Cruising Through Cascadia: Essential Pacific Northwest Beer Experiences

Feature by | Aug 2016 | Issue #115
Craft Beer Tasting Trips led by O.A.R.S. on Oregon’s Rogue River. | Photo by Justin Bailie

Every beer geek has their happy place. A favorite bar stool within sniffing distance of fermenting wort or an inviting spot to chat with a friendly bartender. Perhaps it’s somewhere to travel to occasionally, or a brewpub with a transcendent menu and an atmosphere to match. In recent years, beer tourism has become a major calling, with thousands of people making annual cross-country or even international treks for rare beer releases, brewery tours, and festivals. Whether it’s to Denver for the Great American Beer Fest or to Germany for beer gardens and Bavarian Weizen, the options are numerous. But the Pacific Northwest is one destination that deserves to be on the radar of any determined beercationer looking to pack in a wide variety of experiences.

The Pacific Northwest, or Cascadia as many hardcore locals like to call it, is a green, lush place that prides itself on quality of life and the quality of its water—two attractive virtues for thirsty visitors. From Portland, Ore., for instance, a traveler can drive three hours north to board a cruise ship visiting state parks, wildlife refuges, and breweries or four hours south to Central Oregon to stay at a boutique hotel with regular brewers’ dinners and day trips like a mountain biking and brew tour. Or, if your idea of the perfect vacation is relaxation, then spend a day soaking in a hot bath of malt and hops and getting a massage at America’s first beer spa.

Bed & Beer
McMenamins, a family-owned brewery and hospitality chain with 54 locations, has created a Pacific Northwest legacy built on beer that extends to restoring historic properties. When you talk of beer getaways in the region, these hotels and pubs (25 with on-­site brewing facilities) are central to the conversation. And they aren’t just places to tip back a pint; Edgefield in Troutdale, Ore., for example, has a hotel, a golf course, and a distillery and hosts national touring acts that play summer concerts on the lawn.

Launched in 1974 by brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin, the company’s founders were instrumental in getting a 1985 law passed in Oregon that allowed breweries to operate their own retail space. “When McMenamins first started, we were a company of neighborhood pubs and breweries,” says brewery general manager Rob Vallance. “As we have grown and opened destination properties, we have tried to stay true to our origins. Having a wide variety of freshly made beers has always been of paramount importance to our philosophy.”

The company recently opened a new property in Bothell, Wash., (East of Seattle across Lake Washington), refurbishing the Anderson School into its latest crown jewel. This restored junior high school has six bars including The North Shore Lagoon, a tiki-­inspired space with a bar top made from the Balinese monkey pod tree and a full-sized swimming pool lined with tropical Hawaiian flora. And McMenamins exemplifies Cascadia’s DIY artisan spirit, not only making its own beer but also roasting coffee and producing wine and spirits, all while preserving the region’s past in new drinking institutions.

In downtown Bend, Ore., McMenamins operates the Old St. Francis School, just blocks from the original Deschutes Public House and Boneyard Beer’s tasting room. The Bohemian­-style hotel was previously a Catholic schoolhouse. Today, its former classrooms contain guest rooms, a movie theater, a restaurant, a basement brewery, and even a mosaic-tiled soaking pool. This summer, it added 41 rooms. Next up, McMenamins is restoring the historic Elks Lodge Temple in Tacoma, Wash., for a 2017 opening.

Also in Bend, Tetherow Resort is the area’s best boutique hotel and a great base camp for all of the outdoor activities in the Deschutes River Valley. With seasonal brewers’ pairing dinners at The Row, its pub, and rotating local drafts dedicated to the area’s craft breweries in the fall and winter, there are few better places to escape. Plus, in July Tetherow debuts a new indoor-outdoor pool with hot tubs, cabanas, and fire pits in addition to one of the country’s most anticipated golf courses.

Two hours north, the Columbia River Gorge separating Oregon and Washington is remarkable enough for it’s stunning views, hiking and biking trails, and fishing opportunities. It’s also home to more than half a dozen breweries. For a little variety, make time for the “fruit loop,” a 35-­mile self guided tour packed with farm stands, wineries, cideries, and a pair of breweries (Solera and Logsdon) all offering tastings during the summer season. The views of Mt. Hood aren’t bad, either. The Skamania Lodge on the Washington side of the gorge—a five-minute drive from Walking Man Brewing—should be your base of operations, especially if you can make it in September for their annual Celebration of Beer Festival. Organizers invite some of the best brewers from the gorge and greater Portland for beer-tasting classes, pairing dinners, and a mini festival with outdoor grilling and live music on the lodge’s front lawn, complete with its beautiful views of the gorge.

Cog Wild leads Bike & Brew tours around Bend, Ore.

Cog Wild leads Bike & Brew tours around Bend, Ore. | Photo courtesy of Cog Wild

A Little Exercise
In the Pacific Northwest, enjoying good beer isn’t limited to public houses, taprooms, and festival grounds. Central Oregon is world­-class mountain biking territory with a network of hundreds of miles of trails. When Cog Wild Mountain Bike Tours in Bend, Ore., added a beer and biking combo to its selection of standard mountain biking trips, the company wasn’t sure anyone would sign up for them. Now they’re so popular the trips from Bend and the Columbia River Gorge sell out well in advance. There is nothing quite like rewarding yourself after a great ride or easing the pain of a scraped knee with an ice cold can of GoodLife Brewing Sweet As! Pacific Ale.

Russ Risdon has been leading Cog Wild Bike & Brew tours for the past six years and considers them among his personal favorites. According to Russ, the idea of combining tours was obvious. “Most mountain bike rides end with a few trailhead barley sodas shared among friends,” he says. “With all the great breweries in Bend… it seemed natural to combine our bike tours with brewery tours.”

