For beer geeks, Portland, Oregon, is the promised land. The town has been nicknamed “Beervana” for good reason: It contains 30-plus microbreweries—the most per capita of any city in the U.S. At most local bars, Budweiser is a bad memory. “Our beer drinkers prefer drinking locally,” explains Van Havig, senior brewer at Rock Bottom Brewing. “Craft won here.”
And craft fans’ Super Bowl is the Oregon Brewers Festival, held during the last weekend of July. This year’s edition—hosted on the grassy, dusty expanse of the Willamette River–hugging Tom McCall park—offered 73 beers: half from Oregon, half from outside breweries, encompassing pilsners and mahogany-colored porters. Pockets bulging with wooden tokens (one buys a three-ounce sample; four equals a full glass) and plastic mug in hand, I hit the OBF thirsty.
Since hoppy India Pale Ales are Oregonians’ preferred potion, I started with Eugene City Brewery’s 100 Meter Ale. The caramel-hued brew’s sweet maltiness balances the hoppy blast, resulting in a delicious mineral tang. I sampled it twice, before grabbing a Copacetic IPA from Portland’s Amnesia Brewing. The pleasingly bitter blend is grassy, smooth, and eminently drinkable. Best in small doses is Portland-based Bridgeport Brewing’s Hop Czar. It is insanely piney, redolent of freshly plucked high-grade marijuana (or so I’m told). After each weedy sip, I half expected a cop to cuff me. The fest’s most innovative concoction was Roots Organic’s Calypso. The Portland brewery’s ale is manufactured with apricots and incendiary Scotch bonnet peppers, producing a light, fruity beer with a peppery nose and serious burn.
Not all my favorites hailed from Oregon. Pliny the Elder, from California’s Russian River Brewing, is a hops behemoth that registers a knockout 8 percent alcohol (the average Bud is 5 percent). But alcohol doesn’t overpower the creamy, resinous flavor and delicate grapefruit notes. “Want a full cup?” the beer-pouring volunteer asked, sensing my delight. I happily forked over four more tokens.
Also mug-worthy is the Coffee Bender from Minnesota’s Surly Brewing. The chocolaty hybrid of brown ale and porter is infused with cold-pressed coffee, creating a smooth java flavor without the bitterness plaguing most beer-coffee concoctions. It would fit right in at a hedonist’s breakfast table.
More dessert-like is Dragon’s Milk from Michigan’s Holland Brewing Company. The burly strong ale is aged in oak barrels, resulting in a complex blend of vanilla, caramel, oak, and cocoa leading to a stomach-warming alcohol burn. It’s a wintery treat more in tune with Portland’s rainy season than the clear-sky day when I tried it.
By Sunday afternoon, I’d reached my limit. As some of the record-setting 70,000-plus attendees streamed past, I approached Art Larrance, who cofounded the fizzy celebration in 1988, to share my impressions. On cue, festivalgoers hoisted plastic mugs and unleashed a loud, rumbling cheer. “That’s organic,” Larrance said. “That’s a spontaneous expression of joy for beer.”