The Pacific Northwest (that’s the PNW to you cool kids) is a heaven for beer-mongers. Craft breweries are popping up like weeds, invading small towns and doubling up on city blocks. At the moment there’s almost 500 between Oregon and Washington and that number is ever-increasing season to season.
Though I’ve been to nowhere near all the breweries in the area, I’ve been to enough (read: 60 or so, and yes, I count my visits to all McMenamin’s establishments as one brewery total) to gauge what my personal favorites and most highly recommended locales are.
Holy Mountain, Washington: Occult themed beers with a cult following.
Seattle’s King County has over 100 breweries within its limits, but when Holy Mountain has a bottle release the city takes notice. The brewers here have a taste for Metal music which is visible in the occult-styled branding and in beer titles like “The Witchfinder”, “Demonteller”, “Transfiguration” and “The Gray Tower”; farmhouse saisons all. Not a one trick pony though, Holy Mountain can brew an excellent witbier and weizenbock, but the saisons are what they do best.
For such bleak beer themes the taproom is surprisingly light. The taphouse is located in an industrial warehouse Northwest of downtown, between a party supply store and a dry cleaner, but walk in and sunlight ricochets off the white walls and subway tile bar backsplash.
Visit in the summer and you’ll sip sour drafts in front of a rolled-up garage door, enjoying the breeze off Puget Sound rolling in while you watch train cars chug slowly by. Think of it as farmhouse funk with a dark and light side.
Upright, Oregon: Needle in a haystack brewery with minimalist interior.
This may be one of the hardest to find breweries in Portland. There’s certainly more out of the way breweries in the city, but at Upright you can arrive at the exact spot, 240 North Broadway, and still be totally lost. Located in the basement of an office building, you’ll make a circle around the main floor wondering Is this it? It doesn’t look like it, hop into the elevator and journey to the basement, see a bunch of gym bathrooms, get confused, take the elevator to the mezzanine, see nothing, then go home. Push through the madness, I implore you. Once you hit those bathrooms in the basement turn right and you’ll be golden.
Greeting you will be a bare-bones establishment. While some of the city’s breweries will be zomg so cool, this place doesn’t look like it’s trying (or it’s trying really hard to not try and it’s paying off). There’s a chalkboard menu on the wall, a few wooden picnic tables to sit at, and otherwise you’re camping out on the wet concrete floor next to fermenting beers.
Upright will add a really lovely bitter, lager or IPA into their mix, but don’t be fooled. Their farmhouse saisons are what you really want. Making their name on saisons dubbed “four”, “five” and “six”, if you find one of those bottles, grab it. Otherwise they have plenty of great options on tap to get a sampler of, then a glass of, then a bottle of… just remember you have to find your way back out.
Cloudburst, Washington: IPA Valhalla.
Do you enjoy west coast IPAs that are stuffed with hops, hops and more hops? Good, because Cloudburst is IPA crazy and always has a perfect rendition on draft. “Which should I order?” you may ask. Answer: Doesn’t matter. Each version brewed up is cloudy and creamy and completely unique, yet always fitting within the overall “style” of the brewery. Blindly line up one IPA from the brewery alongside ten from its competitors and you can pick out the Cloudburst brew from the bunch.
Nestled just a few blocks away is the ever-bustling Pike Place Market which draws in over 10 million visitors annually, and within the market is Pike Place brewing where it’s not unusual to wait an hour for a table, and a 10 minute walk away from this tourist hub is Cloudburst. Bustling but never jam-packed, this place is a well kept Seattle secret. On your way from downtown just keep an eye out for the sign as you’re nearing the waterfront or you’ll miss it.
Ninkasi, Oregon: Beer garden with Eugene funk.
Eugene: the epitome of Oregon weird. Portland thinks it compares with its unicyclists and zombie crawls, but I’d venture to say Eugene can out-odd the state’s most infamous city any day of the week. Here it seems like everyone’s porch is its own amusement park: there are lights and paper mache models, murals and rainbow tapestries, not to mention the occasional chicken coop. If this city could print Bernie Sanders on its currency, it would.
Ninkasi meanwhile is a bit more streamlined, but a community staple nonetheless. It’s located in the ever-so-hip Whiteaker neighborhood of coffee-hut-heaven and outside Ninkasi’s doors lie a park of permanently stationed food trucks (you can yelp them and everything!) ranging from chicken and waffles to sushi burritos.
I’ve never met a beer from Ninkasi I didn’t like and sometimes I meet a beer that I love. Years ago Ninkasi had a non-distributed helles bock at its brewhouse; it tasted like alcoholic honey suckle and made my eyes turn into happy little stars (not the x’s in eyes you see in cartoons after rabbits chug from unidentified jugs, but more like the stars in eyes you see in cartoons when the rabbit is seeing a beautiful mermaid or something). The brewery hasn’t produced anything earth-and-pupil-shattering recently, but they deserve a spot on this list for that helles alone.
