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Foam, Foam on the Range : Proud Portland has earned a reputation as the microbrewery capital of America

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<i> Former Times managing editor for food, Drake is now a free-lance writer living in McMinnville, Ore. </i>

Eight glasses of beer for $4. It was a brew drinker’s paradise. The almost black, malty Terminator Stout was as smooth as silk. A lingering aroma of raspberries wafted above the red-blushed Ruby. Old Bush Wacker, Hammerhead and Crystal Ale each had its own unique color and taste. The names were as distinctive as the flavors: personal, vivid and often light-hearted.

Sitting at a tiny table littered with glasses, I couldn’t help but draw questions and comments from fellow patrons. “It’s ‘the brewery taster.’ It’s listed on the menu,” I explained to an ogling couple at the next table, who then enthusiastically told me about the brews their son concocts in his garage.

Here in the microbrewery capital of America, beer is taken seriously and so is its partnership with food. There seems to be a brew for every taste and occasion, although personally, I think breakfast ale is carrying a good thing a bit too far. From casual brewpubs to white tablecloth restaurants, diners are enjoying what one local restaurant reviewer has named “keg cuisine”--the foods made to accompany locally made brews.

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My first taste of this was fish dipped in a batter made with a brewpub’s own ale. The coating, which locked in the moistness of the fish, was light and deep-fried to golden brown. Three ample pieces came accompanied by a generous portion of real , freshly-made French fries. Terrific pub food . . . and only $6.

Brewpubs really didn’t start appearing here until the last decade, but Oregon has a long tradition of beer making, probably stemming from the simple fact that all of the necessary ingredients are at hand: abundant, pure Cascade Mountain water, grains and fruit from the state’s farms and hops from the Willamette Valley.

The first brewery opened in Portland in 1852 and others quickly followed. Early breweries were generally small operations and, according to local historians, the beers they brewed were as individual as the brewmasters who made them.

Prohibition closed the pioneer breweries--some temporarily, others for good. After it was repealed, the tiny breweries didn’t reopen and the area’s beer making fell to a few large breweries. Then, in the early 1980s, entrepreneurs once again began opening small, commercial beer-making concerns. Dubbed “microbreweries,” they not only brought back old-style brewing, they started serving food with their distinctive beers.

The ambience of the individual microbreweries varies, but the distinctive aroma of malt and hops permeates them all. Many are adjacent to but separated from the brewery by windows, allowing diners a peek at the brewing process.

Such is the case with the intimate Portland Brewing Co., which is housed in an old creamery in the Pearl District--an industrial area of downtown Portland. Most of the year a red awning is the only distinguishable exterior feature, but in warm weather, tables and chairs out front create a kind of sidewalk cafe.

Inside, the pub has a dozen or so green-topped wooden tables with captain’s chairs. There is a limited menu of beef stew ($4.25), chili ($3.75), sandwiches ($4.25 to $4.95), pizza ($4.50 for an 8-inch pie) and salad ($4.25); some of the items are purchased by the restaurant from other sources.

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Tall windows on the back wall offer a front-row view of the brewers at work making their American-style beers, including Portland Ale, McTarnahan’s Ale, Portland Porter, Timberline Ale, Mt. Hood Beer and Portland Stout, as well as seasonal brews Oregon Dry and Winter Ale.

I like the small size and friendly style of this microbrewery. When an employee spotted me peeking in the windows before opening time, he immediately opened the door and invited me inside. On another visit, I was welcomed like an old friend and drawn into a conversation with half a dozen other employees and patrons who were discussing the area’s scenic beauty. They were even nice to me after they found out I am a former Californian.

Named for a brewery founded in 1909, Portland Brewing Co. is the dream of long-time beer-drinking buddies Fred Bowman and Art Larrance. A handful of other investors each receive a pint of beer a day as part of their dividends. It’s that kind of place.

BridgePort Brewery & Brew Pub is also located in the Pearl District, in a century-old building that once housed a rope factory. Opened in 1984, it is Oregon’s oldest operating microbrewery, and it is owned by the Ponzi family, who are also pioneers in Oregon wine making.

“We want to keep the emphasis on our beer,” the bartender said, explaining the limited pub food menu. But what is served is interesting. Unfermented beer wort, taken hot from the brew kettle, is used to make the dough for their pizza and it gives the sourdough crust a tangy, nutty sweetness ($1.95 a slice). The same dough, made fresh daily, is used for focaccia sprinkled with coarse salt and fresh herbs ($1 per slice).

The standard brews include BridgePort Ale, Coho Pacific Light Ale, Blue Heron Bitter Ale and Double XX Stout. Seasonally, they make Old Knucklehead Holiday Barleywine, Spring Draught and Summer Wheat.

McCormick & Schmick’s Harborside and Pilsner Room is the most upscale of the city’s microbrewery/restaurant combinations. It’s part of RiverPlace, a sort of urban resort containing a hotel, housing and shopping, on the southwestern bank of the Willamette River in downtown Portland.

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The dining room menu changes seasonally but there are also daily changes. The chef and brewmaster collaborate on menu items that blend the brews with foods. Among recent selections were the brown ale pork chop (a double thick chop braised with pears and dried figs, $11.50); golden ale sea scallops sauteed with butter, red bell peppers and scallions ($13.70); wassail chicken breasts braised with dried Bing cherries ($12.50) and stuffed petrale sole with Dungeness crab and bay shrimp poached in M&S; Pilsner and served with a beer blanc sauce ($13.95).

