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Thursday, July 07, 2011

Beervana's Best Pub Crawls: Downtown

Best pub crawls: Downtown| Southeast | Division St. | North

A lot of people come to Portland on vacation. A lot of them want good beer. Unfortunately, very few of them have the kind of time and money it would take to do a thorough tour. They--perhaps you--must therefore be choosy. But how? Look no further than your friendly neighborhood blogger. Below is the first in a series of neighborhood-based pub crawls that will take you through the best the city has to offer.

Small Print
My choices are based largely on beer quality, but not exclusively. A pub crawl shouldn't be antiseptic and calculating--you're out to have a good time. These crawls will deliver the best in beer, but also a few oddball places that are fun and worth seeing. I've tried to limit stops to four--any more would be irresponsible. Finally, do yourself a favor familiarize yourself with Portland's legendary public transportation, which GPS tracking and free apps like this make a breeze. Leave the rental at the hotel; with your feet and public transportation you can enjoy the beer more.

Stop One: Full Sail at the Pilsner Room (309 SW Montgomery)
Unfortunately, the Full Sail test brewery is located at the south end of downtown, somewhat distant from the other cluster of places on our tour. You don't have to be particularly intrepid to pull it off, though, and the results are well worth your effort. Let us count the ways: 1) John Harris, a legend in Oregon brewing, mans the brew kettle there. He started at McMenamins and then went on to be the founding brewery at Deschutes--where he created the recipes for Mirror Pond, Black Butte, Jubelale, and others--before going to Full Sail in the 90s. 2) The location, on the marina overlooking the beautiful Willamette River. 3) The beer--all of Full Sail's regulars plus some home cookin' from Harris and at least a couple well-tended cask engines. 4) The happy hour (between 3-6), where you can get ridiculously cheap food, including a $3 half-pound burger.
Travel. (Click map to enlarge) You have a few options. Easiest but slowest: walk. Almost as easy and almost as slow--but air conditioned!: walk south to the streetcar stop at River Dr and River Parkway, and ride it (it's free) to the Powell's stop at tenth and Burnside. From there you're two blocks away. Fastest but trickiest: Walk west along Montgomery, and wend your way across Naito Parkway (there's only one way to go) and proceed to Harrison Street (a jog to your left--or the south--a half block). From there you walk to Sixth Ave and wait for the free Max Light rail at stop 7774. Ride it three stops to Pine and Sixth (stop 7787) and then walk to blocks to the next stop.
Stop Two: Bailey's Taproom (213 SW Broadway)
Not counting duplicates, there are forty breweries in Portland. That's just a third of all the breweries in Oregon. Since you can't travel to each of them, and since you may not be able to travel beyond Portland, you need to find an alehouse where the publican has selected some choice pours. One of the best places in the city is Bailey's, where owner--and probably the guy handing you your beer--Geoff Phillips regularly assembles an amazing group of beers. At least half will be from Oregon, and many will be from smaller breweries you may not have heard of. It's a great place to find some gems from around the state. Geoff is happy to make recommendations so you get the perfect beer.

Stop Three: McMenamin's Ringler's Annex (1223 SW Stark)
The McMenamin brothers got into the pub business in the 70s and in the 80s helped change the law so they could get into the brewing business. But what they really excel at is the ambiance business. Over thirty years they've snapped up some of the most impressive properties in the Northwest and bent them into psychedelic little time capsules. They brew very mainstream beer, and not always with the greatest care, but never mind that. You go for the vibe. Ringler's is in a slice of building at the fork of Burnside and Stark. If you descend into the basement, you enter a space that recalls equal parts speakeasy and Portland's shanghai-ing history. It's worth a stop.

Stop Four: Deschutes Brewery (210 NW 11th)
If you only make it to two or three breweries on your visit, Deschutes should be on your list. The Bend-based brewery opened this pub in the chic Pearl District, but brought plenty of Central Oregon with them. Inside the obligatory warehouse space, Deschutes has created a mountain lodge with chainsaw art, lots of wood, and a huge fireplace. The real attraction is the beer. In addition to all the regulars, you'll find pub-only specials created by Ryan Schmiege on the pub's 10-barrel system. He has a real talent for subtle beers and lagers. Deschutes also offers their specialty beers on tap at the pub (The Abyss, The Dissident, Mirror Mirror, etc.) when they're available. Finally, Deschutes maintains two cask engines, and they are reliably among the best in the city.

