Oregon: The US state brewing some of America's best craft beers

In southern Oregon, just across the border from California, is Klamath Falls, a small, former logging town of 21,000 souls. And on Friday night it seems most of them are trying to get into The Creamery Brewpub and Grill on Main Street.

Housed in the 1935 Crater Lake Creamery building the brewpub is run by the Klamath Basin Brewing Company and has the distinction of being the only brewery in the world making beer using geothermal energy.

This isn't, perhaps, surprising given that for the past 30 years or so the town has been using that same energy to heat its footpaths in winter.

The Creamery Brewpub and Grill is housed in a boisterous, high-ceilinged room festooned with screens large and small, showing every sport you could imagine. The menu is full of pub classics hearty enough to kill the cat if you dropped one on said feline,  but it's the beers that shine.

Made with water from underground rivers flowing from the Cascade Mountains and the Crater Lake area, and heated by the local geothermal system, the beers are, the website says, "pure in taste and 'green' in production".

It certainly doesn't do them any harm and at the end of my tasting paddle – which featured a Rebellion Red Ale, Backroad Vanilla Porter, Defiance Double IPA, Notch 8 IPA, 51st State Pale Ale, Hard Hat Hefeweizen, Crater Lake Amber Ale and a Headstrong Blonde Ale – I'm thinking "Portland Shmortland".

For while in recent years Oregon's largest city has been getting the lion's share of attention as far as craft beer is concerned (it's not known as Beertown and Beervana for nothing), the southern Oregon region has been a quiet performer that is starting to come into its own, beer-wise.

And that's saying something for a state that has the most breweries (more than 200 at last count) a head in the US and which produced 1.4 million barrels of beer in 2014 and 1.7 million in 2015.

It also helps that towns such as Klamath Falls, Grants Pass, Ashland and Medford are surrounded by some of the most amazing natural beauty in the shape of Crater Lake National Park, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Klamath National Forest and, believe it or not, Wolf Creek Park.

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Klamath Falls is just south of Crater Lake, the spectacular remains of a volcano that blew its top 8000 years ago and left an almost perfectly circular caldera which, over time, filled up with water. If you can tear yourself away from the brewpub it's worth a visit. Or just wait there for the water to come to you in the shape of a Headstrong Blonde.

The road from Klamath heads north along the western end of the volcano's lower reaches until it hits Prospect and the start of the Rogue River, an angry white waterway which it hugs pretty much all the way west through rugged salmon fishing and whitewater rafting scenery to Grants Pass and the Climate City Brewing Company.

Run by Michael Held and Angela Ward, the brewery, bar and restaurant is in another big old building with plenty of history. After pouring out a tasting paddle of their Yellow Belly Blonde, Nookie IPA, Rainie Falls Red, Hyperion Porter, Irish Rover Stout and a very British Extra Strong Bitter, Held explains that the red-brick building started life as the Rogue River Brewing Company in 1886 and once had a tunnel beneath it through which barrels of beer were secretly rolled to the train tracks during Prohibition.

Through large plate glass windows behind the bar are the tanks and mash tuns that knock out a rotating list of IPAs, porters, stouts, doppelbocks and wheat ales. There was even, while I was there, an interesting experiment of barley wine being aged in a pinot barrel. It was, strangely, not hideous.

The menu, like the beer selection, is a vast cornucopia of styles from Thai salad to chicken wings, burgers and tacos. "We just wanted to take the best foods of all the places we've visited and out them on one menu," Held says. Hence the smoked duck poutine.

(Since that visit Climate City Brewing has partnered with The Paddled Pub to create an 11-kilometre Float the Rogue River (rapids included) experience. This essentially means drinking beer on a pub-style bar on a custom-built raft. Afternoon and sunset trips available.)

From Grants Pass I drive east towards Medford. With a city population of 79,000 and a metropolitan population of 208,000, Medford is one of the largest cities in southern Oregon and very different from Klamath Falls. It's a thoroughly modern city with plenty of parks and public space – and an economy very much devoted to the health-care industry.

It also has a thriving beer scene with Portal Brewing, BricktownE​ Brewing and the BeerWorks bar and bottle shop all within a few minutes walk of Central Avenue. Luckily I am staying the night and can afford to indulge. That said, I get to BricktownE, from the outside an unprepossessing saloon on the corner of Central and 8th downtown, and find myself unable to leave.

I'd like to say it's the fault of the industrial/corrugated iron motif going on in the bar which reminds me of home, or the friendly and knowledgeable bar staff, but it's essentially that there are so many beers and so little time. The Gunslinger Double IPA is the bar's most popular ale so it seemed churlish not to try one. Or was it two? There was a Whiskey Canyon Porter and a Table Rock red ale in there, too, I'm sure.

