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From D.C. to Beervana: Craft beer in Oregon

Thursday - 7/3/2014, 6:17am  ET

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Local homebrewer and beer expert Rob Fink travels across the country to taste some of the nation's best craft beer. His most recent trip to Oregon left his taste buds happy. (Courtesy Rob Fink)

Rob Fink
WTOP Beer Contributor

WASHINGTON -- I'll say it: Oregon is the best craft beer state on the West Coast, if not in the entire country.

According to the Brewer's Association, Oregon ranks first in the number of breweries per capita in the U.S.(6.3 breweries per 100,000 21+ adults), and first in sheer economic impact per capita ($449).

It would be shortsighted to claim that quantity gives rise to quality, but it's true in this case. Quintessential examples of every conceivable style, from double IPA to Berlinerweisse to American wild ale to saison, are produced in Oregon with no nonsense.

I recently had the privilege to travel to the Beaver State to experience its near-religious and incredibly infectious craft beer culture. Here is my attempt to capture what was consumed at my four favorite breweries.

Deschutes Brewery, Portland

After an extended layover in Dallas/Fort Worth, my level of thirst reached inconceivable heights by the time I finally landed in Portland. Luckily, I already knew precisely where I needed to go: the Deschutes pub in downtown Portland.

I found myself cozied up to the bar, feeling like a regular with beer in hand and not a care in the world. On the east and south sides of the building, rich layers of brick encase tall open windows, which, by late afternoon, usher in sharp geometric angles of natural light.

First things first: I needed to satiate my hop addiction. A beer called Session Obsession performed its duty in admirable fashion. Single-hopped with an undisclosed experimental variety at a formidable 70 IBUs, Session Obsession first begins with an aromatic concoction of ripe mango and pineapple, which made me want to jump right into the serving tank.

Upon first taste, Session Obsession seamlessly transitions from tropical cornucopia to waves of honeydew melon, ultimately ending with a finish that seems as effortless as the rest of the beer itself. If you're hop-inclined and plan on being in Portland in the near future, perform your due diligence and give Session Obsession a moment of your time.

But the hoppy beers did not steal the show; a beer called Not The Stoic did. Beginning as a faithful interpretation of a Belgian quad, portions of Not The Stoic are aged in both Oregon pinot noir and rye whiskey barrels, lending complementary flavors of acidic red wine, blackcurrant, charred oak and vanilla. In other words, it's a must-try.

Hair of the Dog Brewery and Tasting Room, Portland

It's breweries such as Hair of the Dog that make choosing a favorite Portland brewery difficult. Since 1994, Hair of the Dog has specialized in high-alcohol, bottle-conditioned beers. Most Hair of the Dog beers are named after family and close friends of the brewery (Ruth, Lila, Fred, etc.). This helps to instill a sense of comfort when you enter the tasting room and see them emblazoned on the draft menu.

Pouring with a dark, silky body and muscular heft of 10 percent ABV, Adam is a downright beguiling beer. Malt-forward, but intentionally indeterminate as a style, Adam exhibits a divergent palette of flavor, ranging from dark cherry to burnt caramel, peat smoke and sourdough bread. Yet somehow it finds decisive harmony amid the chaos. It may not have been the best beer decision at 11:30 a.m., but I don't regret it.

As enjoyable as Adam was, and will likely be in the future, it has nothing on its barrel-aged counterpart, Matt. Unlike some barrel-aged experiments, which turn into one-dimensional, spirit-dominant hot messes, Matt is surprisingly balanced -- dare I say nuanced.

Prior to its barrel treatment, Matt is remarkably similar to Adam, but after spending a minimum of one year in a collection of apple brandy and bourbon barrels, Matt transforms into a vivid expression, exposing rounded flavors of caramelized apples, leather, fig, candied almond and marshmallow -- all with the subdued smolder of peat smoke lurking in the background.

Cascade Brewing Barrel House, Portland

Cascade Brewing is a self-proclaimed declaration of "pioneer" Northwest sour style -- an apt declaration. The best beers to come out of sour-barrel programs exhibit balance and nuance, but most of all, patience. Cascade achieves this with its sour program.

Nestled in a largely residential neighborhood in Southeast Portland, the Cascade Barrel House boasts about 24 beers, most of which are varying degrees of sour.

Two beers immediately struck my attention.

Kriek is Cascade's foray into the highest levels of the cherry-infused sour beer echelon. Initially aged up to eight months in oak barrels, followed by an additional eight months on cherries, Kriek is a hazy, bright red hue with an alluring aroma of stewed cherries, pleasing lactic sourness and toasted oak.

I'd enjoy it at home with ceviche, with dessert or by itself; Kriek was a wonderful way to begin my Cascade experience.

Now imagine a quintessential summertime refresher teeming with bright acidity, a faint whisper of underlying sweetness and just a kiss of bourbon. That's Cascade's Bourbon Honey Ginger Lime sour beer. I had other plans during my Oregon stay, but all I wanted to do in that moment was marry the beautiful afternoon with an unending supply of Bourbon Honey Ginger Lime.

Boneyard Beer, Bend

Traversing the hop flavor continuum is what Oregon breweries do best, and perhaps no one does it better than Boneyard Beer, in Bend. In his brewery consulting business, Tony Lawrence encountered miscellaneous brewery equipment from places that were out of business, upgrading to a larger system or otherwise discarding their current stock.

At some point, Lawrence began buying these items and storing them in his garage. Eventually, he gathered together enough equipment to fashion a small production brewery with only a single conceivable name: Boneyard Beer. Boneyard had the best hoppy beers during my stay in Oregon.

RPM IPA is a hop missile, packing inconceivable amounts of flavor and aroma with no astringent bitterness. At only 50 IBUs, RPM IPA unravels the orthodoxy of the IBU arms race (guilty parties shall remain nameless) while simultaneously proving that, whether theoretical or actual, IBUs, devoid of other contexts, are meaningless when judging the overall quality of a beer.

Ripe grapefruit, lime peel and bright tangerine pleasurably dominate the flavor profile, with just enough malt foundation to provide adequate balance to an otherwise unbalanced beer.

As the name suggests, Hop Venom, the imperialized cousin of RPM IPA, is a hop behemoth of great depth and complexity. My first whiff of this beer wasn't intentional, because I could smell it from across the tasting room. My first intentional whiff was a lethal assault on the olfactory senses.

Happily immoderate, if not gleefully excessive, amounts of dank pine resin enrobed in sweetened tropical fruits are uniformly presented, all the way from initial perceptions of aroma on through to the pleasingly dry, lingering finish.

Part of me is glad that I don't live in Bend, because if I did, I'd feel as though a daily IV of Hop Venom would be my first order of business.

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