If you ask people to name the Beer Capital of the United States, you will probably get a variety of answers depending what part of the country you are in. But one city that will be brought up basically anywhere you go is Portland, Oregon. What many consider to be the original top beer destination even before the craft boom, the City of Roses is a mecca for those craving delicious brews. Part of what makes this place special is the overall culture that has been adopted by the people of Oregon. Craft beer is a way of life, and people are dedicated to brewing, drinking, and enjoying it.
- Great Notion Brewing
- Cascade Brewing
- Ex Novo Brewing
- Breakside Brewing
“With a passion for hops, and the patience for sours.” With this mantra, Great Notion has surged onto the scene in the beer-packed Portland area. They already operate a 7bbl brewpub and a 30bbl production facility, and according to their website they have plans to open another brewpub later this year. Their logo is 100% perfect for PDX too. A bearded, axe-wielding, flannel-wearing lumberjack stands in front of pine trees grasping his mug of beer. Amazing. And that theme is carried into their taproom, with a very natural, woodsy interior. There are some old saws hanging on the wall, and their flight board is shaped like the state of Oregon. Outside is a wonderful sitting area complete with plenty of greenery. They are still fairly young (about 2 ½ years old) but have grown a huge following. Why? People are obsessed with their bold flavored brews.
Hazy IPAs and Sours are the main calling card here, especially of the fruited variety. Blueberry Muffin was my favorite sour of the trip, and if you like strong flavors it’ll make your list too. It’s as close to sucking on a jolly rancher as you can get while still drinking a beer. Bridging the IPA/Sour gap was Luminous 03, a Fruited Sour IPA. They change up what hops and fruit go into it, and this batch featured strawberries. I double-dipped on the regular Hazy Fruited IPAs with Papaya Mochi and Juice Almighty. Picking the better of the two is basically impossible. The former of course features papaya, and has a somewhat creamy mouthfeel, while the latter swirls a basket of tropical fruits with hints of vanilla to test your palate. Finally, I sampled Double Stack, a monstrous Imperial Breakfast Stout that brings a lot to the table. Maple strikes early and was the strongest, but coffee lingered as well and a slight boozy warmth reminds you of the 11% ABV.
From the branding to the beer, Great Notion is chopping down the competition. It can be tough to stand out in the uber-competitive Portland beer market, but they have managed to carve themselves a spot among the top dogs.
So I mentioned sours above? Well, Cascade is basically the King of Sours in Portland, and arguably the entire region. They are also far and away the oldest brewery I’m writing about in this article, founded in 1998. The location I visited, the Cascade Brewing Barrel House, opened its doors in 2010 and is now THE place to go and try a variety of deliciously tart and sour beers. Originally they brewed more styles, but now have specialized to almost exclusively focusing on barrel-aged sour beers. Speaking of barrels, they are utilized well in the taproom space, with many of them being converted to tables. And on a warm summer day not much can beat sitting out on the covered patio, enjoying the fresh air without the scorching sun. I’d like to note that when I visited they were about to host Bee Fest, a benefit to support urban beekeepers in Portland. Which of course meant serving up sour beers made of honey!
And speaking of those honey sours, Orange Blossom was a tasty delight. Oaky with notes of citrus and sweet honey, it was a complex offering for sure. However, my favorite was Midnight Bramble, which was berry-rific with a twist. Besides red and black raspberries, they throw ginger and thyme into the mix to keep you on your toes. After that, my next two top scorers were Peche Fume 2017 and Sang Royal 2015. They sound more like vintage wines, and in a way, they are close to that. Sang Royal was a Red Ale aged in Pinot Noir and Port wine barrels along with more Pinot Noir grapes. I’ve had grapes in a sour before, but they never stood out like this. And Peche Fume combined cherrywood smoked malt with peaches for an exquisite and thought-provoking taste. To cap off my tasting, I sampled the unique Shiso Sour Red Basil Ale as well as the massive Cherry Bourbonic 2012, a 13.4% ABV Imperial Spiced Porter aged in bourbon barrels. Oh, and they toss in dates, spices, and two different kinds of cherries for added fun!
While it sounds like I made a nice dent at Cascade, they had 25 sours on tap, each more unique than the previous. Part of what I enjoyed about my visit was thoroughly reading the menu to discover what odd ingredients and combinations they were concocting. A must-visit for sour fans!