Next day I head gingerly south-east towards Ashland, a pretty city just 26 kilometres north of the Californian border and home to Southern Oregon University, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Caldera Brewing Company.

Ashland reminds me of the hippie area of Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, in the 1960s and '70s. Why this is so I have no idea as I've never been there. Maybe it's just that this university town exudes the sort of youthful, optimistic vibe that I imagine attracted people to Haight-Ashbury in the first place. Or maybe it's just the similarity of name.

Ashland's main drag is handsome, clean and tourist friendly. It's lined with restaurants, bars, cafes, galleries, well-kept historic buildings and second-hand bookshops. Lithia Park, which straddles Ashland Creek, is a well-used public space dotted with students and parents with strollers.

And just a block back from Main Street, around a central plaza known as The Bricks, are the three auditoriums where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the largest regional repertory theatre in the US, operates from February to October each year. While I am here I catch its version of Great Expectations, in which the actor playing Magwitch doesn't just mangle the London accent as take it out back and beat it to death. That apart, it's really well done – after all, when you sell more than 400,000 tickets you must be doing something right.

This year's season includes Julius Caesar, Henry IV Parts One & Two, The Merry Wives of Windsor and, among its non-Shakespeare offerings, The Odyssey and Disney's The Beauty and the Beast.

As any beer drinker will know, soaking up all that culture is thirsty work so I head to the Caldera Brewing Company. There is a Caldera Tap House Restaurant downtown, with a multilayered deck overlooking Ashland Creek as it tumbles out of Lithia Park but I'm more interested in the brewery itself, just a 10-minute drive away on the other side of Interstate 5.

Caldera first opened in 1997, became the first craft brewery on the West Coast to brew and can its own beer in 2005, and in 2010 moved to this purpose-built facility. It now brews more than 12,000 barrels of beer a year and a new canning line processes and packages 1200 cans a minute.

Outside, there are people lounging at picnic tables in the afternoon sun. Inside, there is a bar and restaurant lined almost to the roof with a 4000-strong collection of beer bottles and cans from around the world. And 45 beers on tap.

It's all very fun and funky, the tabletops decorated with beer mats from around the world, or, eclectically, pictures of dogs. After studying the beer bottle collection, I find a Coopers Red gathering dust on one of the shelves.

Here, my tasting paddle consists of its Pilsener Bier, the Ashland Amber (which won a gold medal at the World Beer Cup 2016), South Side Strong, the Repeater Repeater IPA and a chocolate coconut porter. Sadly, as I'm driving back to Klamath Falls later to catch the Amtrak back to Los Angeles I can only take small gulps – but I do leave with a bottle each of the Vas Deferens Belgian-style dark ale (from the limited edition small batch kettle series) and the Hop Hash IPA.

The Vas Deferens, says the literature, is made with a "little snip of this and a little snip of that" and is a "rare release, not meant to reproduce". It's certainly, I discover later as the train pulls out of Klamath Falls for the overnight trip to LA, an acquired taste, given that the "snips" include malt, orange bitters and blood orange zest.

And, if that's not enough, the eye-wincing label depicts a horned devil biting through a vas deferens amid a shower of blood and spermatozoa.

Still, as southern Oregon fades away into the night I am able to toast its rugged beauty and burgeoning beer industry with a plastic cup of Vas Deferens. And how often can you say that?

Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Travel Oregon and Discover Klamath.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa

traveloregon.com

meetmeinklamath.com

EAT/DRINK

The Creamery, Klamath Falls. See kbbrewing.com

Climate City Brewing Company, Grants Pass. See climatecitybrewing.com

BricktownE Brewery, Medford. See bricktownebeer.com

Caldera Brewing, Ashland. See calderabrewing.com

VISIT

Amtrak trains run daily from Los Angeles' Union Station to Seattle, leaving at 10.10am and arriving at Klamath Falls at 8am the following morning. Prices for superliner roomettes sleeping two people start from about $580. See amtrak.com

FLY

All the major airlines, including Virgin and Qantas, fly direct to Los Angeles from Sydney and Melbourne.

STAY

The Prospect Historic Hotel in Prospect has rooms in the main house from $US140-$US295 a night, depending on the season. Price includes breakfast. Motel room rates range from $US80-$US220 a night, depending on the season. See prospecthotel.com

Inn at the Commons in Medford has motel-style accommodation and is within easy walking distance of Central Avenue. Price includes hot breakfast buffet and Wi-Fi. See innatthecommons.com

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