Brewtopia Portland serves up excellent beer, terrible puns

West Coast U.S. city claims to have more breweries than Munich

Don Younger, who died in early 2011, was owner of Horse Brass, an iconic pub within the world of Portland's craft beer revolution. On Nov. 1, 2009, when this photo was taken, Younger received a steady stream of well-wishers on what was the pub's 33rd anniversary.

 

 

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on May 28, 2010.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

PORTLAND, ORE.—Designated driver Candace Ling rolls her eyes and gives in.

“Okay Ned, one more, but that’s it,” she says, teeth clenched, her right hand making a chopping motion.

It’s not that Ling’s friend, Ned Witherspoon, is anywhere close to tipsy. He’s a big man and it’s only mid-afternoon. But he’s supposed to fly home to Australia the next day and Ling figures the San Francisco airport is a 10-hour drive.

Witherspoon says he had an “uncontrollable urge” to double back up the coast to Portland for the weekend for “a few last American pints” after seven months in the U.S., tasting beer in 37 states.

“Everyone here calls Portland ‘brewtopia’,” Witherspoon says after ordering a Rise Up Red at the Bike Bar in the Hopworks Urban Brewery. “It’s no exaggeration. There’s lots of first-rate brewing going on in lots of places — I’ve spent time in Europe and I’m sure you have some great craft beer in Canada — but I’ve never been in a city that has so many different great beers. They say Portland has more breweries than Munich. I had to come back.”

Jim Long's Brew Bus tours are not only entertaining and good value, they keep beer lovers safely off the streets.

The Munich comparison and other bad beer-related puns also came up a day earlier on Jim Long’s Portland Brew Bus tour.

“This is beervana, ground zero for the great craft beer revolution,” Long tells the 15 people on the bus — which in this case is largely a bachelor party group that took a train down from Seattle.

“There are 38 breweries in the city proper (for just 600,000 people), another eight brewers out in the suburbs and several more in the state,” says Long, a local historian and author who has been running the bus since 1996.

He says he’s had tourists from dozens of countries on six continents and all 50 states. “I think we’ve had people from all your provinces, too. Up and down the West Coast, Portland is well known as the place for a ‘hoppenin’ time.”

Long tells his tours it’s logical that Portland is a beer centre. It has long been a grain export hub, has soft water and, because of a climate that helped it earn a reputation as “the City of Roses,” local farmers can grow a great variety of hops.

Christian Geismann, the groom-to-be and today’s Brew Bus guest of honour, says the trip from Seattle to sample beers isn’t his first and won't be the last.

Christian Geismann, the groom-to-be and today’s Brew Bus guest of honour, says the trip from Seattle to sample beers isn’t his first. “It won’t be the last, either. There’s going to be quantity, of course, this is a bachelor party,” he says. “But these boys like quality, too.”

That comment prompts a round of glass-clinking at the MacTarnahan’s Taproom, stop one on the tour.

Long varies his itinerary and does some tours on foot in summer. “You should see this place during the beer festivals in July,” he says. “It’s not just beer aficionados; the place attracts lots of great bands and musicians. It’s a fun party.”

On this day, for $45 (U.S.), Long’s tour takes in six breweries, 19 beers and keeps everyone safely off the streets — not that there’s much need to drive in a city with a good transit system. It’s a bargain.

One stop with a particularly friendly atmosphere is the Lucky Labrador, a brew pub that encourages patrons to bring their dogs. Here we run into Angie Ong, a transplant from Mississauga, and her sheepdog Kato.

At Hopworks Urban Brewery, a converted former fuel oil depot, Amelia Pillow takes us for a tour of the brewing process before the tasting starts. She notes that brewing has created spinoff industries in the area besides tourism. Kettles and the precision instruments needed to measure and monitor the process are now locally made.

Witherspoon, an Aussie building contractor from the Melbourne area, says “it must be more than coincidence that all this micro-brewing took off right around the time that Portland started building its light rail system. Good public transport allows you to relax and enjoy your beer,” he says. “Pubs are central to communities,” he says, adding that his favourite in Portland is the Horse Brass.

