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Monday, August 13, 2012

Meet the New(ish) Brewery: Occidental

Of all the units of human population, cities are the most interesting.  The size of countries makes them fuzzy examples of personality; states and provinces are often random.  But cities can't help but have their own personality.  Think of Houston, San Antonio, and Austin in Texas or Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania.  If you wanted to get a distilled sense of the Rose City, heading to St Johns would be a great place to start.  It is in the upper northwest corner of the city, sealed off on three sides by the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers and the fourth by a deep, wooded rail track ("the cut" to locals).  Much like Oregon itself, if you find yourself in St Johns, it's because you wanted to be there.  It's not on the way to anything, and it's pretty far from everything else.  The feel of St Johns is preserved by these natural features and nurtured by the loyal residents, many of whom go back generations.  Portland has long since ceased to be a working city and "stumptown" now refers to coffee, not logging.  But in St Johns, where heavy equipment bumps and rumbles its way along the main artery of Lombard, you feel the older city.

As such, St Johns runs 20-25 years behind the rest of Portland.  It took until the second decade of the new millennium for St Johns to get its first brewery, but now it has one--Occidental.  I have been very remiss in making it out to see the brewery and even now I can only offer half a report.  I didn't tour the place or speak at length with Ben Engler, the mastermind behind the beers there. (I chatted him, incognito, from the bar.)

In addition to its rare location, Occidental also occupies a rare space in the Portland brewing world: German beers.  At the moment, that mainly means German ales (a kolsch, alt, weizen and a kind of cheater dunkel), but I was super impressed with the kellerbier they served at the Oregon Brewers Festival--the best beer I tasted at the fest.  Eventually, with expanded capacity, I hope to see more lagers.  And I do wonder if a kellerbier might be exactly the crossover IPA fans need.  It's cloudy and a bit rustic but bright with--in this case--tangy Tettnanger hops.  It had the crispness you want in a lager, but there's something familiar in those hazy depths.

It's a production brewery with a taproom, and as with so much in St John's, the place really isn't geared toward tourist traffic.  It's off Willamette, in that stretch beyond the bridge where it's a leafy neighborhood street.  You dive down Baltimore toward the river and find it in a little industrial block.  The interior looks like what it is--a brewery--but it's the homey kind of place regulars haunt.  I enjoyed myself talking to guys who'd just gotten off work.  When you're standing outside the building, you look up and see the graceful lines of the city's prettiest bridge.

The beer is impressive--though Engler's working in a muted palate of styles.  The alt is bready and a bit chewier than some examples, and more balanced.  (For a contrast, try the Widmer's very sharp, light-bodied example.)  The kolsch is delicate and balanced--a traditional take and an excellent one.  I took a growler of it to go.  I can't speak to the weizen or dunkles, but since I have a friend whose recently moved (back) to the Johns, I plan to check those out soon.  Go give them a look.

The pints are honest (.5 L) and the bar is covered with caps


  1. They are making some great beer and this comes from someone who typically is not a fan of German style beers. I've enjoyed myself during each visit to the taproom and look forward to taking some out of town visitors there later this week.

  2. Word. Great brews coming out of this spot, and excellent branding to boot.

  3. I've never been to St Johns or Occidental; my loss.

    Columbus - Summer Teeth [Kellerbier] Lager was the beery highlight of my 05 week in Columbus, Ohio, last summer. I have not had the opportunity to have a Kellerbier / Zwickel Bier since. I would welcome the opportunity.

  4. I've been there a couple of times and I love their beers. I'm a hophead, but they provide a very tasty alternative, and I've had a great time talking to people when sitting at the bar. During the spring, I'll attend a University of Portland baseball game, then head over to Occidental afterwards.

  5. Hope their beer is better than the quality of the beer those bottle caps represent!

  6. whose? who's...?
    sorry, picking nits.