Other Options
These four stops aren't the only places to see downtown. If one or more of them don't float your boat, here are a few alternatives:
  • Higgins (1239 SW Broadway). Higgins is one of Portland's best restaurants, but relevant to our purposes, it is one of the nation's oldest gastropubs. Since the mid-1990s, chef Greg Higgins has been pairing his regional, sustainable cuisine with some of Oregon's and world's best beers. He has a selection of a dozen taps and over 100 varieties of bottled beer. If you're looking for a place to eat downtown and you're willing to spend a bit, this is the place to go. And not to worry--the waitstaff is as knowledgeable about beer as they are wine. You can also pop into the bar for a pint.
  • Rogue (1339 NW Flanders). This outpost of the Rogue empire is a non-brewing pub, and is the location of the first Portland Brewing brewery (now called MacTarnahan's). You'll find a large selection of Rogue beers and a decent menu. The downside is the cost--pints and plates are quite a bit more money than comparable fare elsewhere. Since Rogue is available in most states, it's a tweener. Go if you love Rogue, but skip it otherwise.
  • Henry's Tavern (10 NW 12th). Henry's takes its name from the brewery that once stood at this location for 150 years--Henry Weinhard's. The building is still there, and it still feels like sacred ground to me. Unfortunately, Henry's is a pretty bland yuppie restaurant. The virtue are the 100 taps, including a large selection of regionals. Like Rogue, though, you pay a lot for the privilege of drinking a pint there.

Places to Avoid
Even in Beervana, not every place is a winner. Your time is valuable, and you shouldn't spend it at these places:
  • Rock Bottom Brewery (206 SW Morrison). Until very recently, Rock Bottom was home to Van Havig, a very talented brewery who was given free reign to follow his bliss so long as he brewed a few of the chain's standards. Until very recently, Rock Bottom wasn't owned by a private-equity firm. But now they are, Van's out, and the beer is mall-ready. Don't bother.
  • Tugboat Brewing (711 SW Ankeny). Tugboat is the polar opposite of Rock Bottom--a funky little hole-in-the-wall that feels like a cross between a beatnik coffeehouse and your best friend's basement rumpus room. It is not without its charms, but beer, sadly, is not among them. It's not much larger than a home-brewery, and the beer is totally unpredictable.


  1. Is Rock Bottom a douchey chain? yes, but don't discredit the beer made by Charlie and Bolt. They are both excellent brewers. That being said, come down to the BeerMongers on Thursday the 14th and meet em. They'll have a Saison and a sour on tap. Woo hoo!.

    On a side note, I think Full Sail is too far from the rest of the breweries listed in your crawl. Granted there's street car (slow) or you could bike...

    Actually the crawl should include Deschutes twice, shouldn't it (joke). Cheers!

  2. You can't (or shouldn't) go to Bailey's and not get cochinita tacos and pastor nachos delivered from Santeria next door. Go to the bathroom while waiting to order and you'll get to take a peek into Mary's too, and then you can check that off your Portland To-Do list.

  3. Angelo, your insistence that Full Sail is too far away is one of the main reasons I was provoked into writing this post. Everyone should go there! I trust beer geeks to successfully make the trip: you're just spoiled into thinking that no brewery should be further than four blocks from the next one.

  4. Dammit, is everyone getting into the pub crawl business now?

    I'm with Angelo, Rock Bottom is a must visit, especially since it's on the way from Full Sail. Just make sure and sit at the bar, because most of the waitstaff is completely clueless about the beer.

    I'm also with Angelo about 2 stops at Deschutes!

    I happen to think a Chernobyl at Tugboat wouldn't kill anyone, and the atmosphere is cool in there.

  5. Bill, my sense is that there's not a single brewery you WOULDN'T recommend. You're very democratic that way.

  6. Stump-Monster Mash11:48 AM, July 07, 2011

    Tourist Tips?!

