Hot! Beer Cities: Portland

A Hop Ahead of the Next Beer Trend

I’ve been to some of the great beer cities of the world, toured breweries big and small, sampled the wares, and attended the beer fests. It’s no secret. I’m a gal who likes beer. Over the next few days I’m profiling four U.S. beer cities: from East Coast to West, start up to centuries old. Each is as much about bringing its own regional culture to beer and its social aspects as it is about creating drafts that uniquely identify its city’s place in the world.

A zwickel is a “nipple” or “sampling cock” on a tank or barrel of fermenting ale, but in the Beer City of Portland, Oregon no one so much as giggles at this phrase. Instead, 15 people stand outside Hopworks Urban Brewery on a brisk but sunny February morning to sip from the brewer’s zwickels. This scene is being repeated at more than 50 craft breweries around the state on the third running of Zwickelmania.

Oregon has been a beer state for as long as I can remember. Like the compulsion to sort your recycling and vote against a sales tax, an appreciation for beer is genetically imprinted on all Oregonians. Anyone who doubts this just needs to view this classic commercial from the 70s. Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve was microbrew before anyone really knew what that meant.

Sadly “Hank’s” is gone now, but in its place are more than 100 craft breweries scattered around the state. There are 30 alone in Portland – more than any other city in the world! On any given weekend, Portlanders can find a beer event. This is a sought after tipping point for any beer city. There is no need for a Portland Beer Week because every week is filled with festivals, tastings, dinners, brewer presentations, and general beer merriment.

Of course, there are other cities that regularly celebrate beer no matter what the week. What has defined Portland as a beer city is that it continues to lead the way experimenting and defining beer styles. Oregon is the second largest hop growing state in the U.S. so it’s only natural that its beers make the most of this locally available ingredient.

While the trend of hop-heavy beers dominated the market last year, it was old hat for Oregon. With so many brewers in a single state, competition is fierce. Everyone is pushing the envelope and developing niches. Zwickelmania was a chance to sample what the next trend may be.

Cascade Barrel House specializes in sour beers. Using oak wine barrels and focusing on small batches, the brewers at Cascade have created their own unique Northwest Sour style of beer. The results are a distinctly different flavor profile that probably isn’t ready for mainstream but is long-awaited for beer lovers tired of “hop bombs.” Sour beers take months – even years to ferment, but Cascade keeps a steady flow of new batches on taps. These styles can be anything from “bourbon infused smooth” to “Sour Patch Kid sweet and sour.”

Over at Upright Brewing, the beer makers are using a special saison yeast and open fermentation that puts an Oregon twist on old European styles. The beers taste more traditional here but with a certain terrior. Brewer and owner Alex Ganum pours a pilsner that is as yellow as straw. As I clink glasses with the friends I have met on the zwickle circuit and sip this oddly colored beer, it becomes a fitting toast to an equally odd sunny day in this pioneering Beer City.

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