In 1984, Oregon vintner Dick Ponzi tapped Karl Ockert, a graduate in fermentation sciences from UC-Davis, to brew beer. Later that year, in an old rope factory in Portland's Pearl District, Ponzi's Columbia River Brewery unveiled its first batch of designer ale. Oregon's microbrewery revolution was on.
"We didn't know if we'd last three months, three years, or three centuries," Ockert says. "But we knew the public's tastes were changing as we watched the rise in interest for specialty coffees and breads."
Those changing tastes, it seems, were also ready for something new on tap: beer that, unlike its industrial counterpart, is made according to an old-world tradition of malted barley, hops, yeast, and water, with no filler grains or pasteurizing. And while huge brewing operations generally focus on quantity, small breweries can finesse their recipe with different grains, hop types, or malting processes to create signature beers.
Instead of having to settle for beers that were mass-produced and marketed throughout the country, pubgoers had a choice of local handcrafted brews—from golden ales to rich, thick stouts—to satisfy their particular palates.
At Ponzi's brewpub, now called the BridgePort Brewing Company, Ockert still tends lovingly to the process, crafting such colorful and complex offerings as Blue Heron Pale Ale and Black Strap Stout. And he's no longer alone. From Coos Bay to Cave Junction, Astoria to Troutdale, Oregon has become fertile ground for those with a passion for brewing. So much so that many brewpubs have become attractive destinations for fans both in and beyond the Beaver State.
This groundswell in the creation of home-style beer was not possible before 1978. An oversight in the 1933 repeal of Prohibition kept home brewing illegal—until President Jimmy Carter signed legislation that essentially handed a tap to would-be brewmasters across the country, some of whom would expand their basement operations into small independent breweries.
In 1982, Washington became home to the Yakima Brewing and Malting Company, the first craft brewery in the Pacific Northwest as well as the first brewpub since Prohibition. Not surprisingly, Oregon, with rich fields of hops in the Willamette Valley, was close behind. What is surprising is how, after a nationwide frenzy of start-ups and collapses in the mid-to-late '90s, so many Oregon breweries continue to serve a wide range of fine beers. In fact, the state sustains more microbreweries per capita than any place in the country.
"What you find in Oregon are full-flavored beers that have maintained a consistent quality," Ockert says.
This may help explain why Oregon breweries took home six out of the 72 medals bestowed in London at the Brewing Industry International Awards 2002, the Oscars of the beer business.
Like wineries, some breweries have become synonymous with their communities and with their beverage styles. The Full Sail Brewing Company in Hood River, for example, produces seven different beers but is perhaps best known for its richly rewarding amber ale. Topping the charts in Newport is Rogue Ales' hearty Dead Guy Ale, and Portland boasts the Widmer Brothers' highly praised hefeweizen, a Bavarian-style wheat beer.
Well-known restaurateurs Mike and Brian McMenamin have had a longer fermenting history than most microbrewers. Running cafés and pubs in Portland since 1974, the brothers were crafting fine beer by 1986, serving up their full-bodied Ruby Ale and husky Terminator Stout at the Hillsdale Brewery & Public House, the first brewpub to open in Oregon since the repeal of Prohibition. The pair continues to experiment with just about every style, from hopped-up Indian pale ales to dark, malty bocks.
Unlike some of their fellow brewers, the McMenamins did not get involved in distribution. They stuck to renovating historic old structures—theaters, farmhouses, dance halls—and converting them into destinations. Today, a beer enthusiast can down a frosty mug or two at most sites in the McMenamins' empire, an eclectic mix of 52 properties strewn across Oregon and Washington. In the Portland area, the Cosmic Bus Tour whisks visitors to three or four of those sites over the course of a day, regaling them with the history of each facility and, of course, abundant opportunity to imbibe the house specialties.
If a pub crawl seems a bit daunting, consider bellying up to the Oregon Brewers Festival in July in Portland. Now in its 15th year, this three-day celebration of the art is the largest gathering of independent craft brewers in the United States and draws some 80,000 thirsty suds suckers. Admission to the festival is free, though wetting your whistle comes at a nominal fee. Still, as you're sipping a cold one and basking in the summer sun along the Willamette River, you realize it's a small price to pay to support an ongoing revolution.
The beer essentials
What pint works with what plate? The art of pairing beer with a dish is akin to that of matching varietal wines and food. Some guidelines:
Salad: Crisp wheat beers enhance crisp, fresh greens.
Chicken: A pilsner or light ale is mellow enough for most birds. If the bird's been barbecued, consider a porter or pale ale.
Fish: Err on the side of simplicity: Wheat or pilsner complements a mild white fish. Pale or amber ale makes a nice foil for oily fish (salmon or mackerel, say) or smoked catch (trout or salmon).
Pasta: Brown, amber, or pale ales marry well with the acid in tomato sauces; delicate cream sauce holds its own with pilsner; and a smooth wheat beer can take on an herby sauce like pesto.
Beef: Think porter, as in porterhouse steak.
Dessert: Try fruit beers (raspberry or blackberry ale) with dainty pastries. Stouts or imperial stouts and chocolate make good chemistry.
This article was first published in July 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Many brewpubs offer tours of their facilities. Call ahead for times.
BridgePort Brewing Company
1313 NW Marshall St., Portland. (503) 241-7179, www.bridgeportbrew.com.
Deschutes Brewery & Public House
1044 NW Bond St., Bend. (541) 382-9242,www.deschutesbrewery.com.
Full Sail Brewing Company
506 Columbia St., Hood River. (541)&bsnp;386-2281, www.fullsailbrewing.com.
Rogue Ales Brewery
2320 OSU Dr., Newport. (541) 867-3660, www.rogueales.com.
Steelhead Brewing Company
199 E. Fifth Ave., Eugene. (541) 686-2739, www.steelheadbrewery.com.
Widmer Brothers Brewing Company
929 N. Russell St., Portland. (503) 281-2437,www.widmer.com.
Oregon Brewers Festival
July 26-28, Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland. Admission is free. (503) 778-5917,www.oregonbrewfest.com.
Cosmic Bus Tour
offered twice each month. More information: (877) 492-2777, www.mcmenamins.com.
Oregon Brewers Guild
232 SE Oak St., No. 108, Portland. (503) 295-1862, (800) 440-2537, www.oregonbeer.org.