    Quite a bit of Portland can be covered with public transportation. Tourists and other out of state beer geeks definitely shouldn't restrict their beer Portland journey or pub crawl to just the downtown. A fairly thorough Portland Metro Pub Crawl can be organized and executed just by looking at the online Tri-Met map. A self guided Pub Crawl of all North, East and Downtown can be very cheap with a Tri-Met day pass and a little planning. The concept of a pub crawl service or bus is fun for private parties and the like, but totally unnecessary for the savvy beer geek who knows how to read Tri-Met map and wants to only spend $5 for a pass that covers all public transportation.

    We have many unique Brew pubs and now Distilleries. Many Brew pubs don't have beers in the outside market. Beer Geeks want to check out these places and try those unique beers. Many people, across the country can buy Full Sail, Bridgeport and definitely Widmer. Beer Geeks usually want to focus on beers they "Can only taste here." Based on this concept, Beer Geeks should visit Bailey's Tap House and maybe Deschutes; Then leave the downtown area and head for the North, NE and SE areas. Even a bumbling tourist can figure out how to get to Upright or Hair of the Dog which are just across a bridge.

  7. We have so many great breweries in Portland. There's no sense in sending tourists to corporate beer chains that are here in Oregon. Do you want to promote Oregon Beer or Corporate Crap Beer?

  8. Jeff: I'm probably a little too eager. I can own that criticism.

    One thing I forgot to mention about Rock Bottom is that their cask ales are usually stunning. Heck, you have almost outlined a cask-conditioned pub crawl: the Pilsner Room has 3 engines, Rock Bottom 2, Bailey's usually has one on, and Deschutes has 2 (and Deschutes' setup even has the approval of Ted Sobel, no mean feat).

  9. Great Post Jeff. I have vacationed in Portland about 6 times now, and I have yet to make it out to this neighbourhood. I may have to rectify this on my next visit.

    I stay on East Burnside, and end pretty busy trying to make it to all the SE beer places there.

    Looking forward to your next post!

  10. Two blocks from the Powell's stop to the Pilsner Room? That would be convenient!

  11. Two addenda:

    Higgins has a nice little bar with a bistro menu that serves excellent beer including a cask offering. A greta way to eat a little less expensively but still enjoy excellent beer and food.

    Rogue does not brew at the Flanders pub but does distill rum there.

  12. Excellent article, planning on a Portland beery trip next spring and this is perfect for research/planning purposes,thank you very much.

  13. I agree that the Tugboat beer is undistinguished. So why, as a DT worker, do I end up there more than any of these others? Atmosphere, I guess. Also, it is non-touristy/non-douchey. Wish Bailey's had more atmosphere, frankly.

    Anyway, for those in town for a limited time, this is a good list.

  14. I agree with Angelo. Charlie and Bolt are excellent brewers.

  15. RE:Rockbottom. I hate to see hard working brewers take a hit like that. As some one who has worked with, and is friends with Van, Charlie and Bolt, I'd like to say pass what ever judgment you like on the owners, and if it is what guides your decision making in where you spend your money, I won't deny you that, but I can assure they are all great brewer's, and wonderful, smart, hard working people who put their effort into putting that great beer in front of you, so please take that into consideration. It wasn't clear to me that you based your pan of the place on anything but Van vs. New owners. I know Van has many friends with in the organization as well, ones that he had mentored and sent off to other breweries who are making great beer for RB. I doubt how ever against the ownership he may be,that he would tell you not to support them.maybe I am wrong?

  16. I meant no disrespect to the brewers at Rock Bottom (and Bolt knows I'm a fan). But the point of the post was to offer a selective guide to downtown. Given the riches to be found there, I stick by this recommendation.

  17. RE: Stump-Monster Mash's statement:

    "Many people, across the country can buy Full Sail, Bridgeport and definitely Widmer. Beer Geeks usually want to focus on beers they "Can only taste here.""

    I'll admit that with the exception of the cask beer you're not going to find anything at Bridgeport's pub that you can't find in a bottle, but both Full Sail and Widmer have numerous rotating one-offs that are only available in their pubs. They give out-of-towners an opportunity to see that both breweries offer much, much more than the flagship beers they're known for in the rest of the country.

    Oh, and both of them have much better food menus than 75% of the brewpubs in PDX, and that alone should make them worthy of a visit.

  18. Jeff,
    I understand what you were trying to do with your list. And if you don't want to recomend our place, that's fine. But, "don't bother"? Really?
    Bolt and I are going to do a little "QA/QC" on Friday afternoon--why don't you come down to the brewery?

