Beer is best at the brewery," an old saying goes, and if you are a believer, as I am, then the revival of the small craft brewery in the United States and Canada has been most welcome.

These local breweries, many of them quite new, are bringing back wonderfully fresh beer to match Europe's best -- and perhaps nowhere so industrially as in the Pacific Northwest, where almost a score of "microbrewers" (as they style themselves) has become something of a tourist attraction.

Oregon, Washington and British Columbia now claim roughly half of the continent's specialty breweries. A grand-loop auto tour of this fertile band of beery country will take you to three of the most attractive cities on the continent -- Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C. -- across inland seas by auto ferry, over glaciated mountain ranges and moonscape deserts and through moss-draped conifer forests.

Most of the micros brew ale in the British style. Genuine ale is fruity, tangy and richer in flavor than the more familiar lager beer. And like their British cousin, most of the Northwest ales are available only on draught -- you'll find them only in pubs, taverns and restaurants. In many cases you can bring a container and have it filled at the bar "to go." The draught-only availability almost guarantees you'll meet some interesting people -- the following the local brews have generated is large and varied.

The local brews are well suited to the Pacific Northwest's mild, often rainy climate, which lends an almost Albionesque mood to the countryside. The regional cuisine is also noteworthy: The emphasis is on the bountiful fresh local seafood and produce.

A beer-lover's Northwest odyssey best begins in Seattle, a vibrant city of splendid mountain and sea vistas that is at the brewing industry's geographical center. There are more than a score of microbrews sold here, and nearly as many breweries are within a day's driving radius.

Catch the views, of course; but serious tasters who want to sample a variety of local ales before embarking on the brewery tour will head for Murphy's Pub, 2110 N. 45th St., near the University of Washington, where 11 local draughts are poured. Murphy's offers congenial Irish pub ambience -- it's a fine spot for an evening of live folk music and sampling ale, but the food is limited to snacks and pas- ties (British-style meat pies). A better bet for dinner nearby is the Santa Fe Cafe', 2255 NE 65th St., a restaurant that serves up an intriguing combination: New Mexico fare (a cousin of Mexican food but actually derived from Pueblo Indian cooking) and six Northwest draughts. The ales complement the chili-spiced dishes beautifully.

The Redhook Ale brewery, a 10-minute drive from Murphy's in the Ballard district, is the first brewery stop. It offers organized tours every Saturday with sampling, and on other days by appointment. One of the oldest and largest Northwest micros, it features an unusual copper brewing vessel brought over from Germany. Only one other brewery (in Vancouver) has a formal tour, but all welcome visitors who write or phone ahead.

Downtown at the Pike Place Market -- the city's lively open-air produce and fresh-meats market -- the Place Pigalle restaurant serves several draughts and a stunning view along with good regional-style meals.

Nearby, the Mark Tobey Pub, 90 Madison St., serves eight brews and upscale pub-grub fare to a dressed-for-success crowd. On a warm day you might see groups of professionals gathered here enjoying tall glasses of Wheaten Ale, a German-style weizenbier (wheat beer) that is a flavorful and refreshing summertime drink. It's served with a slice of lemon on the glass, a tradition that enhances the brew's subtle but quenching tartness.

Two blocks from the Mark Tobey, the Seattle ferry terminal becomes the starting point for a 1,200-mile grand loop tour that will take the traveler to 15 breweries, beginning with Bainbridge Island, Wash., then south to Portland, Ore., east to Yakima and Colville in eastern Washington, westward to Vancouver and Vancouver Island, B.C., and finally returning to Seattle. Allow five or six days for the full tour, more if side trips are planned.

The pleasant half-hour ferry ride across Puget Sound to Winslow puts you a few minutes from Kemper Brewing Co. Kemper brews an interesting pale lager with a fruity character a well as a traditional dark mu nchener (Munich-style) type.

From Kemper Brewing, take Route 305 across a small bridge to Route 3 at Poulsbo, and turn south toward Bremerton and Tacoma -- about 40 miles from Winslow. Tacoma, known as "The City of Destiny," is notable for some fine Victorian homes and Point Defiance Park, with spectacular marine views and old growth Douglas fir giants.

Take I-5 south for the 100-mile drive from Tacoma to Kalama, a small town on the Columbia River that is home to Hart Brewing Co. This is a true mom-and-pop brewery, located in an old general store. Tom Baune handles the brewing chores, while his wife Beth Hartwell takes care of the business and marketing tasks.

Hart brews two exemplary ales (Pyramid Pale Ale and Wheaten Ale) in a tall copper kettle nicknamed "The Tin Man" because of its conical top. Tours are informal and usually conducted by the brewmaster himself, who essentially runs the brewery unassisted.

