There are probably two dozen world-class beers pouring at any given time in Oregon. Some of them are seasonals, some are venenerable standbyes. Some, like Saxer's Three-Finger Jack Doppelbock and Wild Duck's Sasquatch Strong Ale, are destined to fade away. If you're visiting Beervana, it always pays to try something new--you may stumble on a gem that will never be brewed again. But, if you you want a sampling of the best of the best, here's a list of can't-miss offerings that are reliably (if occasionally only seasonally) available. (To avoid the appearance of favoritism, they're listed alphabetically.)
Among the many legendary Oregon brews, BridgePort's flagship may be the most hallowed. It became the first American beer to win the 119-year-old Brewing Industry International Awards for "champion beer" in London in 2000 (beating 750 beers from 43 countries). BridgePort slipped to silver the next time the event was held, in 2002, but regained the title in 2005. Perhaps more than awards, though, BridgePort IPA has come to define hoppy in the Northwest, and made IPAs Beervana's fave style. At 5.5% alcohol, it's technically just a hoppy pale, but never mind, to Oregonians, it's the IPA.
Caldera Pale Ale
Pale ales are as ubiquitous on the West Coast now as industrial lagers were thirty years ago, and a number of them are best sellers (Mirror Pond, Full Sail Pale, Sierra Nevada). But when we did a blind tasting, Southern Oregon's Caldera held its own with the giants. It's a classic pale hopped with nothing but Cascades, slightly sweet and full of citrus. If you're not in Ashland, you may have a hard time tracking it down, but Belmont Station stocks Caldera, and you might find it at Henry's or the Horse Brass in Portland. Believe it or not, Caldera cans this beer, but it suffers not a whit for arriving in this humble container.
Deschutes Bachelor Bitter
Over the past couple years, Bend's Deschutes Brewery began solidifying itself as Oregon's (and possibly the nation's) best brewery. Nearly every beer it releases is exceptional, and lately, Deschutes has been releasing a lot of beers. It would be easy to select Black Butte Porter, Mirror Pond, or newcomer Inversion IPA from the stock of amazing beers. Instead, I'll go for one of the brewery's oldest and one that's now available only on tap at the brewery: Bachelor Bitter. Brewed by founding brewer John Harris (now at Full Sail), it typifies the brewery's genius. Deschutes does pretty standard English-style ales, but they just do them better than anyone else. Generally, bitters are unassuming little ales that keep the mouth wet and the conversation lively. But Bachelor Bitter delights the tongue with traditional British and classic Northwest hops, and the malt is toasty, toffee sweet. You have to go to central Oregon to get a pint, but there are worse places to visit.
Full Sail Session
Every "best of" list needs a controversial inclusion, and so I offer you Full Sail Session. It is a summer lager modeled on the old regional brands that defined the Northwest for decades--Henry's, Rainier, Olympia. Executive brewmaster Jamie Emmerson designed the beer to appeal to beer drinkers who just can't do stronger ales (including, apparently, his neighbor, who admitted he wanted to like Full Sail, but after years of trying, gave up). I admire the brewery for taking good beer full circle. Session is better than the tin-can pilsners, of course--it is a sparkling light lager, but in a hat tip to Beervana, the hopping is relatively pronounced and citrusy. It is not the kind of beer that knocks your socks off, but in the context of the history of Northwest brewing, it's a worthy heir.
Hair of the Dog Fred
If there's an asterisk next to Deschutes when talking about Oregon's best brewery, it points you to Hair of the Dog, a wee brewery with the most devoted fans in the country. Located in a warehouse next to the railroad tracks in SE Portland, the brewery has been run on a shoestring since was founded in1993. Nevertheless, HotD beers are regularly cited as among the best beers in the world.
Fred is characteristic of the brewery's approach to beer. It features ten hop varieties from five countries and a huge malt bill that includes rye. It really doesn't hit its stride until its been in the bottle for 18 months, and it conforms to absolutely no style on the planet. Fred is amazing and unique, and any visitor to Oregon should definitely have a bottle. Incidentally, it's named for beer writer and home-brewing pioneer Fred Eckhardt, who is one of the godfathers of the good beer movement and a mentor to Oregon's early brewers.
