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Craft Brewing Defines Oregon as U.S. "Beer Capital"

"What do you have on draught?" I asked the bartender as I wearily lifted myself up onto the barstool after a long day of walking. "Well, we brew all of our own beer here, sir, " he responded proudly as he swiftly handed me a menu with a run-down of all of Ringler’s in-season and year-round beer selections.

Forest Park Pale, I read, "Nice and dry, with refreshing hop character, this Pale Ale is just the thing after a long hike in Forest Park or before a long hike in Forest Park. Or both." Forest Park of course being the largest urban wilderness park in the United States stretching northwest from where I now sat, in the downtown southwest district of America’s unofficial craft brewing capital: Portland, Oregon.

The bartender, who also happened to be the manager, invited me upstairs to view Ringler’s on-site brewing facilities which included an impressive and colorful array of hand-painted brew kettles. I was informed that the brewmaster had left for the day but not to worry, the beer downstairs would be flowing from the taps all weekend.

The craft brewery that I had wandered into was just one of more than 70 brewpubs (a restaurant and brewery on the same premise) and microbreweries in the Portland area. The city is well-known for its grassroots beginnings in home brewing and its now famous selection of microbrewed beers.

"The West has always had an independent spirit," said Eugene Gregg, owner and brewer of Oregon Trader Brewing Company in Albany, Oregon. "Microbrewing emerged off of the mainstream and struck a cord with the mentality of the people here in the Northwest."

The craft brewing industry, though once a way of life for brewmasters and saloon owners, was wiped out by Prohibition in the 1920s, not to emerge again until the early 1980s when a group of entrepreneurial beer lovers with a taste for beer and a head for business began opening small, commercial beermaking enterprises known as microbreweries.

The microbrewery brought much of the old-style tradition of beermaking full circle. Microbrewed beers are once again made with all natural ingredients: malt, hops, and yeast. The beer is produced in small, handcrafted batches according to recipes that are far too costly and time-intensive for huge commercial breweries.

When craft brewing did reemerge, the Pacific Northwest was at the forefront of the movement. Brewpubs and microbreweries began sprouting up throughout the region building the framework for a concentration of microbreweries that stands unmatched in the United States today.

"You would expect Los Angeles to be on top of the craft brewing industry out West, but I’ve found that Los Angeles doesn’t brew to inspire the population. Up here, it’s every other pub," said Todd Bryant Mercer, author of Bike and Brew America. "Here the beers are big. Here the beers are unfiltered and unique."

Portland, more than any other city in the country, has taken its demand for great quality brews and instilled it into the city’s culture.

"People from Portland like good quality things-strawberries, tomatoes, beer, cheese. They like lots of things but they have to be good quality," said beer personality and author Fred Eckhardt, who lives and writes in Portland. "Lots of other brewers are so mundane. You know, Budweiser is trying to be the best brewer in the world, but if you try to please everybody, you end up not pleasing anybody. That’s what we’re working on, the ’anybody.’"

It was in Portland that Oregon’s first microbrewery was opened. Chuck Coury started Cartwright Brewing Company in 1980 at 617 S.E. Main Street. The brewery lasted only two years-the beer wasn’t great and the bottling was downright poor-but the response from Portland was enthusiastic. "The public forgave the beer’s taste because they so much wanted a microbrewery in Oregon to work," said Nancy Ponzi, one of the founders of the Oregon Brewers Festival.

BridgePort Brewing Company was the next microbrewery to enter the Portland market, and is still very much alive today. Billed as "Oregon’s oldest microbrewery," the brewery was started by Dick and Nancy Ponzi at 1313 N.W. Marshall Street. The two used word of mouth to invite people in, since microbrews still were so new to the general consumer. "People were so intrigued with the idea that they overlooked our clutziness," explained Nancy.

The idea of microbreweries began to catch on in Oregon, and so did the cooperative spirit. Brewers began working together to change the laws to allow the concept of a brewpub, citing that it was no different from having a tasting room in a winery.

