Oregon is a deceptively large state. Its so big that when taking a roadtrip with your wife hellbent on seeing as much of the state as possible, you will likely be in a car for a very, very long time. Things are really far apart and due to the existence of things like mountains, you are rarely able to take the most direct route between point A and point B; you are ALWAYS going around.
So its a good thing that there’s craft beer literally everywhere in the Beaver State (do people actually call it that?). You could get horrendously lost and still stumble upon a brewery of some kind and there’s a pretty good shot that it’ll be above average in quality. Back in June, SoExCidered and I took a roadtrip across Oregon and put almost 1,000 miles on a rental Nissan Versa over the course of about 8 days. That’s a tiny car, and we drove up goddamn mountains with that thing. Along the way I visited breweries both big and small. Some stood out in terms of beer quality while others created a vibe with their facilities that made the somewhat average beer taste even better – the best places did both.
Hood River / Mount Hood – Pfriem Family Brewers
For a very small town, Hood River is home to quite a few solid craft breweries including Double Mountain and Logsden Farmhouse Ales (not to mention Wyeast, the yeast manufacturer) but the spot that’s getting everyone’s attention these days is Pfriem Family Brewers, a small brewpub/tasting room that sits right on the shores of the mighty Columbia River.
Pfriem is classy and refined, the perfect place for a date night as it has none of the grubby manufacturing space vibe that many tasting rooms seem to relish in. When we arrived on a sunday night there was a waitlist, so we threw our number down, walked down to the shore and watched the sun set behind the mountains in the distance. That’s right, no awkward mingling over the shoulders of bar patrons at Pfriem; only beautiful Pacific Northwest sunsets! It was barely 10 minutes before I got a text from the host and we were seated at a comfortable patio table.
I opted for a flight to get the maximum Pfriem Family experience but I have to admit I screwed up with my beer selection process. Pfriem tends to specialize in belgian styles but at that point of the day I really wasn’t feeling up to a Belgian Strong Dark or a Tripel. Instead, I opted instead for a selection of their hop forward beers along with their pilsner and their Super Saison, Oddly enough, I wasn’t hugely impressed with the Saison, at 9.5% I found the booziness to be off putting. Luckily, Pfriem’s hoppy selection were all really on point and were satisfying one after another. The highlight for me by far was the Pilsner, which is about as light as you possibly can get, crisp as all hell with that perfect zesty punch from the hops in the finish. I fell head over heals for this beer and ended up bringing a few bottles back home with me along with bottles of their Flanders Red and Flanders Blonde.
Pfriem has been getting a lot of attention over the last year and its not hard to see why. There’s a certain level of class that is apparent in everything they do, from their brewpub to their bottle designs right down to the beer itself. Hood River is less than an hour outside of Portland, so if you are making a visit to the area there’s really no excuse to miss it.
Beer Highlights: Pilsner, Down Under IPA
Corvallis – Sky High Brewing & Block 15 Brewing
Corvallis is a small college town about an hour from the Oregon coast that is home to Oregon State University’s hop breeding and brewing science programs. While few people would make a point of going to Corvallis on a beer roadtrip, the significance of Oregon State on the craft beer industry is pretty huge and the local craft community is starting build on that reputation. What I found particularly interesting in Corvallis is while some spots were pouring pretty average (but by no means bad) beer, the vibe of the bars more than made up for it by creating relaxing and fun atmospheres.
Sky High Brewing is a multi-level pub that features a beautiful outdoor seating area as well as a rooftop deck on one of the tallest buildings in town, giving you a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains and the Willamette River Valley. The menu features classic pub grub like pizzas, burgers and seafood and represents the general culinary culture across Oregon state – meaning that it leans heavily on fried comfort food-type things. Sky High doesn’t dig too deep with their beer portfolio – showcasing a pretty classic brewpub lineup – pales, IPA’s, porters/stouts with a few German options thrown in for good measure like a hefe and a pilsner. The best option on the menu for my tastes was their Big Kahuna NW Red; a red ale with a firm bitterness and some great citrus and pine aromas from the dry hop. The real highlight for Sky High is the atmosphere of the joint – you enter the building on the main floor and scale several flights of stairs that wrap around and give you a birds-eye view of the brewhouse. The second floor is home to a small tasting room for those only interested in beer and the next flight up enters the pub which fills the entire third floor. One more staircase leads to the rooftop that features bar service, patio tables and lawn games – the perfect place to spend the night with friends. Above all, Sky High is the place in Corvallis that you want to hang out in – its comfortable and laid back and while the beer isn’t going to change your life, there’s a reliable quality here that’s certainly not going to leave you wanting.
In terms of style, Block 15 is much less impressive than Sky High. A bit more of a traditional pub in style, Block 15 more than makes up for it’s weathered looks with really great beer and exceptionally reasonable prices. We stopped in during happy hour and I got two beers and an order of wings for a little over $10. I can’t even get a sandwich for that in Los Angeles. Block 15’s focus is simply on great beer and it shows with an extensive selection of everything from reliable standards to barrel-aged oddities. The first beer I ordered was Consortium IPA, part of a series that showcase how two hop varieties can play off each other. This version focuses on Galaxy and El Dorado hops and it was absolutely bursting with wonderful tropical flavor with very low bitterness levels. Very refreshing and a great example of how simple hop bills can be incredibly effective. My second pour is their Anniversary Sour, a barrel-aged sour blonde refermented with pinot meuneir grapes. Its this beer that raises Block 15 for me from “good” to “exceptional”. The bright ruby red beer has a great effervescent tartness but remains highly drinkable with a zippy dry finish. Its a beer I could sip on for most of the afternoon and a pretty compelling reason to come back to Corvallis on future trips.
