As soon as we arrived at our hotel in downtown Portland the realities of being in a phenomenally developed and in many senses leading city for beer quite thoroughly delight you. “So what brings you to Portland?” asked one of the valet chaps in the basement of our hotel. “Many things, but I guess mainly the food and drink scene, and the beer culture too.” I replied. “You have to speak to Joseph, one of our porters working today. There’s not much that guy doesn’t know about beer in this city.” the chap said, excited to make an introduction.
Joseph runs a beer festival called Portland Craft Beer Festival and as the family were checking in he got online straight away to show me a few websites to check out for info about beer events. He also reeled off a list of must visit places I hadn’t heard of before, and some that were already on my list. Minutes later, unpacking our bags in our room we noticed three magazines in the room: one devoted to food and drink; one about sustainability and outdoors; and the last devoted, page after page, to the city’s beer scene.
Maybe we’ll have something of a similar experience once we get down to San Diego, but tell someone you’re into beer in the UK and it’s not uncommon for folk to think you just like to drink. Tell folks here in Portland you’re into beer, and they recommend sour beer breweries, bottle shops with the best line up of Oregon brewed beers, or where tonight’s tap launch is taking place.
Eager to get out and explore we headed over to Cascade Brewing Barrel House. I ordered a flight of delicious sour beers, and was lucky enough to be shown a few of their barrel preparation processes by Nic. I hope I do justice to their process in the description that follows.
Fresh barrels are rinsed and then filled with wort or sulphured (for short term storage), unless they smell of acetic. If so, as with barrels that are on a second or third fill, they are taken through a simple process of sanitisation. Thoroughly rinsed until the water runs clear, the barrels are steamed for 7 minutes using a custom steam wand, and a compact steam generator, before being rotated 180º to drain.
Part way through the steam cycle
The water that drains out after the steam treatment is very discoloured due to the steam opening up the wood. Rotated again to an upright position, a silicone bung is inserted before the barrels are rotated and drained again (the bung creates something of a vacuum as the barrels cool, and helps stop any airborne bacteria finding its way in part way through the process). Cooled off a little, the barrels are wheeled over to an open warehouse door, and a section of sulphur tape lit and lowered inside, as a bung is used to partially cover the hole.
Lighting the sulphur tape
Any cracks and fissures are sealed with barrel wax. The barrels are now ready for storage in a cold store before being sanitised again each month. Discussing storage conditions of filled barrels (and presumably empty too) with Cascade’s Lead Blender Kevin Martin, 75% barrel store humidity is considered ideal, with over 90% humidity causing potential mould growth issues, and much lower causing product loss over time, leading to more frequent top ups (of fresh wort).
Process notes adorn the barrels in Cascade's cold store
Cascade currently rely on gravities and sensory analysis to chart their progresses. From smell testing new barrels (if it smells great it gets filled, if it smells not so great it gets steamed), the slow barrel fermenting wort is analysed over time from a sensory perspective too, right through to the final blending work. Kevin said they’re fitting a well specced lab in their production brewery soon, but will use the equipment to find and record what the numbers are when the sensory experience is good, and not to define acceptable parameters on paper. Very sensible indeed. After all, the end experience is a customer smelling and tasting the finished product too.
Our next stop was Portobello Trattoria for some excellent, fresh, wholesome, and exciting food that also happens to be vegan. Rotating taps, the US equivalent of guest taps, featured a light beer (meaning lager, pilsner, etc) and an IPA. Portland’s famous for its food trucks and breweries, but it’s a little known fact that it’s also home to a plethora of vegan eateries – the sort of places that you can take omnivores and hear nothing but good things said about delicious plates of food. Too often the tired image of US food centres around what was newly ubiquitous 30 years ago here, burgers and fries and other fast foods, but the truth is that in modern food oriented cities like Portland, as well as abundant health and eco conscious options (vegan, organic, farm to table, etc), nearly every nations cuisine is on offer, and nearly all of it is authentic, true to style, and delicious. Our meal at Portobello Trattoria, with vegan food that delicious and that accessible was nothing less than inspiring.
The last stop on our first day was Commons Brewery. We’ve been lucky enough to see some of their bottles reach Manchester’s well stocked Beer Moth, so I knew a little of what to expect. Commons are largely a Belgian and yeast inspired brewery, making a range of beer featuring saison and other French and Belgian yeasts, across many European styles. The bartender told me they’d only recently moved into their warehouse, an impressive space I’d guess around 7500 sq ft.
