These days, Portland, Oregon has become an alluring vacation destination. So it’s a surprise to most visitors that the first thing those of us who live here want to do is… get out of town. From the dramatic cliffs of the Pacific Coast to the towering waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, the best local attractions – and some of the state’s best beer – can’t be found in the city.
Pointing my car east on a clear day, Mount Hood is squarely in the center of my windshield. Right now, heavy layers of thick Cascadian snow insulate its every nook and cranny, which will stay put right through the heat of the summer. As tempting as it is to swing the steering wheel to the right and seek adventure, I have a different mission in mind this weekend.
Instead, I drive straight through the Gorge and get off I-84 in Hood River. Best known as the adventure gateway to Mount Hood, Hood River is also one of the premier windsurfing destinations in the world, positioned as it is at one end of the Columbia River Gorge, a wind tunnel that has occasionally ripped bikes and boxes off roof racks.
It also has some of the best beer in Oregon.
I throw my bag down at the Hood River Inn, a sprawling waterfront complex that has the only riverside dining in the town, and head out the back door to trot down the waterfront trail and into town for a weekend of beer, instead of storm, chasing.
Full Sail Brewing
My first stop is in the former Diamond Fruit Company building on Columbia Street, where I’m meeting Full Sail marketing manager Sandra Evans. “We started out here because the founders thought that three breweries in Portland were too many!” said Evans, with a raucous laugh. That was thirty years ago – Evans has been here for twenty of them – and they’ve been making their insanely drinkable ales, packaged in their signature stubby bottles, in Hood River ever since.
The brewery is a massive operation by Oregon standards, producing over 100,000 barrels a year and shipping beer to twenty-seven states. But they buy 99% of their ingredients from local growers and manufacturers, which is an easy enough task when you live in Oregon. Most of their hops comes from the Yakima Valley and malt from nearby maltstery Great Western, both just across the state border in Vancouver, Washington.
I ponder a few of their technological and sustainable upgrades, like a mash filter instead of a lauter tun that purportedly saves them over a million gallons of fresh, snow-melted water every year, and a barrel-aging room that looks more like an airplane hanger than any facility belonging to a brewery. But in the end, the main attraction is the place where you can actually drink their beer.
For years, Full Sail’s taproom was one of the few places in Hood River where you could even see the river during a meal. In the summer, it’s consistently packed and even on a gray, slushy day in February, the outdoor patio – it’s currently covered and heated – is crowded with couples and families. We order snacks off the happy hour menu, and I order the seasonal taster flight.
Evans helped designed the trays along with several Full Sail team members and Overkill Design in Beaverton, Oregon. Eye-catching steel “full sails” hold six samples apiece, either of their core brews or a seasonal flight. The trays – or sample holders, may be a more accurate term – are welded in Beaverton and stand commandingly, if alarmingly, tall on the table.
While the IPApaya catches my fancy with its exotic tropical aroma and the Slipknot IPA is one of their most popular beers right now, my favorite is the Session Cherry Black on nitro. The nitro gives the rosy mahogany lager an appealing creaminess – sweet but not too sweet, with a clean finish. Full Sail’s Session series epitomizes what the brewery is about – beers that are flavorful enough to be enjoyable, but balanced and drinkable.
“Balance is what we strive for,” Evans said, sipping her own pilsner. “And beers that are consistently good.”
Double Mountain Brewery
Just around the corner from Full Sail on 4th Street is another longtime Hood River favorite, Double Mountain Brewery. Their taproom feels a little bit like a Mormon family’s continuous renovation project, with each separate space – bar, dining room, second bar, second dining room – carved out of the building as their needs grew.
On a Friday night, the place is packed. I meet up with bar manager Phil Moulton and marketing coordinator Ashlee Bridgewater and wiggle into the brewing facilities to talk.
Double Mountain is a much smaller operation, producing around 11,000 barrels a year with distribution throughout the Northwest. Although they just recently opened another outpost in Portland, owner Matt Swihart remains cautious about their expansion plans. “Matt’s a brewer’s brewer,” said Moulton. “He makes the beers that make him and his twenty best friends sitting in his living room happy.”
I first started coming to Double Mountain because, when I moved to Oregon, they were the only brewery that made a good kölsch – straw gold and crisp, the perfect accompaniment to one of Double Mountain’s famous pizzas (my personal favorite is the Fire On The Mountain, or F.O.T.M., a spicy pie with hot wing sauce, chicken, crumbled bleu cheese, and green onions).
