Secret Tips to Uncover the Best Breweries in Portland

Fun fact: Did you know Portland has more breweries than any city in the world?

It’s home to 54 breweries — and estimated to reach 60 by the end 2014. Nicknamed “Beervana,” one out of every 100 people work at a brewery. With so much beer culture it can be difficult to choose where to spend your time kicking back with a hoppy IPA or a tangy sour beer. To help you plan your itinerary, here is a guide to Portland’s best breweries, with suggestions on what to sip at each. Also, be sure to check out the top secret Beervana tip at the end!

1. Hopworks Urban Brewery- The Organic

Hopworks is a carbon neutral brewery and the only certified organic brewery in Portland, making it a very sustainable choice. With such a passion for doing the right thing, no matter what the cost, you know you’re going to get a high quality product. They also recycle spent grains and hops by donating them to local farms for compost and animal feed. Open since 2008, the building was originally a showroom for tractor-trailers, and now houses a full production facility, tasting room and brewery. At any given time they produce five year-round beers, as well as seasonals and one-off beers — like a fruit cocktail beer they created using real fruit cocktail for Portland’s annual Fruit Beer Festival. And with their aged barrel program they purchase whiskey, gin and wine barrels to impart unique flavors on their beers. At their tasting bar lined with caramel and chocolate barleys and flavor enhancers like oats, spelt, kamut, quinoa and amaranth, you’ll savor these delicious good-for-the-Earth brews. Make sure to have a meal in their restaurant — which also uses mainly organic and locally sourced ingredients — and order a beer from the colorful chalkboard hanging under dangling recycled bike frames.

What to try:

  • Their “7 Grain Stout” offers great body and uses organic local Stumptown coffee
  • The “Raspberry Belgian Tripel” is aged in Pinot barrels with raisins.
  • The tasty “Notorious F.I.G.,” a fig infused Belgian dark.

2. The Commons Brewery

The Commons Brewery is a small craft brewery with an extremely big cult following in Portland, probably because, unlike most other West Coast breweries they don’t serve an IPA, but instead focus on Belgian and sour-style beers. Their tagline is “Gather around beer,” which perfectly embodies their social philosophy. In fact, they encourage guests to bring food and games to share, and don’t have television in order to encourage conversation. Their “Urban Farmhouse Beer” is the one that set the brewery into motion and won them a slew of awards. It’s a simple, light and refreshing farmhouse beer, a style that originated in European from feudal farmers who uses their home-grown resources to create an earthy, spicy, slightly sweet beer. While at one time farmhouse ales were endangered, The Commons Brewery showcases them in full force. They also work with local companies and farms to source ingredients and recycle spent grain.

What To Try:

  • A “Madrone” amber saison with notes of citrus and tropic fruits
  • Another top choice is their “Citrus Royale,” a sour ale with citrus juice and zest.

3. Cascade Brewing Barrel House

For a lively atmosphere, Cascade Brewing Barrel House is a good time day or night. While their beers are actually brewed offsite at their Raccoon Lodge & Brew Pub, their barrel aging and souring — something they’re well known for throughout the Pacific Northwest — is done on property. This is no easy feat. As these tart, sour beers use wild yeast it can be an unpredictable process, and it can sometimes take years until the beer is drinkable. Not surprisingly, they have over 750 French oak, wine and bourbon barrels to impart certain flavors on their beers and help balance the tartness of the sours. If you’re going to Cascade Ale House, plan your visit in advance and try to sign up on their for “Tap it Tuesday,” where you can possibly be invited to tap a barrel (tip: don’t wear your best clothes as this can get messy!). Even if you don’t get chosen, it’s still a fun event to attend. Sit at one of the barrel-topped tables and order a flight from their 18 rotating taps so you can sample the various sours side by side. If you’re hungry, the menu features a sustainable and local products — although you’ll find some imported cheeses and charcuterie — with suggested compare and contrast beer pairings.