  19. If you're going to mention Rogue, and I (reservedly) agree you should, you might want to suggest the relatively new PSU / South Park Blocks location. Being on the streetcar line between Full Sail and the Pearl, it's slightly more accessible than the 14th & Flanders location, and it carries most of the same offerings.

  20. Awww, poor Tugboat.

    I love that place. It was the first Portland brewpub I ever went to, visiting friends up here many years ago.

    It is true that sometimes the beer is funky. I pretty much always get Chernobyl -- it's fairly consistent.

    But still! If the beer is funky in a bad way, the vibe is funky in the best way.

    I consistently go there rather than Bailey's, even though they're right next to each other and I know I can get better beer at Bailey's, because the staff and the crowd at Bailey's somehow always make my grubby self feel like a second class citizen, whereas I feel like folks at Tugboat.

    I know that Jeff wouldn't change his un-reccomendation, and I'm not actually even saying he should, but...

    ...but if you're from out of town, before the awesomeness of Bailey's, I say go in Tugboat for a half an hour and have a glass of Chernobyl and talk to some people. Try the nachos. I bet you have a good time.


  21. I am definitely not going to change the recommendation on Tugboat. I think if people are coming to Portland because they've heard we have some of the world's best beer, they should be directed toward it.

    I would love to be proved wrong about Rock Bottom and I will keep my mind very open. For me, this isn't a matter of the skill of the brewer, but the length of the rope RB gives them to brew interesting beer. If you can use this post as fuel to prove me wrong, I'd like nothing better than to eat a big plate of crow--with a side of tasty beer.

  22. I am kind of ashamed of myself for responding to an anonymous blanket statement, but here goes...To the anonymous commenter who charges Rock Bottom of being "corporate," What does that really even mean? Does it feel a cookie cutter TGIFridays or Applebees inside? Sure. However Deschutes is a larger brewery than Rock Bottom and it could at least be stated that Rock Bottom sells more of its beer where it is produced. Deschutes, a terrific brewery, is the 5th largest craft brewery in the USA, selling beer in 18 states, as well as having locations in more than one city. Rock Bottom, as far as I can tell, only operates breweries in 14 state.Deschutes accounts for a huge chunk of Bend's water supply and makes contributions to the Republican campaign but maybe people like their pubs and branding more.Do you realize that Deschutes is far less of a hands on brewhouse than the small Rock Bottom pubs?
    Do you also boycott Widmer, another excellent brewery, because they are tied to Craft Brewers Alliance and InBev, which combined is bigger than all of these?
    Full Sail is a corporation also with more than one location. Further, they brew beer for Miller Coors.
    It amazes me how people pick their battles. Does this commenter make his own clothes, grow his own food, and not use US Currency? If this is the case, I'd recommend not doing a pub crawl unless it is from commune to commune where homebrew made from ingredients grown on site is produced. However, I suppose it is safe to say we are all a little guilty of cognitive dissonance. Just don't knock Charlie and Bolt's beer or act like the other stops on this crawl are less corporate-minded. After all, we live in a capitalist society. You know your clothes was made by kids overseas. *inhale*

    Jeff, regarding a select pub crawl route, I stick to my guns that Full Sail is too far to be included in your proposed crawl. From your stop 1 to stop 2, it is 1.4 miles. That's about a half hour on foot.
    You wrote "Everyone should go there!" I agree. No argument.One of the city's best spots for beer. It's just too far from the rest of the crawl. All of your other proposed crawls look great (especially the Division Street one which, in total from Victory to The BeerMongers, is the same distance as Full Sail to Bailey's).
    "I trust beer geeks to successfully make the trip: you're just spoiled into thinking that no brewery should be further than four blocks from the next one." Damn right I am spoiled.
    By street car - which I don't consider a true crawl since it involves catching a ride - it still, takes about the same time as walking from FS to Baileys. By your argument, if we are spoiled here, why make it difficult? Full Sail on the Riverplace is in fact closer on foot to Hair of the Dog across the river than it is to Bailey's Taproom. *exhale*
    Hope I didn't ruin anyone's day by having a descending view. It's funny how passionate we can get over a pub crawl.