“You can’t throw a stone in this town without hitting a brewery, winery or cidery.”
That is the studied opinion of John Harris, pioneering brewmaster in Portland, Oregon. Harris has been encouraging people to bend an elbow here since the mid-1980s.
The beer, wine and spirits scene is one of Portland’s big appeals, hence its nickname Beervana, or a sudsy nirvana. Travel Portland, the city’s destination marketing and management organization, proclaims Portland’s 75 or more breweries are “more than any city on earth.” The beer culture is so extensive, local and inviting that it is ready-made for group tour enjoyment.
“Groups love Portland for many reasons, outdoor activities close to the city and tax-free shopping among them; but our food scene and particularly the beer scene is a big deal,” said Michelle Graham, vice president of services at Travel Portland.
Although Portland can trace its beer history to the 1850s, the craft beer buzz began in 1984, when two craft breweries started flowing, and 1985, when McMenamins opened Oregon’s first brewpub. One of the two original breweries continues to please guests, and McMenamins now has numerous hospitality businesses in the Northwest. Furthermore, every neighborhood in a city that prides itself on neighborhood culture seems to have multiple breweries or brewpubs.
John Harris’ Ecliptic Brewery, an anchor business in the Mississippi neighborhood, is an example of Portland’s beer renaissance. Its namesake street a few years ago was more than a bit sketchy, but today, it bustles with restaurants, specialty shops and pubs.
Harris is an astronomy buff, which explains the celestial murals in his establishment and the fact that his beers’ names have astronomical references. Examples are Starburst IPA; Carina, a constellation; and Vega and Capella, both stars. He has space for groups and prides himself that his food menu transcends people’s often-modest expectations of a brewpub.
His menu includes grilled lamb top round with honey-roasted carrots, fresh seafood daily and what Harris calls “perhaps the weirdest-looking sandwich on the planet.” It’s a beet melt, with roasted beets, goat cheddar, Granny Smith apples, pickled onions and grain mustard on sourdough bread.
The Deschutes Portland Public House, near world-famous Powell’s City of Books, is the city’s outpost for Deschutes, one of Oregon’s most famous brewers. Its full-size restaurant has a real Northwest flavor and welcomes groups, and its more than 20 taps offer Deschutes mainstays along with seasonal and experimental brews. Another spot with group space is Rogue Eastside Pub and Pilot Brewery, which offers 36 of its own beers and 19 taps for other independent brewers’ products.
A smaller facility is Ex Novo in the Eliot neighborhood. It has a group-friendly private room overlooking the brewing tanks, a variety of beers and a noble business model. The mission of founder and president Joel Gregory is to donate all brewery profits “to those building a better world and bringing hope to places where hope is scarce.” That sentiment alone is incentive to sample an extra beer or two.
Beer Tours and More
With so many beer locations, creating a Portland itinerary can be daunting, but Travel Portland and a company called Brewvana can assist tour planners, whether you want simply to include a beer stop in a Portland visit or to build an entire tasting schedule.
Groups with a serious curiosity about beer often lean on Thom Roholt, tour operations coordinator at Brewvana, which is part of multicity City Brew Tours.
“Our forte is breweries,” Roholt said, noting that Brewvana offers both vehicles and step-on guide service. We take groups behind the scenes at multiple breweries and offer VIP access, special tastings and conversations with brewers. We build lunch or dinner into the schedule, and there’s a pint at each location.
“There’s a real pioneer spirit in the brewing community here,” he continued. “We have all the ingredients — great water, hops from the Willamette Valley and Yakima, great grain and local yeast — plus a spirit of cooperation.”
It’s easy to feature a festival in a Portland itinerary, since beer festivals occur almost every month. Two notable annual events are Zwickelmania in February, a tasting event that features more than 120 breweries from throughout Oregon, and the Oregon Brewers Festival in July, one of the nation’s longest-running craft beer festivals.
As popular as beer is, distilleries are gaining traction in Portland, as is Oregon’s wine culture. Two wine-tasting rooms that cater to groups and that don’t require a trip to wine country are Battle Creek Cellars and the Southeast Wine Collective.
Portland’s lodging scene is on the move, too. The central business district’s 7,500 rooms have blossomed to more than 10,000, with a 600-room Hyatt Regency that’s adjacent to the Oregon Convention Center among the newest additions.