If Portland, Oregon, is the city “where young people go to retire,” then McMenamins is our country club. The ubiquitous chain scattered throughout Oregon and Washington is akin to an adult Disneyland: playgrounds […]
This report is cross-posted on my American Robotnik blog.
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When I moved to the U.S. in 2003 I was skeptical about microbrews. Having been raised on Czech/Slovak lagers of the pilsner variety, the various production of the burgeoning Oregon craft brew industry exceeded my palate’s tolerance level. It took me years—until I started brewing my own beer in 2012—to begin enjoying IPAs, for example. Once I got into ales, pilsners became something of a spurned lover. A major reason for this was the paucity of pilsners I enjoyed (you tried, Southern Oregon Brewing Na Zdraví Pilsner and Hopworks Urban Brewery Lager, but dice). Somehow, I felt, local brewers could not get the pilsner style right and I pretty much gave up the search.
Until this year. In a span of months, I’ve stumbled upon four most excellent and inspiring Oregon pilsners.*
No. 3 best Oregon pilsner: Heater Allen Pils and Baerlic Eastside Oatmeal Pilsner (tie)**
Two excellent pilsner discoveries in three days? In Portland it’s possible.
A pit stop at Green Dragon last Saturday on a walk through inner Southeast Portland ended in a special reward: Heater Allen Pils. I’d been meaning to try this brew for a long time but was always hesitant to shell out for the fancy-looking bottle it comes in. A single sip of this Oregon pilsner, made in McMinnville, at a picnic table on the back patio of this local standby (50+ beers on rotation at any one time) and I was transported to a IV. Price Category pub, i.e. dive, somewhere in Holešovice, a Prague suburb. Drinking this crisp, cold brew on this hot afternoon was like traveling back across the ocean and in time without leaving my current home town.
By contrast, the Baerlic Eastside Oatmeal Pilsner, from Southeast Portland, got me feeling like an explorer as I enjoyed it at another Portland beer connoisseur standby, the Belmont Station. The brewers didn’t just get the style right, they found a way to improve on the style by using oats in the grain bill, which lend the brew a chewy, homey quality, not to mention a near-perfect head despite the barkeep’s proclivity, very common in the U.S., to avoid pouring too big a head lest the customer complains of getting cheated on volume. The new, unique combination sent me to unknown realms of golden abundance more effectively than any Czech or Slovak beer commercial.
No. 2 best Oregon pilsner: Occidental Brewing Bohemian-Style Pilsner
Because four out of five trips in town I make by bike, St. Johns feels far away. It’s not the physical distance—St. John’s is only about 10 miles from where I live. The distance is mental: there simply isn’t time or reason to go there during the work week.
But on weekends, St. Johns becomes a North-Portland destination within the city limits. I looked up breweries in the area and found Occidental Brewing, which focuses on German-style beer sold under a brand identity that reminds me of old American sports-team logos. The gently-sloping ride ends on a sharp downhill leading to Cathedral Park beneath St. Johns Bridge, Oregon’s most beautiful span. Though the taproom is tucked in the corner of a one-story industrial-warehouse building, inside is heaven. Some shared tables offer a perfect setting for the Bohemian-Style Pilsner. This is how a beer should taste halfway through an easy bike trip on a sunny spring day. It is a standalone reason to visit St. Johns.
No. 1 best Oregon pilsner: Buoy Czech Pils
Buoy Czech Pils started it all. Lindsay and I were spending the Presidents Day weekend in Astoria, Oregon, where we visited a new taproom of Buoy Brewing, located in an old pier warehouse with views of the Columbia River and a window in the floor to watch sea lions among the pillars. It was a warm February day, and the beer list so impressive I had a hard time deciding. I have no clue what led me to pick the pilsner, a style I was still skeptical of at the time—a sudden spurt of a traveler’s adventurousness, perhaps, or I just misspoke. But the first sip transformed my world: where the later Oregon pilsners inspired various travel fantasies, this first one was a revelation. A true Oregon pilsner is possible!
Giant cargo ships passed by while people waited hours for a table (we got lucky arriving during a lull) and sea lions barked underfoot. I was having the best pilsner of my American life—cold, crisp, hoppy with just the right bite—wanting to stand on the chair, nay, climb up to the roof and yell the fact for all to hear. But the beer was just so good I kept it it to myself.
When we passed through Astoria in May, on the way to a weekend in Long Beach, Washington (look out for a future blog post), our waitress introduced me to her coworker, a very busy Czech bartender named Milan. While the USNS Comfort hospital ship glided toward the Pacific Ocean, we chatted in our respective languages, two former compatriots in love with our new homeland and its beer. The pilsner experience in Oregon just doesn’t get better than that.
* In all fairness, the ranking does not necessarily reflect my preference, it just follows a reverse chronological order of tasting, No. 3 most recently, No. 1 way back in the winter when this new pilsner chapter of my Oregon craft brew life began.
