Turning 21 in the US still means something. And for a drinker it means liberation – even more so for someone who has for the last three years already been enjoying pints in pubs back in Blighty.
Studying in the America was an opportunity not to be passed up and the fact that I would be hitting the legal drinking age while in Portland, Oregon, was the icing on the cake.
One thing that can strike a British visitor to this country is how unappealing bars look, in stark contrast to an inviting country pub. Many have blacked-out windows with large red signs on the door warning: No Minors Allowed and We ID. Not that one can blame them – alcohol consumption by people who are under 21 is taken seriously.
Unfortunately, however, that can mean that even those who are old enough may feel a reluctance to go inside, as though entering a bar were on a par with entering an “adult” bookshop. But this is what’s refreshing about Portland’s microbreweries and bars. Although you will certainly be asked for ID if you look young – in some cases even if you do not – they look more inviting and welcoming. They are not places you should be ashamed to be seen entering – rather, if anything, they are a part of the community with local people and tourists alike conversing and something any good watering hole should be.
Soon after choosing to study in Oregon, I learnt that Portland is home to more than 30 breweries, apparently more than any other city on Earth. I was liking this city before I had ever stepped foot in it.
A priority visit for me after my landmark birthday was the Deschutes brewpub, located downtown, which claims to fuse a distinct North West and classic Scottish pub feel. Having frequented far more English pubs than Scottish or Pacific North-Western ones I was prepared to take their word for it, but it was certainly a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city to enjoy a quiet beer, even on a rare nice day in a city known for its persistent rain.
My first choice was Inversion IPA, an American North West-style India Pale Ale. This was a very hoppy beer and as a fan of IPAs I was looking forward to the taste test, but I must confess I found it not unlike the English variant. The Inversion went down so well, though, that I found myself tempted to order another. Instead, I plumped for Black Butte Porter, the Deschutes flagship brand, and it certainly has a distinctive flavour. The hops are the first thing to hit you, giving it a slight bitterness upfront, though this soon gives way to be more malty and meaty – overly malty for my taste.
Fighting the urge to stay and see away the afternoon trying all the beers on offer, I made my way across the Willamette River to the Hair of the Dog Brewing Company. I chose Ruth, a light and refreshing American ale with a very distinctive floral aroma to it and a sweet taste, with a very low malt profile.
It was encouraging to see that both Deschutes and Hair of the Dog were well patronised. If this very unscientific observation is anything to go by, Portland’s brewpub market is thriving. Many of the beers are bottle-conditioned which, of course, can result in complex flavours and strong alcohol content, something which was becoming apparent when I decided I should call it a day.
Portland’s brewing history is almost as old as the city itself, for this is a mountainous region with just the right sort of soft, clear water that is needed to brew beer. But prohibition-era laws banning restaurants with onsite breweries were not repealed until the 1980s. Since then though, the brewing industry has been thriving and it is hard to find yourself more than a couple of blocks away from a microbrewery while downtown.
The microbreweries are not just confined to Portland. According to the Oregon Brewers Guild, the whole state has 87 and there are more than 140 places you can go to and drink an Oregon-brewed beer owned by an Oregon brewery. Deschutes, for example, was actually established in Bend, about 170 miles from Portland.
But you don’t have to visit a microbrewery to enjoy the state’s finest beers – in most Oregon general stores the alcohol shelves are full of local brews and many restaurants feature a selection of the more famous names.
There are also many beers from around the world easily available, including Boddingtons and Newcastle Brown Ale.
But it is a must for visitors to sample the local ales. The Pacific North West has a reputation for terrific wine and great coffee, but it can also hold its own against all-comers when it comes to beer.