Beervana & Beyond
Pacific Northwesterners like to say that surviving the long, gray, rainy winters hinges on two things: beer and coffee. It's fitting then that American craft beer and artisan coffee, as we now know them, were born in these parts. But that's not all. There are also a booming wine industry, indie distilleries and a growing number of cider makers – businesses all born from the hardheaded Northwest drive to do things right.
While many West Coast breweries claim rights to the early roots of the craft-brewing movement, there's no doubt Northwest brewers greatly influenced the evolution of this country's craft-beer scene. In the early 1980s, a few intrepid brewers started selling their beer commercially in Portland, including Brian and Mike McMenamin, brothers who opened the first post-Prohibition brewpub in Oregon in 1985. The McMenamin chain now includes over 50 locations in the Northwest – historic hotels, bars, restaurants, movie theaters and brewpubs. Check them all out at www.mcmenamins.com.
Other still-operating pioneers include BridgePort Brewing and Widmer Brothers Brewery in Portland and Elysian Brewing, Pike Brewing and Hale's Ales in Seattle. All of these breweries started out making small-batch beers in a variety of styles, a strong deviation from the bland, mass-produced commercial beers that dominated the market at the time.
Craft brewing allowed brewers to get creative, and many of them started making beer inspired by traditional European styles before creating riffs of their own. Take the English-styled India Pale Ale (IPA), which once included hops as a preservative to keep beer fresh aboard long sea voyages between England and India. Northwest brewers added copious amounts of hops to create IPAs that taste and smell like everything from pine trees to grapefruit rinds.
Highly hopped beers have come to define the Northwest, which is appropriate considering 90% of the nation's hops are grown in Oregon and Washington. It's not just the hops that local brewers say make their beers special, but also pristine water, locally grown and malted barley, and a willingness to experiment with new styles and techniques.
Today, beer aficionados (otherwise known as beer geeks) sip and savor beer as they would wine, and some urban restaurants have beer 'programs,' 'sommeliers' and cellars. Many brewpubs and restaurants host beer dinners, a chance to experience unique beers paired with multiple courses. But the heart of Northwest beer culture still rests inside the basic brewpub, a place where beers are brewed on-site – which means you're drinking them straight from the source.
Stroll through a local grocery store to see the scope of what local brewers are producing, or ask locals where to go out for a craft beer. Chances are you're near a brewpub, even in tiny towns such as Twisp, WA, and Baker City, OR. When visiting larger craft breweries, ask about upcoming tours or tasting events.
The Northwest's progressive coffee culture was born in 1971, when Starbucks opened its first location across from Pike Place Market in Seattle. The idea, to offer a variety of roasted beans from around the world in a comfortable cafe, helped start filling the American coffee mug with more refined, complicated (and expensive) drinks compared to the ubiquitous Folgers and diner cups of joe. Specialty coffeehouses started springing up in Seattle and Portland during the 1980s, the foundation of today's burgeoning coffee culture.
Today, you can find not only Starbucks on every corner in the Northwest (and USA, and abroad!), but also hundreds of independently owned coffeehouses. Coffeehouse culture in the Pacific Northwest encourages lingering; think free wi-fi, comfortable indoor and outdoor seating, and little pressure to buy more food and drink even after camping out at a table for hours. But the desire to caffeinate extends beyond the cafe; you'll be able to find drive-through coffee shacks in rural areas and on remote roads.
Locals take coffee just as seriously as beer, and for the most part, they prefer dark roasts. But ultimately, the quality of the beans and the roast determine a coffee's popularity. As with most food and drink in these parts, consumers demand details about what they're consuming – the wheres, hows and whys of harvests and roastings.
That attention to detail has led to extensive coffee-sourcing programs at Northwest roasteries, and many coffee roasters personally travel around the globe to source beans. Only in this way can they describe how coffee farmers in Guatemala treat their workers and coffee trees. At the most high-level coffee cafes, experienced baristas will happily banter about the origins of any roast and will share their thoughts about bean grinds and more. Try a trendy 'pour-over' coffee if you get the chance.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters, which started in Portland with one roastery and cafe in 1999, helped small-batch roasting go mainstream (the company now has locations in Seattle, New York City and Los Angeles). These days, 'micro roasters,' who roast blends and single-origin coffees to precise specifications in garages, metal shops and basements, create some of the best coffee beans in the world. Many Northwest cafes now feature beans from multiple micro roasters, or they roast their own batches on-site.
Many Northwesterners can remember a time when 'local wine' meant a varietal from northern California. That's because wine growing in the Pacific Northwest is a relatively new phenomenon: most vines were planted in the past couple of decades. Recent successes have spurred a boom in grape planting and wine production.