Portland, Ore., a 40-mile drive south from Kalama, is rapidly shaping up as a sort of Munich-on-the-Willamette. With two micros and a brewpub (a pub that brews its own beer mainly for consumption on the premises), and a third micro abuilding, Portland is the busiest brewing city in the Northwest.

Columbia River Brewing Co. makes three ales under the BridgePort banner, and was founded by veteran winemaker Dick Ponzi (of Ponzi Vineyards in nearby Beaverton). Just two blocks away, Widmer Brewing makes the only German-style altbier in the Northwest (as well as several other Teutonic specialties). Alt, or "old," beer is a tawny brew, similar to an ale, that is native to Du sseldorf. Brothers Kurt and Rob Widmer own and operate the brewery, and their father Ray helps out, making this a true family brewery.

A few blocks away Portland Brewing Co. is taking shape, with plans to make two Yakima Brewing Co. ales under license as well as its own recipes.

The Hillsdale Brewpub is making some very unusual specialties as well as more conventional brews. Owner Mike McMenamin plans to make fruit- and herb-flavored ales for sale only at the pub.

Two other Portland pubs worth visiting are the Horse Brass, 4534 SE Belmont St., and Produce Row Cafe', 204 SE Oak St. The Horse Brass is a pretty fair re-creation of an English pub, and it does a good job with pub food and local ales (beware of tobacco smoke, though). Produce Row has a nice little beer garden for clear weather and a menu of hot and cold sandwiches.

The next section of the tour, through eastern Washington, has the most varied scenery and is also the longest, but it's well worth the effort even though only two breweries are visited.

The route from Portland is east through the Columbia Gorge. I-84 will get you there fast, but Route 14 on the Washington side (north) of the river offers better vistas of the water. At Maryhill, Wash., 100 miles east of Portland, turn north on U.S. Route 97. (There is a rather bizarre "replica" of Stonehenge by the river at Maryhill, as well as the Maryhill Museum.)

On the 80-mile trip to Yakima, the road passes through the arid high country of the Yakima Indian Reservation and the Yakima Valley, where one-fourth of the world's hops -- which provide the bitter and aromatic flavoring in beer -- are grown. The hop vines wind up lines strung from overhead grids of wires before they are harvested in September.

Yakima Brewing & Malting Co. in downtown Yakima, begun in 1982, occupies a building that was originally an opera house and later (from 1905-1915) housed a brewery and saloon. Now there's a cozy oak-paneled pub where the saloon once was, next door to the present-day brewhouse where Grant's ales are made. The Brewery Pub often has special brews not sold anywhere else; owner Bert Grant's stained-glass work decorates both the pub and brewhouse. (The Yakima Valley is perhaps best known as the hub of Washington's burgeoning wine industry. Some 40 wineries call the 80-mile-long irrigated valley home and most offer tours and tastings.)

One of the better dining spots east of the Cascade Mountains is located a couple of miles east of Yakima on Birchfield Road. The Birchfield Manor offers formal, seven-course prix-fixe dinners ($22.50 per person) only on weekends (reservations, 509-452-1960) in an early 1900s residence. El Ranchito in Zillah, about 20 miles southeast of Yakima off I-82, is an inexpensive Mexican place with a near-cult following.

Eastern Washington's other brewery is Hale's Ales in Colville. The temptation to forgo this one may arise when it is discovered to be 260 miles from Yakima via I-90 and Spokane, but Colville is in one of the most scenic and unspoiled parts of the Northwest, and the trip via U.S. Route 97 and State Route 20 is extremely rewarding. Follow Route 97 north to Tonasket, then go east on Route 20 through rolling hills, pastoral farmland and tamarack forests, seemingly a million miles from shopping malls and billboards.

Hale's Ales is notable for producing some of the most British-tasting ales in the region (a distinction shared with Spinnakers Brewpub in Victoria). Colville is a long way from Hale's main markets in the Puget Sound area, but there are pockets of Haleophiles in eastern Washington and Idaho as well as "out on the coast," as they say here. After a look around you'll begin to realize why founder Mike Hale chose to brew here rather than move to a more urban locality.

Options for returning westward from Colville include the North Cascades Highway (Route 20 again, including its spectacular western alpine segment). The road is closed from midautumn through midspring, but Route 3 through British Columbia is a fine alternative.

Of several possible border crossing routes, U.S. Route 395 and U.S. Route 97 are the easiest. Route 3 traverses Manning Provincial Park and at Hope joins the Trans-Canada Highway, which follows the Fraser River Valley westward to Vancouver. From Colville, it's a healthy day's drive to Vancouver (about 400 miles) with many scenic rewards.

