In some neighbourhoods of Portland, there seems to be a brewery on every street corner. Peer into converted warehouses, and stainless steel vats gleam. You hear the clunk of beer taps and the slithery hiss of foam spilling over glass rims. Locals gather in the shadows like members of a secret society, swapping tasting notes as they hunker over flights of beer coloured from palest lime through to glowing amber and chocolate-dark.
Everyone has a theory on why Portland is the beer capital of the US: the quality water that trickles off the flanks of volcanoes, the world-class hops that come from the surrounding Willamette Valley. But as I pedal beside my guide Sarah, I'm beginning to think it's just because locals like beer. Already, she's in full cry about how wonderful the Portland beer scene is, as if born again rather than on her umpteenth brewery tour.
Portlanders are alternative, arty folk, more lately they have become hipster, and already know all about good wine and good food. The city has a seemingly un-American sense of fun and laid-back lifestyle that is suited to the brewery experience. And the natives have innovative flair, too: some of the beers in Portland are sour, some aged in whiskey barrels, others flavoured with apricot or rose petals. There could hardly be better conditions for the creation of a beer bonanza.
With dozens of micro-breweries across the city and a dizzying range of beer styles on offer, I've decided that a guided tour might make sense of it. Pedal Bike Tours has a three-hour afternoon outing during which Iwill need to ride only a few kilometres. This tour is heading from downtown across the Willamette River into East Portland, the incline on the bridge providing the only slight challenge in an otherwise flat cityscape. This is one of the city's buzzing new neighbourhoods, a former industrial area crammed with restaurants and micro-breweries. As we sail past Hair of the Dog brewery, Sarah mentions it's a personal favourite. It's known for high-alcohol, eccentric beers. "And also some of them are bottle conditioned, so that they actually improve with age in the bottle, rather like red wines."
This is not, however, our first stop, since Sarah tailors her tastings to the likes of those on her tour. Already she has inquired about our beer preferences, and says she's taking us to The Commons, a brewery first started in owner Mike Wright's garage. Now the brewery inhabits a brick warehouse with a mottled concrete floor and scattering of impressive stainless-steel fermenters and other equipment, around which visitors can wander. Thirteen taps line the bar, showcasing the brewery's small-batch craft beers; Urban Farmhouse Ale and Flemish Kiss are national award winners.
We all settle for a flight of four small beers, including a Rouge Melange – a Belgian single mixed with rosé and granache from an Oregon winery – and a tart Fleur de Blanc with a district citrus edge, though the barman tells us it's flavoured with elderflower. Some of The Commons' other beers are brewed with chamomile, lavender or boysenberries: the brewery aims for drinkable, Belgian-inspired beers suitable as light, summery thirst-quenchers. I'm not sure they're entirely to my taste, and they certainly won't challenge the true beer aficionado, but it's an interesting opening salvo on our suds-sipping adventure.
I'm feeling a pleasant buzz as we cycle on through East Portland and into Ladd's Addition, a leafy well-to-do suburb with rose gardens at each quadrant, filled with blooming hybrids. It's here that Sarah mentions that not all Portland beers are made with Oregon hops. "Although there are 14 varieties of hops grown in the Willamette Valley, we also import quite a lot of Australian hops," she says. "They provide a smoky and slightly tobacco flavour, whereas Oregon hops tend to have more pine, cedar or forest-floor flavours. We've tried to grow Australian hops here, but they just don't end up with the same taste."
On the edge of Ladd's Addition, we stop at Baerlic Brewing Company. Like many a local brewery, this one started in its owner's basement but, after winning competitions, recently moved into a small brewery and stylishly designed taproom of blond wood and blue chairs. Another flight of beers takes us through Baerlic's offerings, which are more to my palate than those of The Commons. I particularly like the Altera India Red Lager, which pairs a sweet German malt with citrusy Oregon coast hops.
Baerlic supplies tasting notes with its beers in the tradition of cellar doors. Perhaps I've tasted too many flights, but they make for amusing reading. In the Primeval NW Brown Ale, the notes say, you'll find a beer in which "aromas of evergreen, cocoa and sweet orange dance with biscuit, roast and malty sweetness that finishes with bittersweet chocolate and citrus". Our little group, giddy with afternoon pleasures, sip and slurp in a quest to identify this whirligig of exotic tastes.
"Baerlic's owners like to experiment," Sarah says after a while. "So drink up now, I expect the line-up will have changed quite a bit by the time your return."
As we pedal northwards several blocks, wisely sticking to quiet back streets, I ask Sarah to recommend some other breweries that we won't have the chance to visit today. On this side of the river, she nominates non-profit Ex-Novo Brewing Company. ("Their plum beer is fascinating and delicious and isn't sweet, that's my favourite there.") Within a walk of my hotel in downtown Portland, she recommends Tugboat Brewing Company, which she describes as a hole-in-the-wall specialising in British-style strong ales.
"And I like Crystal Ballroom, which is part of McMenamin's, a big company with over 60 bars across the city, five with onsite breweries. I'm not a huge fan of their regular beers, but individual brewers at each location get to make their own. At Crystal Ballroom, the character who serves the beer has great tales to tell and the tasting notes are really interesting."
Our last stop today, however, is Base Camp Brewing Company, which Sarah says many brewers nominate as their favourite brewery. Its tables seem to have been hacked out of tree trunks with a chainsaw, an upended canoe hangs from the ceiling, and the walls are decorated with photos of trekking and mountain climbing. The brewery bottles beer in aluminium bottles, the better to stash in backpacks. But despite the testosterone levels – this is the sort of place to discuss your latest encounter with a bear, or your last marathon – the atmosphere is laid-back. The outdoor patio features several fire pits, and the brewery invites a couple of food carts – those famous Portland mobile food kitchens – to occupy its car park and provide meals to go with its beer.
Base Camp is strong on lagers, which are somewhat overlooked on the Portland brewing scene. Some of the flights here run to 10 beers, but I think I've reached my limit. I ask for a S'more Stout, which comes with a toasted marshmallow melting on the rim of the glass. It's named for that favourite North American campfire snack, marshmallow and chocolate sandwiched between two graham crackers. It has a chocolate-y, malty flavour with a hint of vanilla. Maybe I'm just awash in beer, but it makes me feel happy. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon, and tomorrow I might just rent a bike and unearth a few more breweries. Three down, and only another 60-something to go.
United Airlines flies from Melbourne to Los Angeles (15 hours) or Sydney to San Francisco (14.5 hours), with onward domestic connections to Portland. Phone 131 777. See united.com
An opulent 1912 creation of a Portland timber baron, The Benson features a superb walnut-panelled lobby, old-time steakhouse and spacious rooms where Tempur-Pedic mattresses provide deep sleep. Rooms from $188. Phone +1 503 228 2000. See coasthotels.com
Pedal Bike Tours operates several Portland tours, including a three-hour Oregon Brewery Tour for $97 a person that visits several city breweries, which may differ from the ones described here. Phone +1 503 243-2453. See pedalbiketours.com
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Travel Oregon.