Portland: From City to Coast and Every Beer in Between
Earlier this week, while I was working from home, a mysterious USPS package appeared on my doorstep. I wasn’t expecting a postal service delivery, and my curiosity overcame my focus on work almost instantaneously. Duncan and I retrieved the package from the stoop. The rectangular, cardboard envelop was falling open the second I lifted it off the ground, practically begging to be opened right then and there.
“What could it be?” asked Duncan. “Is it a fresh package of my favorite dental treats? Or a jar of peanut butter? Or, could it possibly my favorite thing to get in the mail: packing materials?!”
I reached inside and gasped when I pulled out the bounty from inside. There it was, like a siren beckoning me from the comfort of my home, a crisp stack of travel and tourism magazines from Portland, Oregon.
My love affair with Portland reaches way back into my personal history. I first visited the Pacific Northwest on a trip for work all the way back in October. Just several weeks ago, I returned to the place that had held my heart those long weeks ago. I accompanied Rachael and my brother in law, Chris, to visit their parents over thanksgiving weekend. If not for a highly dependent dog back east, we may still be there.
What follows is an account of my initial impressions of Portland. It's far from comprehensive, as six days over two trips is hardly enough time to even scratch the surface of all PDX has to offer - Dianne, Jim, Rachael, Chris, keep me honest on this one. Guess we'll just have to go back.
The greater Portland area borders one of its finest natural features, The Columbia River Gorge. Snaking its way just north of the city on its way to the Pacific coast, the Columbia River divides Oregon from Washington State, and provides picturesque backdrops for all varieties of outdoor recreation and exploration. My trips afforded me only a glimpse into all the gorge has to offer, and I can't wait to explore further. But even a riverside drive along I-84, from Portland proper up into the mountains left me in awe.
Seated comfortably in the backseat of Dianne's and Jim's SUV, we wound our way east, gradually gaining elevation as we left the city behind. On a clear day, you can see the peak of Mount Hood roughly 40 miles from downtown. As is characteristic of the Pacific Northwest (PNW), however, a pale monochromatic sky radiating persistent wetness dominated the landscape, shrouding distant landscapes like a delicate veil. In my opinion, the weather left way too much to the imagination that afternoon.
About 30 miles from the city is one of the area's most recognizable sites and our destination that afternoon: Multnomah Falls. Situated a stone's throw from the highway, the falls plummet more than 600 feet from the dramatic cliffs above making it the second tallest waterfall in the United States. The cliffs are abundantly vegetated, so much so that if you were to somehow turn off the flow of water, visitors below may not even realize there's a riverbed feeding the waterfall above.
Upon approach from the visitor's center, a rustic but well-appointed cabin featuring skylight views of the falls and delicious PNW beers (much more on that later), I almost dismissed the lower falls. From the pool fed by the upper falls, water careens over another 70 foot fall on its way to the Columbia River. If you're lucky you may spy salmon maintaining pace with the current in the shallows below and suddenly develop a hankering for a bagel.
Dianne, Jim, and I paused for some soggy photos on the stone outlook opposite the lower falls and took in the scale of the entire setting. While the PNW Rain is considered an annoyance by some, there's something special about getting soaked by mountain source water that just swan dived the height of two football fields.
Dianne and Jim led me up the path to Benson Bridge, which spans across the pool within spitting distance of the upper falls. More spray. More mist. And an up-close and personal view of the thick, pulsating ribbon of water leaping from the heights above. Juxtaposed against the green and brown earth of the cliffs, the silvery foam of the waterfall teemed with energy on its ride to splashdown below.
As the mid-autumn light grew scarce and the rain persisted, we turned back toward the car, leaving the half-day hike to the falls’ summit for another time. Add one item to the return trip to-do list.
On my return trip to Portland over Thanksgiving weekend, this time accompanied by wife and brother-in-law, two seasoned PDX visitors, we dedicated an entire day to exploring the Pacific coast. Our journey from the Portland outskirts to “The People’s Coast” meandered through sodden and lush Tillamook State Forest. As we wound through the forest, racing the heavily-flowing Wilson River around breaks and bends, I was transfixed by the cycle of growth and decay alongside the road.
The PNW is incredibly green; everything is covered by tree or bush or, perhaps most prominently, moss. At the same time, with all of the moisture, decomposition is fully on display, right next to all the sprouting vegetation. It’s a small observation, one that is probably easily overlooked, but I found myself hypnotized watching it all rush by.
Beyond the forest was the small town of Tillamook, home of a notable air museum and a cheese factory with a saliva-inducing advertising campaign. After a brief stop for coffee in one of the most unique, antique-adorned (some may say cluttered) café, we continued on toward Pacific City, located on the coast.
On the final approach to the beach, damp forest and overly-irrigated farmland gave way to full on swamp and marshland. Suddenly, Pacific City’s main attraction came into full view in the distance. Haystack Rock (one of two large boulder formations on Oregon’s coast) rose abruptly above the waves on the horizon, marking our destination for the afternoon.
A further investigation of Haystack Rock, the beach, and the surrounding dunes was on tap (wait for it), but our travels had left us thirsty and low on energy. Fortunately, The Pelican Pub and Brewery sat invitingly beachside, beckoning us inside for some nourishment and fresh draught beer (see what I did there?).
