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 no 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?