Moulton pulls a couple glasses of a seasonal beer release, Sweet Jane, off the fermenter and we sip while standing around, talking. Most of Double Mountain’s beer, even my favorite kölsch, is much punchier than a lot of people might be used to.
True to form, Sweet Jane uses pils and crystal malts to balance a hefty load of Cascade, Simcoe, Brewers Gold, and Cluster hops. But when the Yakima Valley is so close, how can you resist? “We have tons of resources in a beautiful place,” Moulton said. I have to agree.
When it comes time to order my F.O.T.M., I opt to try the endlessly creative Swihart’s new house dry cider, made with Newton’s and heirloom cider apples from their own orchard. It is just as crisp and sparkling as the kölsch, but it just doesn’t stand up as well against the pizza as their popular seasonal, the piney Gypsy Stumper IPA. They kick the keg right after I leave. Oops.
Volcanic Bottle Shoppe
After grabbing breakfast at the counter of Broder Øst – recommended if you like fluffy, adorable round pancakes called aebleskiver, steamed cardamom milk, and picturesque little trays of crispbread, cheese, and smoked trout for breakfast – I drive ten minutes up the steep slope to 12th Street, a neighborhood that the locals call the Heights.
Several people have recommended the Heights as “the local’s downtown”, when the streets near the waterfront are packed with summer vacationers. I walk down 12th Street, with its new barre studio and bustling bakery, and pop my head into Volcanic Bottle Shoppe just as it has opened for the day.
Word on the street is that Volcanic is the new place for locals to hang out after work, and they have an impressively curated variety of local and imported beers, as well as an outdoor patio that’s still buried under piles of snow. I’m enchanted with the tap list, which currently includes Pliny the Elder, Block 15’s Biere de Garde, and Woodland Empire’s Moondog, and briefly greet owner Abe Stevens as he’s wiping down the counter and getting ready for the day. But unfortunately, I can’t linger – I have a lunch appointment down by the water.
pFriem Family Brewers
On Hood River’s Portway Avenue, which fronts the waterfront park, lunch hour at pFriem Family Brewers is so busy that they have three – three! – hosts and hostesses at the stand when I enter. I catch a glimpse of several Double Mountain employees around the fireplace on the patio. Luckily, I’m meeting the photographer, Blaine Franger, with the king of the show, Josh pFriem, so I don’t have to wait an hour for a table.
pFriem is – what is the best way to put this? – awesome.
Since they opened in 2012, they have been wowing locals and the beer awards scene, both overseas and at home, with their expertly crafted Belgian- and European-inspired ales, sleek modernist brewpub built almost entirely with repurposed materials, and locally sourced food.
The brewpub’s family-friendly atmosphere is also inspired by Belgium’s beer culture. “We wanted to make quality food in a loving, beer-focused place,” said pFriem, who has two children of his own with Annie pFriem. “Our beers are made to go with food.”
We gobble down a charcuterie platter and salt cod croquettes, which happen to be the perfect accompaniment to a glass of the Brett Trois Pale. “Balance” is a word that might get overused in this town, but it applies. The beer is a warm, opaque gold in the glass and fruity, with just enough of a piquant Brettanomyces funk and a tart, refreshing finish. Later, at home, I will catch an irresistible aroma of honey and flowers wafting past me and realize that my husband is walking around with a glass of their barrel-aged saison.
“The three factors we took into account when designing our system are quality, throughput, and efficiency,” says pFriem over his mussels and frites. That explains how they’re able to produce around 10,000 barrels a year out of their state-of-the-art, semi-automated 15-barrel system. It also makes sense given that pFriem was head brewer under legendary Northwestern brewer and technical craftsman Will Kemper at Chuckanut Brewery in Bellingham, Washington.
Of course, items like pFriem’s 7,000-rpm centrifuge are much less compelling to me than the two prized and very low-tech foudres in his barrel-aging room – enormous wine vats that pFriem uses to age select sour beers. Later, when pFriem sends me back home to Portland with a case full of bottles, I will have the opportunity to taste one of the products of that aging process, the Oud Bruin. It reminds of me of nothing so much as a strawberry jam – dark and fragrant, tart, and sweet.
Bottles are clinking in the trunk of my SUV as I start the drive home back to Portland. As famously beer-friendly as the city is, there is an undeniable appeal to hitting the road and getting out of town. I know I’ll be back soon – maybe even before the snow melts.