** These two pilsners are tied because, well, who wants to be Number 4?
Perched on northern-most tip of the Oregon Coast, Astoria is not a beach destination like its neighbors to the south. Except for a few views from higher elevations, it’s far from pretty and even a tiny bit funky: arrive to town from the east and one of the first businesses you’ll notice is a seedy-looking joint called Desdemona Club. Notes of sea lion and diesel fuel flavor the breeze while the mouth of the Columbia River, providing the main view from downtown, serves as a freeway for giant cargo ships. There’s more than one shop peddling crystals and tarot cards and a few bars even the most adventurous of dive bar lovers wouldn’t set foot in. These and other peculiar traits are why we love it.
We’re not the only ones—Astoria’s popularity has surged in recent years, perhaps as a weekend destination for Portlanders like us. And if you are willing to take Portland Mercury’s I, Anonymous column as a credible source, Astoria’s locals are not entirely impressed with city slickers’ recent fascination with their town.
Regardless of the local reaction, we decided to find out for ourselves what the heck outsiders find so cool about Astoria, Oregon.
A bubbly brew or two
Anyone who says Oregon doesn’t need anymore craft breweries hasn’t visited Astoria’s Fort George Brewing and Buoy Beer Company. In 2014, Buoy opened a restaurant and taproom in an old pier warehouse with views of the Columbia River and a window in the floor to watch sea lions napping among the pillars below. On a President’s Weekend Saturday, we were lucky to get a seat before they announced a 2-hour wait, and enjoyed the Czech Pils and NW Red and shared a basket of fish and chips. It’s a stunning location, and sometimes has the crowds to go with it.
Though we could have spend the weekend drinking Buoy (we returned a second time), it was hard to pass up an opportunity to visit Fort George. Since our first visit to their one room taphouse back in 2010, they’ve added a second floor and another tap room off the brewery. And they still can’t keep up: the place was overflowing and the service and food took a hard hit. The brewery taproom was definitely the highlight, with a large fireplace, spooky murals, and dim lighting, one might even call it romantic.
Astoria Brewing Company does claim to be the town’s oldest brewery, though they aren’t as keen on marketing as the other two, at least not to the Portland market. We didn’t visit this trip and in fact know nothing about their beer. A good reason to return.
While Astoria, Oregon is a small town, it has some massive sights, including the mighty Columbia Bar, where the river meets the Pacific Ocean and the giant Astoria-Megler Bridge. The best place to take it all in is along the Astoria Riverwalk, a roughly 6.5 mile path along the Columbia from the Maritime Museum (a nice stop for fans of seafaring) to the Port of Astoria. There are shops and restaurants, like Buoy, along the way, some interesting industrial leftovers from former cannery days, and views of the bridge from underneath that will make you feel very small and full of wonder about earthquakes.
Communing with the spirits
While parking to check into our hotel, we noticed some people hanging out in a shop on Duane Street who looked like they were having a good time. As seasoned travelers we know this as a sign to investigate. That’s how we found ourselves sampling a flight of spirits at North Coast Distilling. The owner/bartender was gleeful and friendly and suggested we try his Absinthe, which he served in the traditional manner: the iced Absinthe dripped from the tiny faucet of a large glass jar over a sugar cube into the glass. It pounded our heads with herbs and licorice and a nice warm buzz. I learned that I like gin after sampling their Painted Lady, a new American style concoction that weighed more on the floral and herbal side rather than the juniper one. We finished the one flight and departed after witnessing among the patrons exactly strong the Absinthe was. Seasoned travelers also know when to retreat.
Historic neighborhood hike to the Astoria Column
Our blog should really be called Walking and Drinking, because it seems that’s what we end up doing most of the time. We took another walk to the Astoria Column, a 125 ft tower built in 1926 on Coxcomb Hill, about a mile walk uphill from downtown. The column itself is beautiful, built to replicate Trajan’s Column in Rome. It features 14 spiraling murals depicting historical events in Oregon. The walk to the column from downtown took us through the town’s oldest neighborhood and past many homes on the National Historic Registry. We got a good peek at the condemned and recently auctioned Flavel House (different from the Flavel Mansion, now a museum).
From Coxcomb Hill, entry into the Column and up its spiral staircase is free and only costs your life when the strong winds whisk you off the platform to your death. According to those of us with acrophobia, the view from the hill is just fine.
Finally some food: Bakeries galore
If Scandinavian baked goods are your thing—and why wouldn’t they be?—Astoria, Oregon, is your town. Home Bakery has been making their famous cinnamon toast, called korpus, since 1910. Lindstrom’s Danish Maid, a bakery in the downtown, is a great spot to stock up on goods like Danish “crispies,” donuts, bread and, of course, danishes for your hike to the column. On this trip we stopped at Blue Scorcher, a cooperative bakery near Fort George Brewing, for espressos and a sour cream coffee cake. Their treats are beautiful but seem very vegan and gluten-free-geared, not necessarily qualities I look for in a baked good. Still, the bright atmosphere and strong espresso combined with a great view of the river were worth it.
There’s plenty to occupy a weekend in Astoria, but what about The Goonies? Isn’t that why people go to Astoria, Oregon? Film buffs know the town not only for the 1980’s pirate-themed kid flick, but other examples of cinematic excellence such as Short Circuit, Kindergarten Cop, Benji the Hunted, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. It makes sense that directors find Astoria film-able. It has an element of grandeur, some beauty mixed with industry, a bit of kitsch, and just the hint of a dark side. We like going there.
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