For the visitor, the burgeoning wine industry can mean an odd mixture of hole-in-the-wall tasting rooms and sprawling new hotels with wine-themed spa treatments, and it's easy to find people who will tout the non-Napa nature of the local wine regions or reminisce about the simpler times of days gone by.
Oregon's modern wine movement began in the 1960s, most notably when a handful of Californians made their way north to Oregon's Willamette Valley and planted Pinot Noir grapes, a delicate and difficult-to-grow variety. Oregon's hot, dry summers, cool, wet winters and rich volcanic soils mimic conditions in Burgundy, one of the few places in the world where the grape thrives. Pioneers David Lett, Dick Erath and Charles Coury planted the first Pinot grapes – along with Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling – and today the grape has come to signify Oregon wines. The state boasts more than 460 wineries and more than 20,000 acres of planted grapes everywhere from the dry, eastern Snake River Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area) to the Rogue and Applegate Valleys in southern Oregon.
Washington, which shares the same latitude as the French Burgundy and Bordeaux regions, has become the second-most productive wine region in the country after California. Fans of the state's wines say it's all about the soil, which was enriched over 15,000 years ago when the Missoula floods deposited a thick layer of sediment around the Columbia River Gorge. The dry climate and long hours of daylight help produce Washington's eclectic mix of wines. The Columbia Valley AVA covers more than a third of the state and produces 99% of the state's wine. A small part of that area, the Walla Walla region, has become the state's 'Napa,' with a plethora of tasting rooms, wine shops and B&Bs. Other good bets include Yakima, Ellensburg and Spokane.
And don't forget BC, which has over 200 wineries that straddle the Cascades: on Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and Fraser Valley and in the Okanagan Valley. These regions are known for crisp, fruity white and dessert wines, but reds, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir, are just starting to catch up in number.
Ever pioneering when it comes to imbibing, small-batch distilleries are popping up all over the Pacific Northwest. There's Eau de Vie of Douglas fir and lava-filtered vodka from Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, which was founded by distilling pioneer Stephen McCarthy in 1986. Or a homegrown Wheat Whiskey from It's 5 Artisan Distillery in Cashmere, WA. Victoria Spirits in Victoria, BC, makes gin from wild-gathered botanicals.
In Portland, seven east-side distillers make up Distillery Row, one of the few concentrations of artisan distillers in the country. These craft distillers have tasting-room hours, when visitors can sample everything from whiskey and absinthe to aquavit and fruit brandies. In the tradition of artisan craftsmanship, the owners are the distillers and they're frequently on hand to explain the distilling process and share their passion for the craft.
Sidebar: Bikes & Beer
Two of Portland’s greatest passions meet in the guide Hop in the Saddle: A Guide to Portland’s Craft Beer Scene by Bike. The slim title offers customized bike routes to the city’s hottest beer spots.
Second to California, Washington produces the most wine in the US, with over 750 registered wineries in 13 American Viticulture Areas. Top varietals include Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Biodynamics, one of the buzzwords in the wine world, focuses on the health of the soil by using organic and sustainable practices. For example, farmers deter pests by planting flowers or distributing bark chips rather than using pesticides.
Hop to It
Every August, fragrant and sticky green hop cones – the flowers of the hop plant – reach maturity. During the hop harvest, which lasts just a few weeks, farmers strip the cones from the bines and dry almost all of them. The hops will eventually add bitterness and nuanced aromas and flavors to beers around the world.
Some farmers pull aside fresh undried hops for local brewers, who personally drive trucks to hop farms to pick up the crop, the defining ingredient in 'fresh-hop' beers. These beers are special: they can’t be made in other parts of the country, as fresh hops must be added to a beer-in-progress within 24 hours of being picked. And they capture the bright and lively essence of a plant that defines Northwest beers.
Check out some of the region’s best fresh-hop festivals in the fall to taste the range of beers made during harvest: Yakima’s Fresh Hop Ale Festival, Hood River's Hops Fest and Portland's Fresh Hops Fest at Oaks Amusement Park.
The legal age for drinking in British Columbia is 19. In Oregon and Washington you have to be 21. In bars throughout the Pacific Northwest, alcohol is generally served until 2am (Washington), 2:30am (Oregon) and 3am (Vancouver).
In Oregon and Washington, you can buy beer and wine at supermarkets, convenience stores or private outlets (ie gas stations, specialty wine shops). When buying liquor in these states, however, you'll have to seek out state-approved liquor stores. In BC you can buy beer, wine and liquor from either private or government-sanctioned liquor stores; specialty wine shops also exist.