Commons Brewery's pilot kit (their original brew kit)
An immaculate bar and tap area occupies one corner, with a pilot kit off to one side, and their larger production brewery in another. With both the production end of their brewery and the service end both at the front of their unit, facing the street, it’s obvious how much Commons care about their customers and their position in the city. We sampled almost everything on tap, and despite jet lag still getting the better of us we held on to the last sample, such was the quality of what we drank.
Urban Farmhouse Ale, Biere de Garde, Wit, Myrtle
At this point, we hadn’t even slept a wink in Portland, and had already had very rich and fulfilling food and drink experiences. We drifted off wondering what the next day would bring.
The following morning, day two in Portland, we made our way to a celebrated food truck zone for lunch, sampling the wares of different producers as we circled the once parking lot, now restaurant start up incubator (ok, so not all food trucks go on to running a restaurant, but some do, having proven their model, cuisine, and client base on a smaller scale first). The food quality was great – not so much giving it a go, more nailing it.
Freshly Squeezed IPA – brewed with bittering and whole leaf hops only (that's right, no dry hopping at all!)
The first beer stop of the day was Deschutes Brew Pub, for a sample of some fine crafted ales in a vast and high quality brew pub setting. Keen to get a closer look at the shiny copper brewhouse I wandered over to where our server said a glass door divided the customer area from the brewery. Moments later I was engaged in conversation by one of the brew team, before being invited to have a look around at the brewery. To my joy and amazement I stumbled upon what remains the best designed hopback I’ve seen to date. Since starting production we’ve been plagued by a hopback way undersized in comparison to our brew length, only allowing us the capacity to use a fraction of the leaf hops we’d like to use, and seeing us suffer from poor utilisation too. Deschute’s hopback was both adequately sized, and by far the most sensible looking hopback I’ve seen (that isn’t based on a lauter or mash tun design). Photos and some mental notes later and I emailed our assistant brewer Al (a man of many qualifications, most recent amongst them his honours degree in Engineering) with a primitive drawing and internal photos, asking him to draw it up in CAD for us to attract fabrication quotes. From an impromptu brewpub visit off the back of visiting Portland’s most famous book shop, to gaining a fantastic design for a vessel we sorely need and want I couldn’t have left Deschutes any happier.
Our first draft of Deschute's hopback
The rest of the evening started with a dinner at Biwa, before a beer all the way over at Stein Haus (specialists in German beer), and included stops at Belmont Station (outstanding bottle shop and bar), Horse Brass Pub (English style pub with a great tap list and trad decor), Velo Cult Bike Shop (where to start?! Excellently stocked bike shop, bar with a great beer list, that was hosting a comedy gig when we visited) before finishing up at The Moon and Sixpence (complete with folk music and yet another great tap list). While each stop was quite different to the next, the thread that ran through the evening was of quality throughout. From the traditional German beer list at Stein Haus, and progressive lists at Belmont Station and Horse Brass, to the good for all lists at Velo Cult Bike Shop and The Moon and Sixpence, the choices I faced were without compromise, and full of pleasant surprises.
Sample pour at Belmont Station
Starting a trend that I suspect will continue until the end of this trip, not only were the 40 or so beers I tried in my first two days in Portland in excellent condition, they were all without flaws with one exception. No diacetyl, par for the course levels of butyric acid in one kettle sour, and only one flawed hoppy beer that had a hint of phenolics where it really shouldn’t have (I’ve not mentioned the brewery in question as they’re transitioning from one owner/brewmaster, to new owners/brewer). Whilst not every beer I tried was the most adventurous version of that style, indeed some were nearly so polished as to become muted, a level of refinement and balance was present in just about every glass, leaving me wondering whether this is the natural effect of having a Germanic brewing heritage. Of course, with very well set up and often adequately financed breweries, and highly educated brewers, the explanation may simply be that US brewers are simply more developed, and set their QC targets a lot higher than many British upstarts.
Comedy gig at Velo Cult
Not even halfway into summarising our stay in Portland and I have nothing but good beer, insightful tours around brewhouse equipment, and a thoroughly great time to talk about. Part 2 is coming up soon, where I delve deeper into brewery tap and brew pub culture in Portland, chart my experiences of 3 more breweries, and wonder how two cities (MCR and PDX) of similar age can end up so different. Additional photos from this trip will be uploaded here (once I’ve found the time to prepare them and an internet connection rapid enough to upload them).