Oregon legislature viewed microbrewing as a homegrown industry that needed the help; thus, in 1985, the law changed. That same year, Mike and Brian McMenamin opened Oregon’s first brewpub, the Hillsdale Pub.

The McMenamin Brothers
The McMenamin Brothers stand as a symbol for all that sets Portland and the Northwest apart from other areas as unique in its craft brewing culture.

McMenamins Pubs & Breweries seem to have a knack for resuscitating aging properties. The company has gained widespread acclaim for its creative revitalization of funky, and often historical, buildings in Oregon, and more recently in the state of Washington.

Their Northwest establishments include family-oriented pubs, breweries, music venues, historic hotels, theatre pubs, and movie pubs. Employing scores of artists as well as imaginative construction and restoration experts, the McMenamins have breathed new life into long-dead properties, creating unique McMenamin "experiences." Colossal Edgefield Manor, in Troutdale, Oregon-which features a 100-room inn, bed-and-breakfast, dining room, brew pub, winery, and theater-is just one example of the McMenamins’ singular style and spirit for restoration.

"The bottom line is, it has to be fun," Brian McMenamin said, explaining the company’s motivation.

Pioneers in changing state liquor laws that cleared the way for Oregon’s first brewpubs, the McMenamins have never been shy about experimenting with new concepts. The brothers have taken the neighborhood pub to a new level by building on an Oregon law that allows one brewpub to brew for up to three separate outlets. Applying the simple strategy of brewing and distributing its own beers, the brothers have scattered some 55 pubs across the city and the Northwest, employing over 800 people.

McMenamin establishments, with their bizarre artifacts, awe-inspiring artwork, classic architecture, and home-crafted beers pay tribute to the uniqueness of the craftbrewing culture in the northwest.

Oregon Brewers Festival
It is fitting that Portland is home to what is considered by many industry experts and beer fans alike to be the finest craft beer festival in the nation. The Oregon Brewers Festival celebrates the growth of North American microbrewing and highlights the distinctive craft brewing culture that surrounds the festival’s native Portland.

Nearly 85,000 people attend the Oregon Brewers Festival each year. The festival celebrates the growth of North American microbrewing while showcasing some of the finest beers in the industry.

Always held the last full weekend in July, the Oregon Brewers Festival prides itself on promoting regional and national brews, and features breweries from Alaska, New Jersey, Hawaii, Missouri, Illinois, and 12 other states, as well as Vancouver, British Columbia.

Each year, 72 of the nation’s premium craft breweries are invited to participate in this event. The festival is designed to promote independent brewers in an educational fashion.

It is not a competition, but an opportunity for brewers to showcase their beers in a fun atmosphere. Beer is the focus, with many of the classic beer styles represented, including fruity ales, potent bocks, rich porters, formidable stouts, hoppy pale ales, flowery pilsners, and syrupy barley wines.

Two great pavilions shelter lines of eager beer-tasters who line up for a taste or full mug of their favorite microbrew from one of six huge trucks each supplying 12 different brews.

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Oregon Brewers Festival
There’s plenty of brew to go around for the thousands of beer drinkers and beer enthusiasts that flock to the Oregon Brewers Festival each year. Shown here, a vendor pours beer into the official, 14-ounce festival mug that all beer-drinking patrons must purchase upon entering the festival.

Live entertainment music supplies the background soundtrack for the festival though the patrons themselves add a bit of flavor to the atmosphere. Periodically throughout the day, the festival grounds are graced by the roaring shouts and raucous yelps of beer drinkers proclaiming themselves as such, adding to the already festive feel in the air.

The Oregon Brewers Festival is an excellent opportunity to sample and learn about a variety of beer styles. The educational tent presented on the festival grounds allows visitors to learn more about beer through industry exhibits by hop growers, maltsters, and national beer writers.

Andrew Jones

National Geographic - 10 August 2001
 
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