Later that day, the Horse Brass is packed. It’s the pub’s 33rd birthday and there are 54 beers on tap, including five cask ales.

Don Younger, part owner of the place, is a bit of a Portland celebrity — a hero for championing diverse beers before a 1985 law change that kick-started the local scene by making it legal to brew and sell directly to the public through brew pubs.

“It wasn’t long ago, but it seems like ancient history,” says Younger. “All across the country you had those standard beers. Blitz was the local swill out here and you might have found a place with bottles of Heineken or something.

“Now there’s choice and it turns out there’s huge demand for it,” Younger says between people stopping by to offer him congratulations on Horse Brass’ anniversary.

“I’d love to tell you we were brilliant and we knew that we were giving birth to an industry and a tourism attraction, but the truth is that we were young, we were drunk and we were stupid.

“But we were lucky, too.”

Is Duff beer really just Blitz in disguise?

PORTLAND, ORE.—There’s a rumour around town that a once-ubiquitous local beer, Blitz, was the inspiration for Homer Simpson’s favourite brew, Duff.

I heard the tale twice in different pubs, within 48 hours.

It’s a plausible urban legend for a city with streets named Flanders, Lovejoy and Quimby. Portland is, after all, where The Simpsons creator Matt Groening was raised — and that’s clearly a point of pride among locals. And by all accounts, Blitz, was the quintessential Duff-like generic swill.

We got Antonia Coffman, executive consultant for the long-running Fox TV show, to ask Groening if Blitz inspired Duff. She tells us the answer was a terse, “no.”

But rather than feel animosity toward those who would mislead tourists, we offer thanks to one of them for steering us to a couple of old, ripe-for-parody Blitz ads on YouTube. They might be funnier if Duffman were on the water skis, but not much.

Portland Beer Festivals

 The Portland International Beerfest focuses on great, largely unknown international beers. It’s held in the city’s lively, walkable Pearl District. The 2010 edition featured 150 beers from 15 countries.

 The Oregon Brewers Festival, held on the last full weekend in July each year, focuses on American craft brewers at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, beside the Willamette River and with views of Mount Hood and the Portland skyline.

In Seattle, coffee is a form of art

Something’s brewing in the markets and the bars and even atop the Space Needle, and it’s not your average Joe

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star’s travel section on February 4, 2010. Prices will undoubtedly be a little out of date. The Chocolate Box’s wine bar has since opened, too.

Jackie McCallum shows Cindy Strohmier how to pour a latte at Caffe D'Arte on the Savor Seattle coffee and chocolate tour.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

SEATTLE – “Listen, this is important. Before we pour, you have to be sure the foam and the espresso are the same consistency, ” Jackie McCallum says. “They both have to be silky smooth.”

McCallum is jovial and patient as she shows Cindy Strohmier of Duvall, Wash., how to make a heart-shaped pattern atop a latte at Caffe D’Arte, but there’s a hint of an intensity that might serve her well at an international barista competition she plans to enter next fall.

“Let’s face it, I’m a coffee nerd, ” McCallum says after a demonstration for a caffeine culture walking tour in central Seattle.

A coffee nerd? Well, at least in Seattle, McCallum won’t be lonely.

The Pike Public Market on the waterfront is said to be the clear No. 1 tourist attraction in Washington state, but caffeinated creativity seems to infuse everything about this area. And it goes much deeper than the fact that this city is where the global Starbucks empire (including its Seattle’s Best division) got started.

The Sky City restaurant at the Space Needle, a lasting symbol of the 1962 World’s Fair, has shaken off its “Denny’s in the Sky” reputation with an acclaimed and popular new local menu that includes braised short ribs that have been marinated in coffee for 24 hours.

Go into Oliver’s at the Mayflower Hotel and bartender Patrick Donnelly will insist you try his trademark cocktail, an espresso-based concoction called the Seattle Flatliner.

Big with customers of the Cheese Cellar at Fisher Plaza near the Space Needle and at Beecher’s near the public market is something called Barely Buzz, a hand-rubbed coffee-and-lavender-flavoured creation that took the American Cheese Society’s top honours in 2007 and 2008.