Pub fare, which is a little simpler and also a little more economical, is served in the adjacent Pilsner Room. Peel-and-eat spicy pilsner prawns ($7.90) and pilsner beer cheese soup ($2.95) are spiked with the brewpub’s signature drink, which just happens to be the first pilsner ever brewed in a Portland microbrewery. You can also get burgers ($5.75 to $5.95), pizza ($5.50 to $7.50), beer-battered fish and chips ($6.65) and sandwiches. Specialties include the two McCormick & Schmick beers produced by the microbrewery, brews of Hood River Brewing Co. and other area microbreweries, a broad selection of Northwest wines and 25 brands of single malt Scotch.

Thick, dark green carpet, wood paneling and furniture, and lots of beveled glass are used in both the restaurant and bar. Two-story windows in the tiered dining room, as well as the Pilsner Room, provide an impressive view of the marina and the river.

Through windows on the west wall of the Pilsner Room you can see the brewery’s huge copper vats. From the mezzanine level of the bar, you can take in a bird’s-eye view of the brewery operation. The space for the microbrewery is actually leased to Hood River Brewing Co., which is technically a tenant of the restaurant.

A similar arrangement exists between Widmer Brewing Co. and Heathman Bakery and Pub--also in downtown Portland. Although separately owned, they are so close together you can watch brewery action through the connecting glass wall while you sip interesting brews and nosh something from the pub’s eclectic menu.

A popular lunch spot, the restaurant bakes a wide assortment of breads in its brick, wood-burning oven. Some varieties are sliced and used for menu items; others are sold by the loaf to take home.

Place your order at the display case of breads, desserts and salads that runs down one wall. Northwest foods are featured in soups, sandwiches and salads. An ale taster’s sampler ($7.25) includes game pate, sausages, smoked meats, cheeses and bread.

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Pizzas, also baked in the copper-hooded oven, include: pesto (with mushrooms, smoke-dried tomatoes and Parmesan, $8.25); Northwest (bay shrimp, smoked salmon, feta and roasted peppers, $8.95), and smoked lamb (smoke-dried tomatoes, lamb, spinach and feta cheese, $8.95).

The atmosphere is casual, with wide-plank wooden floors, wooden tables and brightly painted redchairs with rush seats. Flags with the red, black and white Widmer logo and colorful fabric hangings of fish dangle from the high ceiling and are swayed gently by the breezes of fans above.

The microbrewery is one of two owned and operated by the Widmer family: brothers Kurt and Rob and their father, Ray. They brew German-style beer, which Kurt learned to make in Dusseldorf, and yeast for their beers was imported from the Brewing Research Institute of Bavaria. They brew Altbier, Weizen and Hefeweizen year round; Festbier, Bockbier, Maerzen and Oktoberfest, seasonally.

One of my favorite brewpubs, McMenamins Power Station Pub is part of Edgefield, a complex that includes the pub, a microbrewery, bed and breakfast, theater and winery. It’s situated 20 minutes east of downtown Portland, on land that served for decades as the county poor farm.

This is one of the most ambitious efforts undertaken by brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin, who opened their first microbrewery in 1985. At last count, the company owns 11 microbreweries and 26 pubs, which carry an assortment of names.

Good country-style breakfasts are served in the pub until 11 a.m. on weekdays and noon on Saturday and Sunday. The menu includes stone ground ten-grain porridge ($3), homemade sausage (solo, $1.80, or in cream gravy served over homemade biscuits, $4), omelets ($5.50), eggs ($3) and hot cakes ($3.25 to $4.25).

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Although the menu states “We brew our very own breakfast ales,” Dennis Bjelland said that this is really just a joke and that the brews are actually served throughout the day. From lunch to closing they offer pub food, similar to that in other McMenamin brew pubs, including the fish and chips I already described. Prices vary slightly from place to place. The brewery taster of six ale samples (eight the night I indulged) is $6 at Edgefield, $4 at some of the company’s other microbreweries.

Standard brews include Cascade Head Ale, Ruby (made with Oregon raspberries), Crystal Ale, Terminator Stout and Hammerhead Ale, and seasonally they produce Old Bush Wacker.

The number of brewpubs in the Portland area increases each year and experts predict the trend will continue for at least the next decade. And why not? They typically serve distinctive brews and good quality food at affordable prices.

GUIDEBOOK

Directions for Beer Chasers

Many microbreweries offer tours. Call ahead for hours.

BridgePort Brewery & Brew Pub, 1313 N.W. Marshall St., Portland; telephone (503) 241-7179.

McCormick & Schmick’s Harborside and Pilsner Room, 0309 S.W. Montgomery St., Portland; tel. (503) 220-1865.

McMenamins Power Station Pub, Edgefield, 2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale; tel. (503) 669-8610.

Portland Brewing Co., 1339 N.W. Flanders St., Portland; tel. (503) 222-3414.

Widmer Brewing Co. and Heathman Bakery and Pub. The brewery is at 929 N. Russell St., Portland; tel. (503) 281-BIER. The pub is at 901 S.W. Salmon St., Portland; tel. (503) 227-5700.

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