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Smart Mouth: In Portland, Ore., craft brewing reaches new heights

By Remy Scalza,

It’s no secret that Portland, Ore., is the center of the craft beer universe. In the late 1980s, when most drinkers were still chugging light beers and lapping up the antics of Spuds MacKenzie, Portland brewmeisters were turning out flavorful artisan suds modeled after European exemplars. Fast-forward a quarter-century, and craft beer culture has gone global. Fizzy yellow beers are positively passe, and even casual drinkers these days know their IPAs from their hefs and pilsners.

Yet Portland remains in a league of its own, pushing craft brewing to new, hoppy and occasionally weird heights. For tippling travelers and beer snobs, it’s a liquid Shangri-La.

And the vanguard of Portland’s craft brewing scene may well be the Central Eastside. Well off the tourist map, the gritty ’hood sits across the Willamette River from downtown Portland. Here, railroad tracks and buzzing interstates give way to a post-industrial panorama: block after block of aging factories, brick warehouses and auto-repair shops. Yet in recent years, vintage boutiques, cafes and brew pubs have begun popping up, the advance guard of a wave of urban renewal. For thirsty locals (and intrepid travelers), the Central Eastside is fast becoming the place to sample cutting-edge brews.

My first stop is the Cascade Brewing Barrel House, on busy Belmont Street in the industrial heart of the Eastside. On a sunny afternoon, dozens of bicycles are locked to the patio railing — a clear vote of approval from Portland’s bike-riding, beer-swilling hipsters. I make my way through the beer garden out front and into the barrel house, where no fewer than 23 house beers are on tap, from hoppy IPAs to farmhouse-style saisons and straw-colored pilsners.

But I’ve come for something really special: the sours. Sour beers may well represent the final frontier of craft brewing. Popularized in Belgium, these beers are traditionally brewed with live lactobacillus cultures, the same bacteria used in yogurt. This imparts a tangy, tart taste, unlike that for any other beer out there. Sours are also notoriously difficult to get right, taking months to ferment and sometimes years to mature.

Cascade has the process down to a science. I pull up a stool to an oversize barrel doubling as a table to sample the menacingly named Cherry Bourbonic Plague. The brewmeisters at Cascade start with a recycled bourbon barrel, aging the beer in it for six months. Then they throw in some sour pie cherries for good measure and leave it for another two years.

The result? Well, there’s a reason it’s called a sour. But once you move beyond the tart attack, it’s all dark cherries, dates and oak dancing on the palate, with a bourbon-flavored finish. Initiated, I dive deeper into sour country, sampling wheat beer styles and exotic variants with honey, ginger and lime. Be forewarned: Because they’re aged, sours pack a punch. But the handy to-go growlers and grenades at Cascade make it easy to grab one more for the road.

Properly puckered, I plunge back into the Eastside afternoon, skirting a vacant lot grown tall with weeds, then hanging a sharp right to reach Green Dragon, another craft beer mecca. A rambling complex embracing a beer garden hung with paper lanterns, a rustic warehouse-cum-bar and a brewery, Green Dragon takes up nearly half a city block. At happy hour, it’s packed and boisterous, bearded drinkers jammed elbow to elbow at picnic tables, downing pints and scarfing discounted bratwursts, sliders and other pub fare. Mounted above the bar, a cow head in a Mexican wrestling mask presides over the chaos.

In typical Portland fashion, Green Dragon has no fewer than 50 craft beers from around the city and the world on tap, with such usual suspects as Rogue, Lagunitas and Blanche de Chambly well represented. What catches my eye, however, are the unique house beers, cooked up on-site at Buckman Botanical Brewery. There’s the chamomile-infused Chamomellow and an exceptional ginger beer, but the piece de resistance is a brew straight out of the history books: mead. Technically not a beer, mead is a fermented mixture of honey and water flavored with spices, fruit and hops. Buckman updates the ancient classic — the granddaddy of all fermented drinks — with a hint of green tea. Thick and earthy, it’s not your typical pint, but suffice it to say that those Greeks were on to something.

Getting my sea legs, I march out into the warm Portland evening. Before my final stop, I need a little sustenance. And like so many drinkers before me, I’ve got just one destination in mind: Cartopia. An Eastside version of Portland’s famed food cart pods, Cartopia resembles a ramshackle gypsy encampment. Beat-up food trucks huddle around picnic tables strung with Christmas lights on the corner of busy Hawthorne Boulevard.

Open until 3 a.m., Cartopia makes a killing catering to locals with a serious case of the munchies. This being Portland, however, we’re not talking typical burger-and-fries fare. I wander past vendors hawking shrimp po’ boys, wood-fired pizzas, Quebec-style poutine and sweet and savory crepes before settling on a local favorite, Whiffies Pies. Taking the humble meat pie to new heights, Whiffies offers deep-fried versions stuffed with mac-and-cheese, Mounds bars and other artery-unfriendly ingredients. I sample one too many but come nowhere near the official record scrawled on the menu board: 11 pies in one hour.

Last stop is a true Eastside institution. Opened in 1993 in a derelict ice machine factory, Hair of the Dog was among the neighborhood’s first breweries and has carved out a unique niche in Portland’s craft brewing pantheon. Its specialty: a class of truly rarefied beers that, like fine wine, get better with age. Its barrel-aged brews spend from six months to eight years inside oak casks — both new ones and retired wine and spirits barrels. Meanwhile, bottle-conditioned beers are stored in 12-ounce bottles, in some cases for up to a decade or longer, before being cracked open.

A freight train rumbles by as I duck into Hair of the Dog and pony up to the U-shaped bar. The beer menu lists vintage bottles dating to the mid-1990s, including a 1994 porter for a whopping $75. I opt instead for the Walk of the Dog, a tasting flight of some of the brewery’s drafts.

The highlight is named Fred: a deep golden ale made with 10 types of hops, rye malts and Belgian candi sugar. At 10 percent alcohol, however, it’s one serious nightcap. I make my way to the front of the bar, where a pair of garage doors are thrown open to the warm night. Across the Willamette River, the lights of downtown swim in the distance. Bearded hipsters in trucker hats are streaming in on road bikes. Inside, beer nerds are talking shop, snapping cellphone shots of strawberry-blonde IPAs and seductively dark stouts as if they were centerfolds. Someone’s shirt reads, “I don’t get drunk. I get awesome.”

Only in Portland.

Scalza is a travel journalist and photographer based in Vancouver, Canada. His Web site is www.
remyscalza.com.

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