diego is the best beer city in the United States.” But it is also arguable that Portland is even better (and at least one commentator clearly feels that is the case). Some might say that Grand Rapids, Michigan or Asheville, North Carolina are even better beer cities still. Direct comparisons do not go very far toward settling any argument, but that is because San Diego and Portland are two vastly different beer communities with two completely diverse beer cultures. The geography, demographics, weather, brewing philosophy, drinking culture, everything about the two locations—when it comes to beer—are different. San Diego is awesome, but Portland is a fantastic beer city in its own right. The Craft Brewers Conference heads to Portland in 2015, and I cannot wait to head there in April. Here is a look at what makes Portland the greatest beer city in the United States…
A Community Built Around Breweries and Brewing
Numbers do not necessarily account for much when looking at the brewing community and culture in any given location. Grand Rapids has, relatively speaking, very few breweries, but the beer scene is incredible, vibrant, and flourishing. Speak with any craft beer drinker in Grand Rapids, and they will talk with immense pride about Founder’s Brewing Company, but they will also turn you onto the newer spots like Brewery Vivant or Mitten Brewing Company. San Diego has ninety-three operational breweries, and it too has an incredible beer community. Speak with any craft beer drinker in San Diego, and you hear about the iconoclastic brewers in San Diego (Stone Brewing Company, Ballast Point Brewing Company), but that beer drinker will also speak of their favorite local, smaller producers—Culture Brewing Co., Benchmark Brewing Company, and many, many others.
By some estimates, there are fifty-six breweries in the city of Portland, with seventy-six breweries in the Portland metropolitan area. Those are impressive numbers by any count, but numbers do not make a city’s breweries “great.” What is more striking is an examination of the types of operations that comprise these Portland breweries. Instead of large, regional, or semi-national brewing operations, like Founder’s Brewing Company, Stone Brewing Company, or Ballast Point Brewing Company (not that these breweries are not great in themselves), there are breweries such as Migration Brewing Company, Breakside Brewing, and Cascade Brewing Company. Sure, there are breweries that package and distribute beer a lot of beer outside of Portland, but there is not nearly the influx of Portland beers in cities like Grand Rapids or San Diego, as might be seen in the opposite direction. One is much more likely to find Sculpin on tap in Portland than to come across Laurelwood Brewery’s Workhorse IPA or, say, anything from Upright Brewery on tap in San Diego.
The breweries and brewpubs in Portland have a distinctly local focus, serving the tastes and perspectives of the drinkers who frequent these locations. It is somewhat insular, but done in an unpretentious manner—the folks in Portland do not shy away from the opportunity to share their stories and their beer, it is just that one must go there and experience it first-hand. And it is, indeed, a great city that is seemingly designed for experiencing beer. The public transportation is ideal, the city is remarkably walkable, and it goes without saying how bike-friendly all of Portland is.
You can hike from Hair of the Dog Brewing Company to Cascade Brewing to The Green Dragon to The Commons Brewery to Hopworks Urban Brewery, visiting and experiencing a swath of breweries and beer styles that any beer lover would want or care to experience. In a sense, the density and accessibility of the breweries in Portland make for a much more egalitarian, equal-opportunistic beer environment, whereas the sprawl of San Diego dictates selectivity and decisions in choosing what breweries to visit and what beer to experience. Portland has its own, unique sense of community, and this, in part, is why it is so great.
Gathering Around (Awesome) Beers
Portland is brewing some of the more interesting and compelling beers in the United States too. The beer is markedly different than the beer being brewed in San Diego (or anywhere else for that matter). Whether or not the beer is “better” is naturally a personal and contextual question. A glass of Kriek in the House of Sour at Cascade is an incredible experience, but a pint of Nelson on the back porch at Alpine Beer Company is too. It is a fact that drinking a beer in Portland is undoubtedly great. There are always different experiences in all different beer cities–and most of the time, they are always awesome. The lineup of Portland breweries features some mystical, intriguing breweries that are making awesome beer that is worth the exploration and the journey. Recognizable breweries that call Portland home include Burnside Brewing Company, Coalition Brewing Company, Lucky Labrador Brewing Company, and Base Camp Brewing Company.
The aforementioned Cascade Brewing is one of the stalwarts, a pioneer in creating their own “NW style sour beer” movement. With over 750 barrels in their program, French oak, bourbon and whiskey, as well as wine barrels, Cascade has the opportunity to produce a diverse and compelling range of sour beer. Perhaps most known for their fruited sours, Cascade delights across an amazing range of beer styles (their blonde coffee stout is a mind-blowing interpretation of the style). Seasoned beer geeks and beer novices alike seek out Cascade Brewing in Portland.
