You don’t have to twist my arm very hard to convince me to take a trip down to Portland to drink beer & eat good food. So, when Travel Portland invited me down to check out what is going on in their beer scene this winter, I didn’t hesitate for long. After all, one of my favorite things about living in Seattle is that it is so close to Portland. Having visited Portland at least once a year for the past 10 years that I’ve lived in the NW, I’ve hit quite a few worthy spots down there over the years. On this trip, I focused mostly on at least relatively newer places, including Base Camp Brewing, Ecliptic Brewing, Ex Novo Brewing and Fat Head’s Brewery. With the beautiful weather we had on Saturday, I have to admit it was difficult to not just go sit on the sunny patio at Apex for most of the day.
Travel Portland recently partnered with Base Camp Brewing Company to spearhead their #PDXNOW campaign, which is part of the greater “Portland is Happening Now” winter tourism campaign (you’ve probably seen the commercials). Base Camp approached Travel Portland about the project, and then they recruited 9 other breweries to join them. Together, they produced 10 unique #PDXNOW beers that have been featured at the breweries for about the past month after debuting at a festival in January. Base Camp’s Bridge Builder Bock was a collaboration with Coalition Brewing brewed for the campaign, and it was one of my favorite beers of the weekend.
Now, the disclaimer: Travel Portland covered my stay at the lovely Hotel Monaco (my favorite place in PDX, even when it’s not free) & subsidized my expenses for beer & food at times throughout the trip. That said, please don’t misconstrue that for them buying a good review on this Portland trip. That’s really just not necessary.
One of the trickiest parts of any Portland trip is the travel. Amtrak & Bolt Bus are fantastic, stress-free ways to go, but we opted to drive this time due to work schedules. And, the best we could do was to leave Seattle at 4pm on Friday….so we knew we were likely in for a long trip with the evening rush hour. 4 hours later (takes 2 ½ hours w/out traffic) we rolled into Portland and headed straight to Aviary up on Alberta where we had reservations that we timed perfectly. The food we had was outstanding (Chanterelle ravioli with quince, celery root, smoked tapioca herb jus & crispy sage was a highlight), and I was happy to find Upright Engelberg Pils and Breakside IPA pouring. Breakside IPA has become one of my go-to IPAs in Seattle, and Engelberg Pils would certainly be a go-to for me, but we don’t see it on tap very often in Seattle. To end the night, we stopped by the always reliable Bailey’s Taproom. The convenient downtown location is just a couple of blocks away from Hotel Monaco, and we were welcomed by $5 imperial pints of one of the best IPAs in the country: Barley Brown’s Pallet Jack. What a great way to end the night.
Saturday morning started out with the best donuts in the NW at Blue Star. If you’ve never been, forget about the overrated monstrosities at Voodoo Doughnut and the ridiculous lines that go with them. Blue Star’s classic brioche doughnuts featuring toppings like Blueberry Bourbon Basil & Passion Fruit Cocoa Nib are truly outstanding. Dear Blue Star: thank you for not opening a Seattle location…I don’t need to eat donuts any more than I already do (Mighty-O has my needs covered).
Enough about donuts. We started the beer touring for the day by meeting with the PR Manager for Travel Portland to discuss the finer points of the city over beers and lunch at Base Camp Brewing. This is the 3rd time I’ve been to Base Camp, and I love the space. It’s a huge taproom, and they recently added a covered & heated outdoor tent. For food, they have two permanent (I think?) food trucks set up that allow you to order from inside the taproom, add it to your bill and then they bring you your food when it is ready. While Seattle breweries have embraced food trucks, I don’t think there is a setup quite like that up here, yet. I already mentioned that the Bridge Builder Bock was one of my favorite beers of the trip. They still had it available on tap, and you might still be able to find it in their unique 12oz aluminum bottles.
Next, we got a ride over to Ex Novo Brewing, which is a non-profit brewery that opened in North Portland last summer. Check out this quality piece from Brewpublic for more detailed info on Ex Novo. Saturday was a gorgeous, sunny day, and the few picnic tables outside were already filled up with happy drinkers. We grabbed a spot at the bar in their cavernous taproom featuring lots of wood; it reminded me a bit of being in a barn (in a good way…without any manure). They had just recently run out of their Gose made for #PDXNOW, so the wife and I split a taster flight featuring their IPA, Brah! Imperial IPA, Saison Lillis, an Engligh-style brown ale and a smoked helles lager. The beers were all pretty solid, but the smoked helles was the only one I could really get excited for having a full glass of. One of the best-named beers of the trip was certainly their Damon Stoutamire. I’ll look forward to catching more of their lineup in the future.