Urban Family, Washington: Doesn’t have a specialty because everything is special.
Urban Family is hard to pin down because unlike a lot of breweries in the region I’m not entirely sure what they do. Cloudburst does IPA’s. Holy Mountain does saisons. Cascade does sours. Urban Family does everything though. They brew sours, farmhouses, IPA’s, breakfast stouts, dry hopped saisons, double IPA’s, triple IPA’s, and fruit beers, mixing in a collaboration or two. And the reason you should visit? They do it all well.
Try Suns out Buns out for a classic West Coast style IPA, perfectly balancing the line between hopped and too hopped, or the Tropic Heart sour ale brewed with mangos – opaque as OJ and fruity as can be. Located in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood it’s a bit out the way from downtown, but near the one-gagillion percent recommended Discovery Park. There’s nothing better after trekking to a lighthouse with superb sound views than sipping a taster tray of these beautiful beer babies.
Cascade, Oregon: IPA-light brewery on an all-IPA coast.
The culture of the west is based on a few key principles: get tan and stay tan; put avocado on everything; take your dog wherever you go; spit on those drinking coffee less than $3.00 a cup; and if you’re going to have a beer, make it the most hop-centric bittered up beer you can have. Cascade, looking upon this last rule said nah, bro and instead chose to create sour fruit beers and stick to sour fruit beers.
Their Kriek is a perfect example of their mastery: a sour ale double aged, once in oak barrels for eight months, then once with Bing cherries for another eight months, it’ll pucker your lips like no other yet you’ll crave more. The brewery says their Noyaux, a blend of sour blonde ales aged in white wine barrels, has a nose of rose petals and soft perfume notes, but mostly I just sip it then nod my head with enthusiasm.
Cascade is distinguishable from the others on this list in that you’re actually somewhat likely to stumble upon their brews in an East Coast bottle shop. The day I can find Upright on the East will be a very drunk day, so I’ll celebrate my sour victories.
Aslan, Washington: Solid beer. Solid food. 100% organic.
The only Washington brewery on this list not located in Seattle, Aslan lies to the North in Bellingham, a town whose big draws are the “Spark” Museum chronicling the history of electricity, and its surprisingly large brewery scene. There’s eight breweries total, seven of which are within walking distance of one another and you’ll be able to hit them all up with only an hour of walking between them. Chuckanut whips up true-to-the-region German beers and Structures has the funky and farmhousey covered, but Aslan is the town star. The Batch 15 IPA is a cloudy and citrusy staple in our fridge, which we switch out with their Dawn Patrol Pale Ale on occasion.
It definitely feels like the more commercial brewery of the batch though.
There’s swag for sale and everyone who works in the brewery is gorgeous — it’s like they were all hired from one tall, blonde, tanned and freckled gene pool. But the space is huge and dog/baby friendly, the draft selection is extensive and the food is actually pretty damn good! I’ve been trying to recreate their veggie burger at home for months, sipping away at Batch 15 as I’m chopping up bell pepper and toasting buns. Green-focused shoppers will also be pleased to hear that all their beers are 100% certified organic (whatever that means).
De Garde, Oregon: Destination wild ales in the middle of nowhere.
De Garde is a rarity to find in the Northwest (they have three distributors total), so if you’re looking for a bottle your best bet is to visit the brewery itself. An oasis of a place, it’s situated along the Oregon coast in Tillamook, next to green-grassed farms full of cows and the whole area reeks of manure. Pro tip, if you’re having a hard time finding the middle of nowhere brewery just keep an eye out for the massive structure saying “Air Museum”. De Garde sits in its shadow.
Unassuming from the outside, walk right in and it becomes very apparent they know they’re the shit. There’s a 10-12 bottle limit for each of their styles (otherwise people would drive in from Portland and load up an entire SUV full of Anianish and Oude Desay then shill the ill-begotten bottles for 3x their price), they have individually crafted ceramic steins for sale created by a Eugene artisan, and have a map on the wall pinned with hometowns of the breweries visitors. Australia, as sparse as it is, was represented in every city with more than eight residents and a kangaroo. For Europe, there was nowhere left to claim.
There’s a reason people drive for miles to visit De Garde and it’s not just the instagram worthy views in the distance, it’s the beer. When you enjoy sour beer but have a bad sour it’s pretty obvious. It’ll be overly sweet and syrupy to make up for its lack of flavor, or super vinegary and will go down like motor oil. At De Garde beers are aged for up to two years on end, and come out light and tangy. Some are spiced, others mild, but all will be dangerous on a hot day when they’d go down like lemonade.
And while you’re outside lounging on barrels taking in the surrounding scene you’ll grow accustomed to the manure smell in the air, not even minding.