“It’s actually made in Idaho, ” says Dennis Nelson of the Cheese Cellar, “but a lot of its popularity stems from Seattle. It’s a perfect fit here.”

There’s also a long list of confectioners and dessert places that work with coffee. The Chocolate Box, which doesn’t make its own products but selects and markets what it considers the best of the Seattle area, will soon open a bar dedicated to matching wines with chocolate and coffee-based foods.

Despite all the caffeine, Seattle drivers seem unusually patient and courteous. The coffee shops also seem to be friendly places where strangers are more than willing to engage you in conversation.

One morning at Seattle Coffee Works, near the market, upon learning a Canadian was present, a group of sports fans wanted to know about the chances NHL hockey might replace the departed NBA team.

Twenty-four hours later, in a Tully’s (a Seattle-based coffee chain that hasn’t expanded beyond the West Coast) there’s intense discussion among people reading newspaper coverage of a decision by big local employer Boeing to shift much of its 787 Dreamliner production to South Carolina.

There’s anger, but also expressions of confidence that creativity and coffee will deliver new jobs and wealth.

“New inventions will create new work. You’ll build on the fact that this is Microsoft town, Starbucks town, ” says Barrett Young, a software designer and “caffeine junkie” visiting from Los Angeles “for business and pleasure.”

Young tells a tale about Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz discovering a great cup of coffee in New York made using something called a Clover machine.

Upon returning to Seattle, Schultz apparently told an assistant to learn everything about Clover technology and arrange a flight so he could check it out first-hand.

“Turns out, he didn’t need a flight, ” Young says. “They could get over to Clover (in Seattle’s Ballard neighbourhood) by cab. There’s lots going on in this town, but a lot of it revolves around high tech and good coffee.”

Starbucks has since bought the fledgling Clover operation and is rolling out the new machines in various locations.

Caroline Hinchliff, who guides a coffee and chocolate tour for an outfit called Savor Seattle, tells a similar version of the Clover story. Hinchliff is passionate about coffee and big on her city’s history and its role in pop culture.

“It’s a shame, but there is no Cafe Nervosa, ” Hinchliff says of the spot where the Crane brothers would have meet in the TV sitcom, Frasier. “For Niles, it was ‘grande half-caf latte with a whisper of cinnamon, ‘” she tells a group of eight from Boston, Mississippi, Alaska, Toronto, northern California and locals from the Puget Sound area.

Hinchliff says there’s no consensus on how coffee became so deeply rooted in Seattle’s culture.

“Some say it’s because we have so many Scandinavians, ” she says. “They can’t get enough coffee in Finland and Sweden. Some people attribute it to the amount of rain we get – the need for a pickup with the lack of sunshine.”

She has a picture of a Filipino coffee-bean stall at the market from more than a century ago, but says that as late as the 1970s, it was the lack of good coffee in Seattle that inspired a trio of locals to found what we now know as Starbucks.

As for the future, she says she’s certain there are lots of new ideas and ventures in the works, pointing to Seattle Coffee Works, a collaboration of local roasters, and to small independent shops, which are everywhere throughout Seattle’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods.

“We have people coming from all around the world for coffee,” she says. “I can’t be totally certain about the past, but I’m sure there’s a great future.”

As for the present, Seattle is a fun city and a great place to grab a cup.

JUST THE FACTS

  • Do one of the coffee tours. If you’re going to be in town a few days, take the Savor Seattle one at the start of your trip. At $69 (U.S.) it may seem expensive, but with the samples, the trip on the monorail and up the Space Needle, as well as the long list of places where associated discounts are good for up to 10 days, it can be a deal.
  • The Warwick Hotel is in a handy part of town, walking distance for most of the central city. It’s certainly not five-star, but it was a clean, reasonably priced and the staff were friendly and helpful.
  • The light rail line linking downtown with the SeaTac airport will make Torontonians envious, even after we get our Pearson-Union service operational. Despite providing lots of stops along the way, it’s fast and inexpensive — $2.50.
  • The city transit system provides very good bus service for an American city. Service in the core is free between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. The downtown transit tunnel that brings light rail and buses together is an innovation that more cities should look into.