For those that do not know, once we return home to Milwaukee I will be completing my Master’s of Nonprofit Management and hope to start my own organization in the future. Because of this, I was of course drawn to Ex Novo, Portland’s nonprofit brewery. Opened in 2014, their mission is to donate 100% of their profits to organizations that range from local to global. You can view what organizations they are supporting currently on their website. The taproom, located in the Eliot neighborhood of Portland, is two levels and features the brewery in back. Upstairs looks down on the bar area and is enclosed with windows to provide a view. When the weather cooperates, there is a small patio to enjoy out front. And for those that are hungry, there’s a nice little food menu that includes an entire plate of bacon!
There were several delicious beers at Ex Novo. For starters, Eliot IPA is simply well crafted. Citra, Mosaic, Centennial, and Simcoe hops form a nice harmony to produce this tropical temptation. There were two other big winners on my palate, with Cactus Wins the Lottery! sliding into my sour wheelhouse as a light and tart Berliner Weisse, and Puff Puff Passion Sour IPA melding the previous two styles with big flavors (that did lean more towards sour, but hey, I like that). Not Too Brite, the hazy NEIPA, brings out plenty of mango and pineapple with the more common citrus notes. And for fruit fans, Mango Big or Go Home is just that, a ginormous American Wheat brewed with 300 lbs of mango for an immense taste. Paddy Wagon was a typical Irish Stout (served on nitro), with toasted bread and chocolate coming off the creamy selection.
Even if you don’t care as much as I do about the mission behind this brewery, you definitely should care about the quality of the beer they are serving. Read about who they are backing, and then head over North Flint Avenue for some delicious drinks!
If you ignore Cascade, Breakside is the elder of this group, setting up shop in 2010. Fast-forward to now and they have multiple locations, including the newest addition in the Slabtown District of Northwest Portland. This is where I made my visit, and every beer I sampled was made at that site. Before we jump there though I want to mention that these guys have some accolades. Last year they won Brewery of the Year at the Oregon Beer Awards and the Best of Craft Beer Awards. Not too shabby for a brewery competing in such a hot market. The Slabtown taproom has a slightly modern upscale feel to it. Dark woods, sleek black furniture, high ceilings with a 2nd level that looks down on the main area, and an impressive outdoor patio lead to a fantastic experience. There’s a diverse food menu that includes some high end options, and I also noted that plants hung down from the previously mentioned 2nd level.
Mexican Chocolate Stout. This wonderful brew was my favorite dark beer from my time in Oregon. Coffee, spices, and delicately sweet chocolate pour out of the nose and filled my senses. It’s quite a bit to take in, but well worth it. The other two darlings were both IPAs, but of opposite varieties. Riverside IPA is a West-Coast style, and had a fabulous nose with lemon grass taking the reins. That continued on the tongue with the welcome addition of citrus. Heading to the Northeast (at least in terms of style), Koming Out Party was a Hazy IPA that was especially dank with some light grape sticking out to me. The most interesting beer I had was Herbivore, a Farmhouse Lager with sorrel, sumac, and fennel. I’m not overly familiar with those flavors individually, so it was a different experience for sure.
While I did not have any of what most would consider to be their flagships (Breakside IPA, Passionfruit Sour, Stay West, etc.), I did discover some excellent beers that I would highly recommend. If I get back to Portland I would enjoy checking out their other location in the city.
It was somewhat overwhelming trying to safely cram as many brewery visits as I could into our short stay. The hope (and plan) is to return for a much longer period of time in the future. After diving deep into all the breweries San Diego has to offer this past spring, Portland is another place that you could spend months in and still discover new options. For sports fans, I highly recommend taking in a Portland Timbers game at Providence Park, as the atmosphere can’t be topped. And for the intellectual, pay a visit to Powell’s City of Books, the largest independent bookstore in the world that has multiple levels and takes up a majority of an entire block.
Another road trip article? Yep! This time we cover a little more ground, as we leave Portland and travel East, stretching all the way through Nebraska. For those wondering, Denver will be skipped over as that city deserves its own full write-up!
Current Brewery Count
379 breweries across 165 cities in 37 states. For up-to-date numbers and to track my visits, follow my social media accounts: