Some visitors to our fair city are aware of this, but confronted with a dilemma: which of these 28 breweries should I visit? It's not actually as easy a question to answer as it sounds. Not all visitors want the same thing. Some want the quintessential Portland experience--the "do in Rome" thing. Others want the best beer. And others, or more likely the in laws of others, want a decent dining experience with a beer so they can say they did a Portland brewpub. The good thing is that, with over two dozen breweries, Portland can meet all needs. So, without further ado, here are my recommendations, broken down by category. With luck, you'll find some comments below with further advice.
- Best Beer -
It's Beervana and you want the best pint in town. Sounds reasonable. Try these three places and you won't be disappointed.
The most innovative brewers in the city operate out of a nondescript space on the edge of the industrial Southeast. From the street, you may not realize that you're looking at a laboratory for some of the most original beers in the country. Inside, at any given moment, fermenters bubble with ingredients not usually found in beers--habenero chiles, heather tips, or coconuts. But don't be fooled, the true herb of choice at Roots is humulus lupulus, and you'll find it in abundance. The beers are always brewed with flair and intention--none are throwaway "goldens" or "wheats."
Co-owners Craig Nicholls and Jason McAdam founded the brewery on the kind of ethos that's fueling the fresh-food movement: organic, fresh, and sustainable. For Nicholls, these are the relatively new digs (Roots opened in 2005), but he has been brewing around the city for over a decade. Over that time, his recipes have become legendary for his use of unexpected botanicals like rose petals, heather, and desert sagebrush.
While not every experiment is successful, the brewery's batting average is freakishly high. They always have something experimental on tap, and it's always worth at least a taster. Of course, if you want a pint of more standard fare, they have that, too--brewed with flair. Regular beers include the flagship Island Red, big, burly, and hoppy, Woody IPA, a pale and ESB, and usually a stout and/or porter.
The pub is a comfy Caribbean-inspired space that's always warm and inviting, even on drizzly January nights. It can get loud during the evenings, but afternoons are tranquil. The place has no kitchen, so the menu is limited. Still, you can get a pretty decent sandwich or a personal pizza--or snacks to accompany your beer. Roots is just around the corner from the Lucky Lab, which makes for an easy two-pub crawl.
1520 S.E. 7th, Mon-Thurs 3-11:30 pm, Fri 3-12:30 am, Sat noon-1 am, Sun noon-9 pm. Kids okay. No smoking. [full Beervana review here.]
New Old Lompoc
When the Old Lompoc first opened, it was situated just slightly beyond civilization on NW 23rd, where the street starts to run into industrialization. It was a hole-in-the-wall tavern, the kind of place guys would hit after work. Actually, in its first incarnation, as a tavern, that's exactly what it was. I mention this history because it shows that with good beer, you can build an empire in Beervana. The New Old Lompoc (it took the "new" when it changed ownership in 2000) expanded in 2003 when it added the Hedge House (3412 SE Division) and again last year when it opened the Fifth Quadrant (3901-B N. Williams).
The beer (the same available at all locations) is muscular. Brewer Jerry Fechter is the John Philip Sousa of brewers--he likes his ales big and brassy (and generally hoppy). Most of his offerings are stronger than 6%, and most are green with hoppiness. But of course, in Oregon, these are part and parcel of the local character. You don't come all the way to Portland to try a wimpy kolsch. Two of the beers are really exceptional: Condor Pale Ale and Sockeye Cream Stout. A cult following exists for the Bald Guy Brown, a heterodox beer for Fechter that features malt and mild hopping. As always, sample seasonals.
Ambiance differs by site, but the food is good at all three locations (nice review here). Perhaps the best is the newest, the Fifth Quadrant, which also has the largest menu. Another cool feature: all three locations have outdoor seating.
1616 NW 23rd; Sun-Thurs 11 am -1 am, Fri-Sat 11 am-2 am; kids okay; no smoking. [full Beervana Fifth Quadrant review here.]
Widmer, with its boring flagship Hefeweizen, isn't the first place to spring to mind when Oregonians think of great beer. But here's a little secret: of all the big Portland-area breweries, Widmer alone consistently produces the most funky little offbeat beers. And they're available only at the brewery. Some of these come under the Collaborator banner, others are brewed specially for fests, and still others are the products of brewers who are allowed to follow their bliss.
The pub is located in a groovy section of Portland under a tangle of freeways, just on the edge of Swan Island in the strangely haute Russell Street area. Beers rotate, so check when you arrive. One beer to note, however, is the legendary alt ale that the Brothers thought would be their calling card. It was, sadly, ahead of its time when they introduced it in 1984. If you've had a Hefeweizen and believe you understand the brewery's character, try a pint and re-evaluate.
The restaurant serves very hearty, well-made German dishes--sausage, schnitzel, sauerbraten and spaetzle. If you like German food (and after three years of grad school in Wisconsin, I do!), this is a nice bonus. The ambiance is what you imagine your dad would like--overstuffed booths, lots of wood, Teutonic, manly. Bar seating is also available if you just want to pop in for a pint.
955 N Russell St; Sun-Thurs 11 am-10 pm, Fri-Sat, 11 am-1 am; no smoking.
Also Worth Visiting
BJ's Jantzen Beach (12105 N. Center Ave), Laurelwood (1728 NE 40th Pl.), Full Sail Pilsner Room (RiverPlace - 0307 SW Montgomery), Rogue Ales (1339 NW Flanders).
PHOTOS: Oregonian [link], VJ-pdx [link]