Corvallis is also home to Flat Tail Brewing and a short driving distance to the Rogue Hop Farm. Even if you’re like me and not a big Rogue fan, the hop farm is a great place to grab a bite and spend the afternoon in the sunshine.
Beer Highlights: Sky High – Big Kahuna NW Red Ale / Block 15 – Consortium IPA, Anniversary Sour
Middle of Nowhere – Brewers Union Local 180
We totally lucked out in stumbling upon Brewers Union Local 180. My wife took a trip to Oregon last year to visit her best friend and while visiting the Willamette National Forest they happened to book a hotel in a tiny town called Oakridge for the night. After checking in, they inquired about local food options and they were told there’s really only one option in town – Brewer’s Union Local 180. What they found there was an adorable little pub with 6 beer engines and a brewery that focuses exclusively on cask ales. During our After spending the day on the road between Bend, Crater Lake and the Willamette forest, relaxing with a pint of bitter was a huge sigh of relief.
Brewers Union is like an old cottage-style public house with a comfortable bar area split off from a front parlor and a billiards and darts room off to the side. The brewhouse is located in the back and glimpsed through the dusty glass windows it was exactly as janky as you would expect for a local brewery for a town of about 3000. Brewing on a 2 “imperial” barrel system, Brewers 180 produces only real ale and is able to fill about 8 firkins per batch. During my visit the bar was pouring 4 different beers including a best bitter, an American strong ale, an IPA and an oatmeal stout. The Best Bitter, dubbed ‘Wotcha A La Simcoe’ was the perfect thirst quencher on a hot day – weighing in at a perfect 4.4% ABV, served at a balmy 53 degrees and absolutely brimming with lovely english yeast character. I was particularly amazed that the featured hop in this beer was Simcoe, which is certainly not a traditional english hop but worked beautifully against the balanced malt bill. Before jumping back in the car for another 2 hours on the road I ordered a 1/2 pint of their Amber Waves of Ale, an English IPA that reminded me a bit of back home in Ontario, as it packed the bitterness of an American IPA but was well-balanced with a big helping of caramel malts.
There’s something magical about Brewers Union Local 180. There are so few real ale brewers in the U.S. and just the idea that you can stumble into a place like this in middle-of-nowhere-Oregon is a big reminder that no matter how deep you dive into the craft beer scene, there’s always potential to be surprised in a big way.
Bend – Crux Fermentation Project
I was familiar with Crux Fermentation Project prior to my trip to Oregon as a friend had sent me a couple of bottles last year and I was pretty impressed with the quality. We were actually debating missing out on Bend completely on this trip but it worked out as a halfway point between Corvallis and Crater Lake and Crux immediately jumped to the top of my list of places to see. Located just off the highway in Bend, Crux is nestled in an industrial park and in a lot of ways its the most similar to the LA brewing scene. There’s a laid back comfort to Crux that feels similar to Monkish or Smog City but immediately you realize that this more than just a taproom; much like Golden Road in LA or Bagby Beer in Oceanside, this is more of a campus than anything. The lawn outside of Crux is littered with families playing lawn games and the tasting room is open, inviting and has a killer food menu. One glance at the brewing equipment here is also enough to make a beergeek want to stay in Bend, its a stunning copper brewhouse and that had me itching to explore but sadly the staff were too busy to show me around.
Crux has a massive lineup of beers and they are all among the best I tasted in all of Oregon. While their saison is a classic, no frills representation of the style, Crux ventures a bit more off the regular path with two pilsners on tap – showcases how a slight twist in hop selection can really evolve a beer into new territory. Their Half Hitch is an absolutely gorgeous showcase of the mosaic hop, its unbelievably clean and really highlights the tropical character while downplaying that classic mosaic muskiness. Crux also has a pretty extensive barrel program (the [BANISHED] series), showcasing some big whiskey-aged stouts as well as sour ales like their Freakcake Oud Bruin. Freakcake was one of the bottles sent to me last year and I recall it being bursting with an (almost overwhelmingly) rich chewy stonefruit character but the acidity balanced it out nicely.
Crux was without a doubt my favorite brewery of my entire trip. Their taproom, brewhouse and beer selection all just added up to a feeling of ‘i just wish this place was my local brewery’, which in my books is about as high praise as I can give. There’s a lot of breweries out there that are making great beer, but few have the full package like Crux offers.
Beer Highlights: Parkway Pilsner, Half Hitch Double IPA
In the weeks since returning from Oregon, I’ve seen a few people comment on how they feel the beer scene there is a bit overrated – and to be honest I can understand where that feeling comes from. There’s so much craft beer in Oregon that its incredibly hard to stand out and in certain areas there’s certainly a saturation point that was reached a long time ago. But if you block out the boring standard brewpubs and focus on those surprises you find along the way, you really gain appreciation for what Oregon has to offer. Its one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and its practically impossible to marvel at that beauty without a pretty decent beer in your hand.