Having refueled and sampled some award-winning beers (again more on that later), Dianne, Jim, Rachael, Chris, and I set out on foot to explore the coastline, making our way along the dunes of Cape Kiwanda. Again questionable weather and the subsequent threat of landslides prevented us from more ambitious excursions. But the seaside jaunt was no less breathtaking. From our high vantage point on the dune, we watched the waves crash against the rocky coastline as the tide slowly rose. The cliffs were immovable, resolved to hold their position against the advancing sea. But stretched out over a long timeline, we knew the waves would prevail, as evidenced by the spouts of water that erupted from every nook, cranny, and tunnel in the rock.
On the return trip from Pacific City, we passed through Canon Beach, a charming coastal town quiet on this evening in the late-November darkness. The sun had slipped below the horizon hours ago limiting our visit to a quick walk around main street and an abbreviated visit to the beach. Signs of a bustling summer community were numerous, however, necessitating further exploration. Add a second item to the return trip to-do list.
Within an hour’s drive of downtown Portland 108 breweries – and counting – serve up freshly fermented suds. If you know Rachael and me… and Chris and Dianne and Jim, you could have predicted our need to sample as many of the unique flavors of the PNW as possible during our short trip. The brewpubs were unique, the beer styles were eclectic, and so much can be said for each and every brewer. Rachael and I managed to visit nine of them, and Chris notched a couple more after we left. Below are some of our findings.
- Breakside – Known for churning out new and unique recipes on a near weekly basis since its grand opening in 2010, Breakside was our first stop after landing in Portland in the late evening following our cross-country flight. Each beer was super flavorful and featured an enormous and especially aromatic head. The Salted Caramel Stout shouldn’t be missed.
- Ecliptic – From the second we read about this place, I was afraid Rachael would never leave. A space-themed brewery that draws inspiration for the recipes and beer names from the cosmos. Man, was I going to pale (see what I did there again) in comparison. Citrus flavors were on full display at Ecliptic, as were a massive solar system mural and other celestial themed adornments. Highlights included the Carina Peach Sour, with a genuine but subtle peach tone, and the Pollux Imperial IPA, which highlighted orange notes and a clean finish.
- Widmer Bros. – One of several nationally recognizable breweries we visited, the Widmer facilities virtually occupied an entire city block on North Russell Street. The five of us were familiar with Widmer’s celebrated hefeweizen, and were eager to try some of their lesser known beer. Try we did. Rachael, Chris and I knocked back about 20 tasters, sampling the majority of the Oregon staple’s catalog. Replay IPA is an awesome beer you may be able to find if you’re in the PNW, and if you can get your hands on it, do not miss the Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout. Better than any desert you’ve tasted.
- Labrewatory – Running a respectable second in brewery themes on this trip was one of Portland’s newest establishments, Labrewatory. Opened weeks ago in November, Labrewatory is science-themed and peddles some truly experimental beers. As described in a local beer guide, “If you’re drinking it here, it hasn’t been drunk before. Order the thing that looks craziest.” For me, the select was Dubbel Trouble, a delicious beer brewed with eucalyptus.
- Pelican – I defy you to find a brewery with a better location and scenery than the Pelican Pub and Brewery on Pacific City’s shore. As previously mentioned we visited Pelican on our trip to the coast, ordered beers and promptly walked down to the beach in the shadow of Haystack Rock. I think we made a mistake by leaving after lunch. I crushed the MacPelican’s Wee Heavy, a surprisingly drinkable wee heavy. Session wee heavy? It never gets old saying wee heavy.
- Rock Creek (McMenamin’s) – If you’ve ever visited Portland or Southern Washington, chances are you’ve stumbled across a McMenamin’s property. Two brothers began purchasing and repurposing existing properties, many of which are historically relavent, and converting them into breweries, wineries, restaurants, and the like. Hopefully during your visit you drank the Terminator Stout. I’ll be back (I had to) for more.
- Deschutes – Another nationally recognized brewery, Deschutes produces some of my favorite beers available for purchase back east. While the main production facility is in Bend, OR, Deschutes operates a populate public house in downtown PDX, just a few blocks from Powell’s City of Books (also worth a visit). Their regular lineup of beers is always worth my time, but given the chance, I’d drink Obsidian Nitro Stout any day of the week and gladly pour it over cereal.
- Bridgeport – Also downtown, Bridgeport is a PDX staple, having opened back in 1984. They boast a partnership with the Hillsboro Hops, a minor league baseball team practically in Dianne’s and Jim’s back yard. Plus, the second floor feels like a James Bond Goldeneye video game level with its grated walkways. Drink the Ebenezer Ale. Thumbs up.
- Rogue – You’ve probably heard of Rogue Dead Guy Ale. But have you ever heard of or tried the Whiskey Barrel Aged Dead Guy Ale. If not, stop reading this, book a trip to Oregon now, and pour this one down your suckhole. Truly not to be missed. While you’re at it, snag a Promise Gone Aw-Rye IPA, and finish off with Hazelutely Choctabulous for dessert. One of the best dessert beers I’ve ever had the privilege of consuming. Probably best to order a cab after all of this as well.
And so it was. We saw, we smell, and we tasted Portland’s offerings. But just like that, the expedition came to a close. PDX calls me back after all these… days… and I ache to return. So much so, I’m left wondering why we ever left.