Even in the beer-centric Pacific Northwest, Portland stands out for its extreme devotion to true craft-beer ethos: pure, high-quality ingredients put together with extreme care and expertise. This mentality has, since the early 1980s, grown the city’s reputation as a beer mecca, and the Rose City has become an incubator for new and innovative brewers and beer styles. The numbers explain a lot. According to Oregoncraftbeer.org, the city of Portland proper has 77 craft beer breweries; that grows to 117 when you include the greater metro area of the city straddling the Willamette River.
Tried, True and Tasty
Widmer Brothers Brewing opened its first brewery in Portland in 1984, one of the earliest in the city’s now-buzzing brewpub culture. Well ahead of the curve, the Widmer brewery is in the now-trendy Pearl District. Also ahead of the curve was the brewery’s introduction of hefeweizen, one of the first to revive and popularize the wheat beer style in the U.S. These days the refreshing, award-winning wheat brew is still their best seller. Widmer Brothers long ago left its original digs, and in 1996 opened a state-of-the-art brewing facility in North Portland, right across the street from Widmer Pub. The eatery and taproom takes advantage of Widmer’s experimental, small batch brewery next door. Over half of the pub’s 27 taps pour these unique, specially curated brews.
Opened in 1986, Portland Brewing was another early arrival. Its original brewhouse was designed by Bert Grant of Yakima Brewing and Malting Company, the first microbrewery to open in neighboring Washington State (since closed, unfortunately). Portland Brewing actually started out brewing Grant’s recipes. By 1992, Portland Brewing won a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival for its own brew, MacTarnahan's Scottish Style Amber Ale. It has won gold many times since then, and the beer even gets an entry in famed beer author Michael Jackson’s “Great Beer Guide: 500 Classic Brews.” The brewery no longer has a taproom, but kegs are still available to consumers on site, and its full line of beers is available at establishments in Portland and throughout the region on draft, and in bottles on the wider market.
These early Portland breweries are nice to visit individually, as a starting point for those new to Portland beer culture. It provides historic context for what is happening today in the city’s ever-evolving beer environment.
Unique Styles From Today’s Innovators
Taprooms, bars and pubs, meanwhile, offer the chance to sample beers from multiple breweries in one spot. Among Portland's standouts for their extensive tap lists are Imperial Bottle Shop and Taproom (two locations), Bailey’s Taproom and Proper Pint Taproom.
For another type of sampler — a more ambitious one that requires walking — check out the beer tours offered throughout the city. Brewvana gives daily group guided outings perfect for travelers who want an interpreted overview of the Portland suds scene. The three-hour beer stroll starts at 10:50 a.m. and the cost is $69 per person, including samples. Specialized event and personalized tours are also available by reservation. A similar set of services is offered by Beerquest Walking Tours.
If you want total brew immersion, plan a trip to coincide with one of Portland’s many public beer celebrations throughout the year. The Fresh Hops Beer Fest happens in September, the Portland Spring Beer and Wine Festival is slated each April and the granddaddy — the Oregon Brewers Festival — is held in late July along the Willamette River in the shade of the city’s lush Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
After a day of beer touring, why not spend the night at a hotel operated by a beer company? Regional brewer and property developer McMenamins — which refurbishes historic structures to give them new life as restaurants, breweries, hotels and theaters — operates the Crystal Hotel in downtown Portland’s West End, bordering the Pearl District. The upper floors of the 1911 flatiron building now house 51 guest rooms with theater-themed decor in honor of the company’s Crystal Ballroom down the block. The basement level of the hotel conceals a secluded, zen saltwater soaking pool. On the ground floor above, the three-meal-a-day Zeus Cafe provides extensive wine and craft cocktail offerings, which are augmented, of course, by McMenamins’ beers.