My trip to Oregon was initially about wine, but segued into a beer journey. That isn't too surprising: Oregon is one of the great states for craft beer, and visitors travel from across the US for the beer alone. The beer scene is extraordinary; spread around the state, it's concentrated in the major city of Portland and the smaller, remote, and very beautiful town of Bend. Beer here is treated with a fanatical fervour, its quality debated heatedly in bars and breweries.
I'd only tried one beer from Ninkasi before, Total Domination, a widely-available IPA I had found a little too sweetly aggressive. Nevertheless, while in Eugene I wanted to visit the ten-year-old brewery to see what else they had to offer. I'm glad I did. They have a small, intimate, and very friendly tasting bar, with ten beers on tap. Visiting a brewery or its tasting room offers the opportunity to taste beers that aren't distributed, and here I was able to taste two newly released beers. Their winter ale was brown, malty, and nutty, perfect for the rainy weather. The Megalodom was something else. Based on Total Domination (which the barmaid admitted was her least favourite of Ninkasi's beers), it's a whopping 10% ABV and dangerously drinkable. Such a beer encapsulates the trend of West Coast IPAs: extremely well made, highly alcoholic, fruity and hoppy, big but balanced, and not for the faint-hearted.
grain station brew works, mcminnville
Portlandia is a TV comedy which lampoons the touchy-feely habits of those who live in Portland. The first episode features a couple who won't order the chicken in a restaurant until they've visited the farm where the chicken was raised to establish that it was treated properly. I experienced a similar moment in McMinnville, a small town in the heart of Willamette Valley and Pinot Noir country. "Are your fries gluten free?" I heard a young girl behind me ask. The waiter responded, "All of our ingredients are gluten free, but I can't guarantee there isn't gluten in the environment." Thus ensued a half-hour debate, interspersed with the waiter going back and forth from the kitchen to check the gluten status of each product on the menu. "The fries are briefly cooked in sunflower oil, but we can't determine if that results in some gluten in the fries."
This was at Grain Station Brew Works, a brewpub located in an old timber barn and which I stopped off at for lunch to avoid the pouring rain. I had two beers: the Bet the Farm IPA, which was excellent, malty, fruity, and not too hoppy. I then ordered the RyePA, a request which prompted the waiter to ask me if I was sure I wanted it. The Oregonians can be a little too concerned with the customers' happiness, as it was a good, spicy rye IPA.
A drinker from Florida sat next to me at the bar declared that he was "in heaven." He couldn't believe that a brewery was devoted to making so many sours. These are Belgian-inspired beers that small breweries like Cascade have taken to extremes, merging wine-making techniques with beer-making practices. Cascade have been doing this for so long that they can almost exclusively focus on aged beers. I tried two vintages of their Sang Rouge, a red ale aged in old oak barrels of different sizes. Ageing beer in wine and whisky casks is becoming common across the country, but doing it well is very difficult. The 2013 was fruity, sour, and still a little closed; the 2009 was tannic and leathery, with aromas of dried fruits and mushrooms, and as close to wine as beer will, for better or worse, ever get. Cascade are probably the best producers of sour beers in the States and their beers, although expensive, are well worth seeking out.
I drink a lot of Deschutes, mainly their Fresh Squeezed IPA, a green, hoppy, herbaceous summer beer that's now their best seller - overtaking Mirror Pond Pale Ale, another very drinkable beer. They're based in Bend, a town that's next to spectacular forests and far from anywhere. They started in 1988, beginning a trend that's led to Bend becoming one of the most beer-centric towns I've ever visited, with at least fifteen breweries in a town of 80,000 people. The Deschutes bar/restaurant was heaving when I visited, yet the two barmen were able to serve beer tourists like me while entertaining locals. The Bachelors' Bitter was as good an English-style beer as I've tried in the US (the other contender is Blue Bell Bitter by Magnolia in San Francisco)
This is quite a different operation, located in a reconstituted garage full of old car and garage parts (hence the name boneyard). It's down to earth, with full-on tattoo-style artwork, and still very low-key. The beers aren't bottled, and the tasting room only pours them by the 28ml (1oz) serving - though you can have as many as you like for $1 a pour. The IPAs are as magnificent and as full-on as the artwork. The RPM IPA is their best-known beer, distributed throughout Oregon, but Incredible Pulp was perhaps the best of those I tried: briefly infused in blood oranges, it's subtle, balanced, yet orange and intense. Boneyard encapsulate the Oregon - and by extension West Coast - beer scene: no frills but an intense concentration on quality and innovation.