Pelican Doryman's Dark
One of the prettiest brewpubs in Oregon is located on the beach at Pacific City. They could serve water in their dining room and people would pay five bucks to sit there, but instead, Pelican has become the most celebrated brewpub in the state. Listen to the accolades: brewpub of the year and best brewer of the year three times each from the GABF, 18 medals from the GABF, dozens of awards from other contests. Of these decorated beers, the most interesting is Doryman's Dark. It's called a brown ale, but I think that's misleading--it's bigger and hoppier, and just plain different from traditional browns. Oregon brewers are rarely able to do a beer straight--they must tweak and rearrange until it's something almost like a regular style, but Oregonized. Such is Doryman. Dorymen, namesakes of the beer, are, by the way, fishermen (and women) who ply the cold waters off the Oregon coast in dories--funny, banana-shaped small craft. It is a local nod to a characteristic local craft.
Rogue Shakespeare Stout
Dark beers were instantly popular when good beer returned to Beervana, and why not? We already loved black, bitter coffee, so making the transition to espresso-y stouts wasn't much effort. Of the many very good black beers in the state worthy of mention, my favorite is Shakespeare Stout. It combines the finest qualities of the style--dense bitterness, rich creaminess, and a dollop of chocolate to round out the mocha-like palate. Along with the other beers on this list, it has won its share of awards and accolades. It was named for the Ashland Skakespeare Festival, which used to be down the road from a Southern outpost of the Newport-based brewery--until it was washed away in a flood.
Roots Burghead Heather Ale
In the 80s and early 90s, every brewery was fooling around with funky ingredients. A few of these, like Saxer's dreadful Lemon Lager, became huge hits among the Bartles and James crowd, and before long, respectible brewers had retreated to the safe harbors of malt and hops. Craig Nicholls, then brewing for the Alameda Brewhouse, bucked the trend. He made a series of beers that included adjuncts, but instead of overwhelming the beer, they added subtle notes that drew out the beeriness rather than crushing it. One of his most interesting experiments was a recipe he based on ancient pre-hop Scottish ales that used heather to balance the malt. Many of his other recipes have been lost to the sands of time (Spring Rose Doppelbock, Juniper Porter, Sage Festbier), but Burghead Heather Ale is a regular summer offering. It is a great example of the innovation that characterizes Oregon brewing.
Terminal Gravity IPA
It is impossible to have a "best of" list without including one true IPA, the favorite style of good beer fans throughout Beervana. It's equally as impossible to identify a "best" IPA--there are just too many good ones. I'm selecting Terminal Gravity, though, because no brewery other than BridgePort is more associated with its IPA than Terminal Gravity. The little brewery from Enterprise, in the far Northeast corner of the state, has always found an audience in the cutthroat Portland market, and many people call this their favorite beer in the world. Who can argue? It's a burly ale with a thick mouthfeel and a saturated bitterness that satisfies the most inveterate hophead.
Widmer Snow Plow Milk Stout
There is an interesting story behind milk stouts, but an even more interesting story behind Snow Plow. Back in the late 1980s, the Widmer Brothers decided to partner with a local Portland homebrewing club to produce obscure styles of beer that lacked a commercial market. Periodically, the brewery and the homebrewers jointly decided on a style, and then the homebrewers held a competition to see who could make the best version. That recipe was then converted so that it can be produced at the brewery, and was distributed on tap to various local pubs. The first style they tackled was milk stout, which, to everyone's surprise, found a market. Two years ago, Widmer started releasing it as their winter seasonal.
Milk Stouts aren't actually brewed with milk, but rather milk sugar (lactose). Unlike most sugars, however, lactose can't be broken down by beer yeast, and remains unfermented, as calories and carbohydrates. It gives the beer a unique sweetness and silkiness on the tongue that does in fact suggest milk. Snow Plow is sweet and creamy, bordering on decadant, but there are hints of roasty malt and a breath of hop at the end. I have never found a person who liked beer but disliked Snow Plow.
Post has been updated (2/5/07)