Our next destination was a 1.5 mile walk up to Ecliptic Brewing on the south end of N. Mississippi Ave, which John Harris opened towards the end of 2013. Harris has been a mainstay in the Oregon beer industry for a long time, first at McMenamin’s, then at Deschutes, where he created flagship beers like Mirror Pond and Black Butte Porter, and then a long stint at Full Sail Brewing’s Portland location. You’d expect nothing less than well-made, quality beers from a man with experience like Harris has, and that’s exactly what you’ll find. This was my 2nd visit to Ecliptic, and we focused on the standard lineup the first time through. For this visit, we did a sample flight of Downkriek Cosmic Storm Belgian Sour (#PDXNOW beer), Izar Belgian Strong Pale Ale, Rataban Oud Bruin, Capella Porter and Phobos Single Hop Red Ale. We quite enjoyed all of the beers, but the Izar was the star of the lineup for me. It’s deceptively smooth for a 9.5% ABV beer, and it is full of hop flavor with a candy-like sweetness and Belgian yeast flavors. It finishes with a warming alcohol note and a moderate bitterness to balance.
For our last brewery stop of the day, we hiked it 2 1/2 miles back towards downtown (it was beautiful out, remember?) to visit the new Fat Head’s Brewery in the Pearl District. This Ohio-based brewery made a lot of people scratch their heads when they announced in 2013 that they were planning to open a PDX pub. They have a great reputation for their hoppy beers and have won several medals at GABF, but the move to open a pub in one of the most competitive beer markets in the country was an interesting one. Their huge 300-seat pub opened towards the end of 2014, and the initial reports are that Fat Head’s beer can hang with Portland’s best. They had a large selection of 18 house beers available, as well as probably 20 more guest taps. Two of their most popular beers are the Head Hunter IPA and Sunshine Daydream Session Ale, and after sampling them I can certainly see why. We also quite enjoyed the Bean Me Up Imperial Coffee Stout & Weiss Weiss Baby, their #PDXNOW collaboration with Breakside. The beer lineup was interesting, and everything we had was well-made. Fat Head’s is a great addition to the PDX beer scene and I’ll be making it a regular stop in future trips. My only gripe? The food menu. I don’t mind at all if you want to feature comfort food straight off menus from the Midwest (who wouldn’t want to try a sandwich with a freaking pierogie on it?), but please offer 1/2 sizes for appetizers and dishes were it makes sense. The “Frickles” were a $9 basket of fried pickle chips that were outstanding and the portion was large enough to feed two people for a full meal. We felt bad leaving more than half of them to be wasted, but we had to save room for dinner. There was really nothing on the menu that fits into the category of a light snack while drinking a couple beers.
After a quick power nap back at the hotel our last outing for the day was a Portland Dining Month preview up at North Light back up on N. Mississippi Ave. Portland Dining Month features 3-course meals for $29 from some of Portland’s best restaurants, including North Light and Aviary, where we went on Friday. North Light’s 3-course meal was outstanding, especially for the $29 price. A roasted beet salad to start was anything but ordinary, with pickled beet tops, frisée, spiced almonds and blood orange-goat cheese dressing. The main course was a combo of duck confit and seared duck breast served with parsnip purée, marasca cherry demi-glace and radicchio salad. For dessert, we split a crème fraîche cheesecake with oat shortbread, citrus supremes and blood orange coulis. North Light is also one of the select Portland Dining Month restaurants offering suggested beer pairings. While the beers were nothing out of the ordinary, Hopworks Organic Lager went nicely with the salad and Deschutes Black Butte Porter was a perfect pairing for the duck. Honestly, it had been entirely too long since I’d had a Black Butte, and I was happy to realize that it is still one of the best porters out there. As for the meal, it was a ridiculous value at $29 per person. If you don’t trust me, Eater PDX recently named North Light as one of their best deals for Dining Month.
We wrapped up the weekend on Sunday with breakfast at Mother’s Bistro right downtown (excellent) and then a couple of hours at the Portland Art Museum to catch their special exhibit on Italian Style. Overall, this was another great Portland weekend. I was a bit sad to not have time to hit some of my favorite spots, like Cascade, The Commons, Apex, Hair of the Dog, Belmont Station, etc…but I’ll certainly plan to be back soon for more fun.