A Beerhead Abroad: The Oregon Taleby Brian Jacobs
Oregon, the final frontier, when Kirk and Spock weren't even a glint in their writer's eye. Oregon, with its rivers, forests and mountains. Oregon, where the snowmelts of the mighty Columbia collide with Pacific rollers to create one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world. Oregon, where Mount St Helens blew its top back in 1980, and covered the world in ash. Oregon, the hop and brewing capital of the USA. Oregon, where the Good Lady and myself arrived one steaming hot July day, and prayed the weather would get no warmer than the 30 or so degrees we landed in; it did.
The Pacific northwest of the USA is magnificent. Mountains, volcanos, forests and desert are all wrapped up in one king size package. Oregon keeps Washington from colliding with California, and is the heart of the region. It's also the craft beer capital of the USA - Portland, alone, is home to over 90 craft breweries; it was tough drinking our way through that lot, but, cometh the hour... Most American hops are grown this area - ever wonder where Cascade hops come from? Here's a clue: the Cascade mountains track the coast all the way through Oregon, and it's no exaggeration to say that they match their eponymous hops in magnitude and satisfaction. There can't be many places in the world where you can drink outrageous craft beers, watch snow-capped volcanos, and swelter in 42C temperatures in a Portland brewery bar, having left Astoria on the coast that morning at a mere 16C. Oregon is Big on everything, and it takes no prisoners, oh no. It certainly doesn't with anything which hits your digestive tract. The USA takes some getting used to, not least in understanding speech. Sure they speak English, but they understand in American. It's not just a case of 'sidewalk' for pavement or 'elevator' for lift.; there are far more fraught nuances. For example, if an American host asks you how your meal was, and you answer 'fine', their anguished response will be 'what was wrong with it?'; it can mean anything from awful to lukewarm appreciation. On the other hand, if you say it was 'nice', he'll rub his hands with glee. If you ask for chips with your meal, you'll probably end up looking blankly at a pile of crisps.
In the Pacific west, eating out is an assault on the senses. Americans are fanatical about having cheese in every dish (which wouldn't be so bad if much of their cheese wasn't so disgusting). I remember one bistro where the meal was described as 'cheese, cheese, with added cheese'. They are likewise devoted to tabasco and chilli. Tony's Crab Shack is a famous 'oyster shack' (the shellfish equivalent of a greasy spoon) in Brandon, north California, where they serve the most divine Pacific oysters, but smother the superb flavour with a fiery tabasco sauce. In this part of the USA, subtle sauces, and their discrete use, are unknown - dishes are either hot or insane. Likewise, it seems obligatory to add coriander (they call it 'cilantro') to every dish - we had a selection of six takeaway curries in Bend, Oregon, which were so heavily laden with coriander and chillies, that we might as well have ordered six portions of the same dish. I amazed our hosts at one meal by preparing a dish of 'shrimps' (we call them prawns) and avocado, flavoured only with a little paprika and mayonnaise. That said, there is a lot of very good food, especially shellfish; Pacific oysters, prawns and especially scallops are of a magnificent size and flavour, and very reasonably priced. Likewise, craft beer is not for the faint-hearted. The USA has embraced it with a passion that we Brits can scarcely imagine, and they demand ever more extreme and diverse brews to satisfy that passion. Not for them are gentle, malty best bitters or innocuous milds - most American craft beers start in the five percents and end way up in the tens and above, and many of them are turbocharged with power-mad hops. Imperial Stout, for example, isn't just an occasional treat as in the UK, you can even find it in petrol stations and street-corner supermarkets. So enthusiastic is their lust for hops, they even add them to cider, and what a strange beast that is!
Craft beer is everywhere, bars, pubs, cafes, restaurants, supermarkets, service stations - we even visited a cinema (admittedly it was the size of Sandown) which offered so many beers, you selected them, as in most bars we visited, from a menu! And you could take them to your seat and sup while you watched the film, along with your burger and fries. Unlike UK pubs, it's de rigeur to have food with your pint - it isn't compulsory, but most punters do. Now, I'm not one who thinks that the pairing of food and beer is necessarily a good thing - I prefer to keep the two separate, and I find beer is of such bulk that it bloats you out when combined with food. That said, I did discover that Laganitas IPA (the model you get in the UK) goes very well with oysters. However, the USA is big in every way - including cost. Craft beer is typically $6-$10 a pint, sometimes more, and even in supermarkets a 6-pack will cost you around $14. The hardest thing to get used to for us Brits is that, on top of dear beer, you're expected to tip $1 a pint; when you've just forked out 8 for the beer, that comes kinda hard. The USA is the global tipping capital, and you tip if the person behind the counter just smiles and says 'Hello'. But beer isn't them only thing that's expensive - even something as basic as half a pound of butter will set you back some $4. And there are no free rides. In the UK, we get used to museums and galleries being free, but in America they rarely are.
