Taking flight

A sampler of beers at 2-year-old Hopworks Urban Brewery, which features all six of Hopworks' regular ales plus four seasonals. Its ales are crafted from organic ingredients in an eco-friendly building. (Nolan Hester)

I can't believe they want coffee.

Granted, it is 9:30 a.m. when I pick up my friends Jim and Lenora at the Portland airport. But in the weeks I've anticipated their visit, I've had beer on my brain.
FOR THE RECORD:
Portland restaurant: An article in Sunday's Travel section on microbreweries in Portland, Ore., misspelled the name of the Indian restaurant Vindalho as Vindahlo. —



Jim is a home brewer — or was, back in the dark ages before the microbrewery renaissance. Some of my fondest memories of our long friendship involve conversations over bottles cooled in the crawlspace of his New Mexico house. So I was eager to show off, if not my own brewing chops, those of my new hometown.

With about 40 small breweries in town — new ones open so frequently it's hard to keep track — Portland has overtaken Munich, Germany, as the brewing capital of the world. But numbers alone don't capture Portland's status among true beer aficionados, the kind who would sooner quaff hemlock than a Miller or a Bud. There's something about this most livable of cities that encourages innovation.

"You've got to have the right culture of people," says Marc C. Martin, a local beer writer who is launching a brewery tour business. "Portland is eco-friendly, green, bicycling, Birkenstock-wearing — it's a culture that lends itself to unusual and unique things."

Nationwide, so-called craft breweries account for only about 4% of all beer consumed (in Oregon, it's 12%), but they inspire near-religious devotion. Oregon's breweries draw more tourists than its fabled wineries, according to a 2006 study conducted for the state.

But Portland is known for great coffee too. So from the airport we make a beeline to Helser's, a breakfast spot in the city's northeast quadrant, for caffeine and generous plates of buttermilk pancakes and salmon hash. Thus fortified, we head to our first beer tasting — at the Portland Farmers Market.

Do you sense a theme here? Portlanders are passionate about fresh, local food, whether vegetables, cheese or beer made from just-picked hops. Fueling Oregon beer mania is the abundance and variety of hops planted here. Beer's other key ingredients are plentiful as well: top-quality water, barley for making malt and a laboratory that is one of the nation's two main producers of brewer's yeast.

My goal at the bustling market, held Saturdays on the Portland State University campus, is a stall operated by Upright Brewing. Though just a year old, it is generating lots of chatter among beer geeks.

Jim lifts a small plastic cup of Gose beer to his nose and inhales deeply. The cacophony of the market fades. We could be in Paris for a wine judging.

"Citrus," he says. Inhales again. "Lemon."

He takes a sip, making little lip-smacking sounds. "Effervescent," he says. I can't tell whether he's just humoring me.

Upright is — and isn't — a classic example of Portland craft beer. It isn't "hoppy," a heavy-on-the-hops style that has come to define Pacific Northwest ales. But in creating something that's not typical, Upright owner and brewer Alex Ganum is very much in the Portland tradition.

Many of his beers are Belgian and French farmhouse-style ales. Gose is an obscure German-style wheat beer with the unusual addition of coriander and salt, the latter contributing that hint of sparkle.

We taste Upright's light and refreshing Four, named for the percentage of alcohol it contains, and the dry Flora Rustica, then go in search of a classic hoppy ale.

But man cannot live on beer alone, so first we stop at Quintana Galleries. Jim and Lenora are avid collectors of Pueblo Indian art from New Mexico. Quintana — owned, it turns out, by a former New Mexican — carries dazzling examples of Northwest coast masks, boxes and intricately carved panels.

The gallery is in Portland's Pearl District, blocks of downtown warehouses converted to shops, restaurants — and pubs. We stop at the first one we come to, Rogue Ales Public House, where we are promptly overwhelmed by the 32 beers on tap.