What to try:

  • A selection of local dark chocolate truffles paired with a “Cascade Kriek” sour ale with rich cherry notes and hints of cinnamon
  • A non-sour “Oblique B/W Coffee Blond” made with roasted organic cacao nibs for a creamy coffee chocolate flavor
  • The Fig Pesto Chevre Panini paired with a sour “Figaro” blond ale aged in chardonnay barrels with flavors of figs and raisins and lemon zest finish
  • A sour “Apricot” blond ale aged on fresh apricots for intense flavors

4. Deschutes Brewery & Public House

Deschutes Brewery & Public House is the biggest of the above-mentioned breweries, started in Bend, Oregon and then expanding to Portland as its popularity grew. Here you’ll find an enormous restaurant and brewery serving award-winning beers served alongside upscale pub fare. Food is made by well-known Portland chef Jill Ramseier — made with local ingredients when possible in true Portland style — like buttermilk fried chicken wings doused in “Fresh Squeezed Ale,” honey and spice; root beer-braised pork belly on pretzel bread with a soft poached egg yolk and artisan mustard; and asparagus fettuccini made with homemade pasta, local greens and prosciutto. In terms of beer, there are a number of great choices. Another interesting point to note is that by the end of 2014 Deschutes Brewery is requiring all of their staff to be trained as a cicerone, as what truly sets them apart from other local breweries is the impeccable service.

What To Try:

  • Their “Peach Slap” is flying off the shelves (or out of the keg) as its notes of juniper berries, peppercorn, peach and habanero pepper are addictive.
  • For something truly decadent, try their “Not the Stoic” is 12.1% ABV and is brewed with pomegranate molasses and aged in pinot noir and whiskey barrels.
  • There’s also a tasty gluten-free northwest pale ale made with brown rice, honey, Bravo hops and dark candy sugar.
  • Better yet, opt for their “Sample Tray” where you can try six four-ounce pours of beer for $8.50.

5. Breakside Brewery

Known for their experimental beers, Breakside Brewery makes beer with good times, great people and delicious food in mind. At Breakside there is no limit to the imagination, and they’ve done everything from adding rhubarb pies into their beer to aging beers in Buffalo Trace barrels to Solera-style beers and beyond — they’ve even made a salted caramel beer in collaboration with Portland-based Salt & Straw ice cream (also worth trivago magazineg out if you like atypical flavors). Recently, the brewery also entered into a “fruitful” partnership with Salem-based Oregon Fruit Products to produce a series of fruit beers using local produce purees. These include a “Brett Kriek Sour Cherry,” “Barrel Aged Blackberry Baltic Porter” and a “Gooseberry Tart Wheat.” Along with innovation, Breakside has stamina, even producing more than 100 different beers in 2013. Choose between indoor and outdoor seating at this brewery pub and enjoy food and high-quality brews.

What To Try:

  • A “Bourbon Barrel-Aged Aztec” infused with chilies for a caramel and vanilla flavor with a kick
  • A “Wanderlust IPA” a double IPA featuring five types of hops and aromas and flavors of tropical and citrus fruits
  • The most alluring beer is their “Alan from the Wood” that pays homage to brewer Alan Sprints. It’s a smoked amber ale aged in rye barrels for complex flavors of spice, caramel, honey and vanilla

Bonus Day Trip Brewery: Thunder Island Brewery

Opened in October 2013, Thunder Island Brewery is worth the 40-minute drive to Cascade Locks from Portland for the view and quality beers. Started by Dan Hynes and Dave Lipps after a home-brew project in Portland grew too big to keep at home, the brewery caters to thrill seekers and outdoor enthusiasts with the nearby Pacific Crest Trail, Lewis & Clark Bike Route and other adventurous paths. Like the intrepid offerings surrounding the brewery, Thunder Island is known for trying new things and thinking beyond what’s being done. In fact, since January the brewery has been working with the Forest Park Conservancy and Beers Made By Walking to test the effects of wild yeast from an old growth versus a logged forest in beer, using yeast samples from the nearby Forest Park. Right now they are propagating the yeast in local labs, after which they will barrel age the beers (check their Facebook page for updates on the project and when you can sample some for yourself).

At times, the brewery also showcases exhibits on cycling, adventure and Portland, and are currently installing bike racks decorated by local metal artist Brad Lorang to encourage cyclists to stop for a full-flavored IPA or a chocolate-accented porter. Grab a seat in their tasting room located directly in their brewery so you can watch the works making fresh brews, sit outside at the picnic tables on the table and watch boats sailing on the Columbia River and Thunder Island, or play a board game or a round of Corn Hole.