Craft Brewing Defines Oregon as U.S. "Beer Capital"

Andrew Jones
National Geographic News
August 10, 2001

"What do you have on draught?" I asked the bartender as I wearily lifted myself up onto the barstool after a long day of walking. "Well, we brew all of our own beer here, sir, " he responded proudly as he swiftly handed me a menu with a run-down of all of Ringler's in-season and year-round beer selections.

Forest Park Pale, I read, "Nice and dry, with refreshing hop character, this Pale Ale is just the thing after a long hike in Forest Park or before a long hike in Forest Park. Or both." Forest Park of course being the largest urban wilderness park in the United States stretching northwest from where I now sat, in the downtown southwest district of America's unofficial craft brewing capital: Portland, Oregon.

The bartender, who also happened to be the manager, invited me upstairs to view Ringler's on-site brewing facilities which included an impressive and colorful array of hand-painted brew kettles. I was informed that the brewmaster had left for the day but not to worry, the beer downstairs would be flowing from the taps all weekend.

The craft brewery that I had wandered into was just one of more than 70 brewpubs (a restaurant and brewery on the same premise) and microbreweries in the Portland area. The city is well-known for its grassroots beginnings in home brewing and its now famous selection of microbrewed beers.

"The West has always had an independent spirit," said Eugene Gregg, owner and brewer of Oregon Trader Brewing Company in Albany, Oregon. "Microbrewing emerged off of the mainstream and struck a cord with the mentality of the people here in the Northwest."

The craft brewing industry, though once a way of life for brewmasters and saloon owners, was wiped out by Prohibition in the 1920s, not to emerge again until the early 1980s when a group of entrepreneurial beer lovers with a taste for beer and a head for business began opening small, commercial beermaking enterprises known as microbreweries.

The microbrewery brought much of the old-style tradition of beermaking full circle. Microbrewed beers are once again made with all natural ingredients: malt, hops, and yeast. The beer is produced in small, handcrafted batches according to recipes that are far too costly and time-intensive for huge commercial breweries.

When craft brewing did reemerge, the Pacific Northwest was at the forefront of the movement. Brewpubs and microbreweries began sprouting up throughout the region building the framework for a concentration of microbreweries that stands unmatched in the United States today.

"You would expect Los Angeles to be on top of the craft brewing industry out West, but I've found that Los Angeles doesn't brew to inspire the population. Up here, it's every other pub," said Todd Bryant Mercer, author of Bike and Brew America. "Here the beers are big. Here the beers are unfiltered and unique."

Portland, more than any other city in the country, has taken its demand for great quality brews and instilled it into the city's culture.

"People from Portland like good quality things—strawberries, tomatoes, beer, cheese. They like lots of things but they have to be good quality," said beer personality and author Fred Eckhardt, who lives and writes in Portland. "Lots of other brewers are so mundane. You know, Budweiser is trying to be the best brewer in the world, but if you try to please everybody, you end up not pleasing anybody. That's what we're working on, the 'anybody.'"

It was in Portland that Oregon's first microbrewery was opened. Chuck Coury started Cartwright Brewing Company in 1980 at 617 S.E. Main Street. The brewery lasted only two years—the beer wasn't great and the bottling was downright poor—but the response from Portland was enthusiastic. "The public forgave the beer's taste because they so much wanted a microbrewery in Oregon to work," said Nancy Ponzi, one of the founders of the Oregon Brewers Festival.

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