Beards, Books, and Beer: Portland Rock City

portland oregon columbia river

Ah, the Pacific Northwest. It’s a land of tall trees and grey skies, where the men are bearded and draped in flannel and the women are strong and the coffee is stronger. The entire region smells faintly like pie. At least that’s how I always imagined it. But there’s more to the place than the lumberjack ethos and damn fine coffee.

I’ve just returned from Portland, one of the coolest cities I have ever wandered around. It’s young and it’s modern, with one of the greenest public transportation systems in the country. I took advantage of the free streetcar rides in the downtown area because it gave me a chance to get the lay of the land while staying dry and warm. It’s a city with a purpose, and it feels like it was made for people who work hard for a living. Not that its some industrial wasteland like Detroit, but the parts I saw lacked some of the more ornate urban flourishes of cities like San Francisco. The buildings were mostly brick, square and hard but with ample charm. There’s a massive library downtown that lends the city a collegiate air. The presence of at least three universities also help.

I did notice an inordinate number of bearded men, though. I guess some stereotypes are true. Many of them seemed to be carrying guitars. I guess the music scene here is either pretty big or there’s something about Portland that draws furry-faced troubadours.

It was cold and raining for the duration of my visit. The only blue sky I saw was for a few hours on my last day. But I’m the kind of guy who revels in gloom, and it really felt like the rain gave the city character. You would think they would be used to that sort of thing there, but as near as I can tell rain is still big news in Portland. I enjoyed the hazy mist, and the rain itself was strong enough to be serious but soft enough to endure if you have to. It shaped my experience and I can’t imagine what the streets would look like if they weren’t rain-slicked.

powells books map brochure

Powell’s is the single most enjoyable bookstore I have ever gotten lost in. And I don’t just mean in the metaphorical sense, the place is massive and multi-layered. It’s not just a store, it’s a whole city of books. The rooms are divided into different sections and color coded. The sections are marked out in a retro-style guide but I preferred to just drift through the store at random. There is no sales tax, so my to-be-read stack got tall again just when I was getting to the bottom of my backlog. There are worse problems to have, I suppose.

Cold weather produces hardy beer. Portland has an ass-load of small breweries and locally created beer. And it was all delicious. Few things in this life bring me more pleasure than sitting down with a tray full of beer samples. I love beer for all the sensual joys it brings. Yes, hard liquor does the job faster and more efficiently and I am a certified whiskey taster. But I love the way beer bubbles burn slightly and the foam gets in your nose just a little bit. I like the belching, too. I felt at home in Portland and tried to hit as many local brewpubs as I could before I would have trouble stumbling back to the hotel.

Rock Bottom Brewery felt like it was one of the larger places and seemed almost more like a regular bar than the smaller, more traditional brewpubs.

portland oregon columbia river

Bridgeport had a bad-ass ESB, and they baked their own bread. It was warm and doughy and oh-so tasty. The beer tasted good, but it came a little slowly. There was a steady influx of factory workers that seemed to come into the pub and while I didn’t see any of them leave it didn’t seem to get too crowded. The people seemed to be drinking despite the fact that it was only around lunch time, and I heartily approved.

McMenamin’s is actually more than just a brewery. I spent a few days at the Edgefield house they operate just outside the city in Troutdale. It’s a little pleasure compound where they brew their own beer, distill their own whiskey, and do whatever you do to make wine. The main hotel used to be some sort of rest home or something and it’s decked out with weird-but-not-in-a-disturbing-way art work. There are like five different bars on the premises, and you just wander from location to location with a mason jar that they keep refilling for you. It was glorious. The IPA was nice and hoppy and I kept going back to it despite the many other styles. One of the pubs looked like it was built by and for hobbits.


mcmenamins edgefield portland oregon pub

This one actually had its own movie theatre. There are also a few restaurants on the grounds, and the serve a mean salmon hash for breakfast.

mcmenamins pub portland power station

After coming back to San Francisco from Portland, I find myself wishing it was colder and wetter here. And soon, I’ll be heading back to Florida where it’s even warmer and drier. But I’ll be returning to the Rose City sooner rather than later, and not just to get drunk and buy things without paying sales tax.

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