Two breweries are located among the sprawling suburbs south and east of Vancouver. Bryant's Brewery in Maple Ridge is reached via B.C. Route 7, which meets the Trans-Canada some 23 miles west of Hope. Bryant's brews only a light ale at present but is experimenting with a lager in hopes of finding a wider market.

The other of the two breweries, Mountain Ales, is reached by taking the free ferry across the Fraser River to Ft. Langley and going west on Route 10 a few miles to Surrey. Mountain exports its Premium Ale brand to the Seattle area and is the only Canadian micro now doing so. Mountain Premium and Mountain Malt, the other ales it brews, are more easily found north of the border than south, however. Mountain is also gearing up to put its ale in bottles.

The Northwest's largest micro is Granville Island Brewing Co., situated near the center of Vancouver directly under the Granville Bridge. It brews and bottles two excellent German-style lagers for sale at the brewery retail store. The pilsener-style Island Lager is sold year-round, while Island Bock is a winter holiday and springtime brew. The brewery, visible from the store and tasting room, is very high-tech and quite impressive -- all gleaming stainless steel and tile. Formal tours are held every afternoon, seven days a week.

The "island" the brewery is on, actually a peninsula, has a new public market and all manner of shops, restaurants and hotels. The city is especially rich in ethnic restaurants -- take a walk down Robson Street and you'll pass literally dozens of them in a stretch a few blocks long. Or visit Chinatown, one of the largest such enclaves in North America. Stanley Park, a large urban park adjacent to downtown Vancouver, is another popular attraction, and Expo 86, opening May 2, promises to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors next summer.

From Stanley Park, it's a short drive across the Lion's Gate Bridge to Horseshoe Bay, where the Troller Pub became the first brewpub on the continent in 1982. There are some spectacular views of the city and the Strait of Georgia from the highway en route. The pub is a lively spot, and the house ales (the brewery is located a few hundred yards away -- there are usually three brews on tap) are quite distinctive, though Bay Ale, the original, is still the best.

The ferry to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island from Horseshoe Bay offers more superb panoramas -- the town of Horseshoe Bay clinging to the hillside, Howe Sound, ringed with mountain peaks, the Strait of Georgia and the island's mountain ranges. The highway from Nanaimo to Victoria has some fine views overlooking Saanich Inlet, too.

For a city that considers itself the most British in North America, Victoria has an inexplicable dearth of neighborhood pubs. So much the better, then, that Spinnakers is so authentic in both ambience and the character of the beer: All of the house brews are dispensed by traditional handpumps called beer engines, at the moderate temperatures and subtle carbonation levels beloved of Britons. The fare, happily, is much less rigidly traditional, but just as successful as the ales. The halibut fish and chips may be the best anywhere -- the fish is fried in a special batter made from surplus yeast from the brewery, and the huge fries are crisp, yet fluffy inside.

Special, seasonal and one-time-only experimental brews are often dispensed directly from "pins," small barrels set up on the back bar. The pub has a fine view of the harbor, downtown Victoria, the Juan de Fuca Strait and Washington's Olympic range. The whole thing adds up to the most satisfying pub, beer and food experience in the Northwest, in itself well worth the trip to Victoria.

Island Pacific Brewing Co., located in an industrial estate just north of Victoria, is an ambitious brewery offering a more distinctive draught beer than the Canadian "big three" -- Molson, Carling, Labatt. A German brewmaster has lately come on board, so some recent technical problems should soon be ironed out. The beer is served at Spinnakers.

Two ferries serve the mainland from the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria, but the Canadian one to Tsawwassen is the better value, while the Washington State ferry is the more direct (but runs only once a day versus seven to 15 times for the Canadian boat). Both are scenic routes through the Gulf Islands/San Juan Islands archipelago.

If the Tsawwassen route is chosen, a final scenic drive south via Washington Route 9 is a worthwhile alternative to the monotony of I-5. Cross the border at Blaine and go east through Lynden, following Route 546 to Route 9 just south of Sumas. The highway winds lazily through western Washington's bucolic farmlands.

One last brewery remains: tiny Ku fnerbra u in Monroe (take U.S. Route 2 east near Snohomish). The Kuefners hand-bottle all of their production in their storefront brewery. Robert Kuefner, who learned brewing in Bavaria, enthusiastically explains the origins of his Old Bavarian Style Beer at considerable length to callers. By whatever yardstick, it is a most distinctive product.

Route 522 into Seattle passes Cooper's Alehouse, 8065 Lake City Way NE, just inside the city limits. With 18 brews on tap, it's the perfect place to unwind and reflect on your expedition. And, before long, there'll be a whole new array of beers to sample and breweries to visit . . . next time, how about a bicycle brewery tour?