Then there is the Frankenstein brewery set-up at Hair of the Dog, another brewery that is known for its small-release beers and barrel-aged variations of beers like “Fred,” “Adam,” and “Matt.” Located in an inviting industrial part of the city, the Tap Room at Hair of the Dog is a must-visit location, especially for the opportunity to taste those Hair of the Dog beers that do not get released anywhere else. Surprisingly, Hair of the Dog also produces an outstanding “West Coast” style Double IPA, “Blue Dot,” a beer that Brewmaster Alan Spirits cannot simply brew enough of. A visit to this brewery is another example of a “great” Portland experience.
Ben Love, the Brewmaster at Gigantic Brewing Company (one running joke in Portland is that every brewer happens to be named Ben), pairs seasonally released beers with amazing artwork and label design to create one-off beers that standalone as masterpieces. Other than Gigantic’s “IPA,” each beer released is typically brewed just once. Gigantic partners with talented artists for the artwork for each beer, creating limited edition artist and artisan beers. These guys are absolutely creating their own identity in a crowded environment in the greatest beer city.
Finally, the short-list of awesome beer in Portland would not be complete without mention of The Commons Brewery. Opened in 2011, The Commons focuses on brewing subtle yet powerful (powerful flavor impact, not high ABV) beers. Their two Year-Round offerings, “Urban Farmhouse” and “Flemish Kiss,” have both previously won recognition with medals at the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival, respectively. Their rotating and seasonal beers, beers like “Madrone” and “Fluer de Ferme” are delightful in their own regard, and when they are available (either in 750mL bottles or on draft) they should be enjoyed with a gathering of great friends.
Whether or not breweries like Cascade, Hair of the Dog, or The Commons are better than their San Diego counterparts—think The Lost Abbey or AleSmith Brewing Company—is again, a personal and contextual preference, and is pretty much beside the point. Needless to say, there are some great breweries in Portland.
Building on Tradition
Portland has a great tradition when it comes to beer as well. San Diego has excitement built around some of the great newer breweries, like Rip Current Brewing Company or Council Brewing Company. But Portland has a storied tradition, and even the newer breweries in the city seem to embrace that tradition and then become immediately ensconced into the brewing community.
This sense of tradition is perhaps fostered by the annual beer festivals in the region: the Oregon Brewers Festival (OBF), the Portland International Beer Festival, the (new) Portland Fresh Hops Festival, as well as Portland Beer Week. With so many people coming to the area to drink awesome local beer, for so many different reasons, tradition is built and every new experience becomes a part of the next experience too. Portland has the established locations, where time and time again there is an awesome beer experience to be had, no matter what.
Portland has an incredible pub and bar scene too. Just like how San Diego has the Toronado, Blind Lady Ale House, Tiger!Tiger! Tavern, O’Brien’s Pub, Hamilton’s Tavern…Portland has Apex Bar, Bailey’s Taproom, The Beer Mongers, Belmont Station… Just like their San Diego counterparts, these beer joints in Portland focus on curating a local-focused draft list, featuring awesome and fresh local craft beer. Undistracted by televisions and sports, there is a beautiful conversational component to the bar culture in Portland, something that can be appreciated by those searching for a beer and a conversation. A world-class beer bar in Portland is the greatest spot to enjoy a Portland-brewed beer.
Smacking Down the Smackdown
Yes, when drinking beer in Portland, it is perhaps the greatest beer city, but San Diego is an incredible destination for beer in its own way. With the sheer number of breweries in the county (and yes, all ninety-three breweries listed here are absolutely to be considered as “San Diego breweries,” no matter how much you want to argue about what breweries are located downtown versus within the geographical of city San Diego versus within the county of San Diego), there is so much collaboration and competition between the brewers that better, more innovative beer is the direct result. For example, San Diego is re-defining what it means to brew IPA. Dry, pale, hop forward and aromatic, low bitterness, extreme drinkability, intensely delicious—these beers are incredible. There is also innovation, creativity, and a drive from breweries like Toolbox Brewing Company (who opened up with a Brett IPA on the draft list) or Council Brewing Company (with their line-up of Tart Saisons). Every brewery wants to stand out and be noticed. Every brewery wants to brew awesome beer. Given that that is the case, finding the perfect beer in San Diego is a great experience too.
Coming back around, it is an incredible experience to spend a day drinking beer in Portland. The density of awesome beer, breweries, and bars, and the ease of transportation make it effortless to experience all that Portland has to offer (and that is quite a bit). From the fresh, Pacific Northwest hopped IPAs, to world-class sour beer at the House of Sour, to the delicate beers from The Commons, to the organic beer and awesome atmosphere at Hopworks Urban Brewery…there is a great beer for anyone’s tastes.
The greatest beer city in the United States is the city where you are, drinking a fresh, locally inspired and brewed beer. It is the city where you can talk to the brewer, shake his or her hand and hear their story. The greatest beer in the world is the beer in your glass, right here and now.
If you want to argue otherwise, go ahead, but I for one might not be listening. Borrowing a phrase from Tony Magee at Lagunitas Brewing Company: “[Great] beer speaks, people mumble.”