But back to the beer. If you thought that the story of American brewing was as easy as ABC (Anheuser-Busch, Coors), think again . While these questionable brands might outsell craft beets by a factor of 10, their market presence seems diminished by the availability and popularity of craft. Even the humblest outlet in the USA is a smorgasbord of beery delights, and you'll find as good a selection of craft beers in a country gas station as in a London craft beer bar. We popped into what was, for me, the best pub of the trip, the Triangle in Astoria (itself a very interesting town), a real locals bar, and of the selection of 6 draught beers, only one was non-craft, and the 6.7% Buoy (they pronounce it booee) NW Red Ale was very satisfactory.
In fact, the problem is, where on earth do you start - in the land of sweet-shops, what's the best sweet? We visited a beer supermarket the size of Morrisons in Newport, and stood there in blank bewilderment. The irony was, the beer I was looking for was out of stock! At the ABV pub in Portland, the generous selection of draught beers was supplemented by around 20 full-sized chiller cabinets of bottled beers. Now you might think that a hops and alcohol addict like myself would be dwelling in Beulah Land (aka paradise). However, you can have too
much of a good thing; after a week of maxing out on beers that matched my menu, I was hopped out and longing for a gentle, slightly malty, slightly hoppy English cask beer. Surprisingly, I did actually find it in the form of cask-conditioned Deschutes Freshly Squeezed IPA, a sweetish, unassuming and fruity little number, which, at a mere 6.4% and 60 IBUs (International Bittering Units), was the USA equivalent of small beer, and gave my constitution a breather. Possibly the 8.4% Raving Fan IPA I followed it with was less of a good idea.
However outABVed I was, it was hard to resist the lure of the hard and hoppy for too long, and my bibulous tour of the Pacific Northwest duly resumed. A list of the bars and beers I sampled would be tedious reading for you, so let me just give a brief account of the highlights. Undoubtedly the brewery of the trip, and one familiar to UK beerheads, was Laganitas, who brew in Petaluma, California. Their 6.2% IPA is readily available in Wetherspoons and some supermarkets, and I have seen the impressive 8.7% Little Sumpin' Extra Ale over here, but their range in the USA is far more than that - their website currently lists 32 craft beers, including 3 imperial stouts, one of which was on sale everywhere and I just kept going back to it, rich, chocolatey, hoppy and very anaesthetising. This was not my beer of the trip, though - that accolade went to their Wilco Tango Foxtrot, described as an Imperial Brown Ale, which, at 8.1% and 64 IBUs, was beautifully balanced and very dangerous.
Laganitas might have been my favourite brewery, but there were others only a stagger or two behind. Rogue Brewery, which takes its name from the magnificent Rogue Valley, resides in Newport, Oregon (which actually isn't a lot bigger than its Isle of Wight namesake), and it was such an interesting brewery that it will be the subject of a separate article. I found the oddly-named Pfriem Brewery to be most satisfactory, and their 11.5% Imperial Stout was as delicious as its strength might suggest. Even that was a lightweight compared to Boneyard's Quad IPA from Bend, which weighed in at a staggering 13%, but its sheer intensity defeated even me.
I've been to the USA a few times now, and it never disappoints. The Pacific North West is stunning, and it would take a book to effectively catalogue my experiences there, from playing shuffleboard (like giant Shove'apenny), to walking underground streets, marvelling at the Chihuly Glass Gallery, which sits in the shadow of the Space Needle, Seattle, to flying in a vintage Cessna down the Columbia Valley, from eating Pacific oysters to getting maxed out on stunning craft beers. The Americans have a reputation for being brash and insensitive, but those I met were delightful - Brit-loving, helpful, gregarious, and desperately deserving of a president who isn't a twittering buffoon. The USA is full-on for scenery, beer and sheer scale, wherever you go; it's a place everyone should visit at least once, and preferably more - you'll never forget it!