Overall, Bend might be the best little beer town in the US. In addition to dozens of craft breweries both small and large, it’s well situated for a range of outdoor activities. And why not mix some cardio in with the carbohydrates? “Bend is a perfect destination for beer travel,” says Ryan Sharp, a partner in Central Oregon Beer Week and the Best of Craft Beer Awards. “In addition to 28 breweries in the region, Central Oregon has some of the most beautiful hiking, biking, skiing, and floating in the country. The breadth and depth of Central Oregon’s outdoor activities is matched only by its breweries.”

And then there’s whitewater rafting—as exhilarating as a roller coaster ride and as refreshing as a swim in the lake. Add beer into the mix and it’s hard to beat. This combination probably explains the popularity of the beer vacations offered by travel outfitter O.A.R.S. The company’s Craft Beer Tasting Trips on Oregon’s Rogue River offer guests three days of rafting, camping, and gourmet meals. After ramping up your heart rate with swift currents and big waves, relax on the beach with a beer pairing dinner while reminiscing about the day’s excitement.

Sometimes an adrenaline-pumping day of outdoor activity requires a recharge. If you want to spend a day being pampered or just aren’t the sporty type, it’s hard to top the newly opened Hop in the Spa in Sisters, Ore. Billing itself as America’s first beer spa, owner Sally Champa has teamed up with Deschutes Brewery to work beer or its ingredients into the entire spa package. Start off with a cleansing beer and hops sugar scrub while your feet soak in warm beer, hops, and barley. Afterward, replenish your skin with a hop oil massage or an herbal hop steam. Alternatively, couples can book a Microbrew Soak & Massage package that includes time in a cedar tub filled with hot water, hops, barley, and minerals accompanied by a pint of your favorite Deschutes beer.

Other times, though, you don’t want to be in the water but on it. Based in Washington, the tall ship Schooner Zodiac provides a unique West Coast weekend getaway for the beer lover. Assuming you don’t get seasick, this sailboat cruise leaves from Bellingham near the Canadian border and visits the breweries of the San Juan Islands. Passengers will hit several Puget Sound brewpubs and hopefully see dolphins, sea lions, and whales while exploring the hidden coves and quiet inlets of this pristine maritime landscape. Over four busy days you’ll learn to homebrew, pair beer and food, and how to operate a sailing vessel. You might meet a brewmaster from The Pike or Port Townsend, too.

Canada Calling
Northwest of Seattle, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and beyond the whale watching in the San Juan Islands, is Canada’s original craft beer city: Victoria, British Columbia. Accessible only by charter boat or ferry, Victoria is the capital of the province and has roots as a British colony. The English influence translates strongly today with Victorian architecture, formal gardens, even a palatial 19th century mansion called Craigdarroch Castle. It also has a penchant for cask conditioned beers. “Victoria is BC’s ‘craft beer capital,’ home to Canada’s first brewpub, Spinnakers, which opened in 1984 and is still going strong today, along with another dozen diverse breweries and brewpubs,” says Joe Wiebe, a longtime Victoria resident, noted beer author, and founder of Victoria Beer Week. “[It’s] ideal for a craft beer pilgrimage.”

Need more motivation? The city’s two original brewpubs—Spinnakers and Swans—both offer comfortable lodging for out-of-­town visitors. At Spinnakers, guests can choose between bungalows, suites, or a Victorian guesthouse. And the pub and restaurant serve farm-to-table fare with malt vinegars, baked goods, and chocolates made in house. Daily cask specials and three different drinking settings including a fireplace, a second floor taproom, and a covered waterfront patio have made this spot a perennial favorite. Just across the Johnson Street Bridge, Swans has also built a strong reputation. Its Beer Lovers’ Retreat package covers accommodation, bottled beer upon arrival, and dinner for two.

According to Wiebe, though, BC’s “ideal beer­-soaked road trip” is the Sunshine Coast­ Vancouver Island Circle Route, a road trip that can take as little as three days or as much as a week. The trip begins in Victoria and heads north through Vancouver Island along some of the most gorgeous coastline in North America. En route, stop in towns like Duncan, Chemainus, and Nanaimo, and allow time to enjoy beautiful Rathtrevor Beach in Parksville before hitting the road again. About an hour further north is the Comox Valley, where three new breweries have opened in the past two years.

From here, jump on the Comox Ferry and cross the Strait of Georgia to the Sunshine Coast. In the town of Powell River, drop by Townsite Brewing, a hidden gem where the Belgian-born Cédric Dauchot commands the kettles. Then, if you can pull yourself away, stop at Gibsons on the way south and check out Persephone Brewing. Finally, take one last ferry to Horseshoe Bay, the late home of BC’s first microbrewery. “Raise a pint of Bay Ale at the Troller Ale House just across from the marina before you drive into Vancouver, or catch a ferry back to Vancouver Island,” says Wiebe.

One Meal Not to Miss
Great restaurants abound in the Pacific Northwest, but any extended trip to the region should include a stop at an innovative newcomer in Seattle. At Mollusk, brewer Cody Morris of the notoriously experimental Epic Ales continues his ongoing collaborations with chef Travis Kukull. Before its first birthday, Mollusk quickly became one of the premiere venues for exploring the intersection of beer and food and concentrates on unconventional dishes with a strong revisionist take on Asian cuisine. At first glance, menu items like fish and chips might seem familiar, until you notice creative accents like kimchee and curry aioli. Ditto for the seafood waffle topped with octopus, kewpie, bonito flakes, and seasonal pickles.

To pair with such strange but delightfully challenging dishes, Morris is brewing with ingredients like nettles, oysters, and squid ink. He insists it’s not experimental for its own sake, but simply a less limiting approach. “[Our beers are] closer to what beer was for the first 5,950 years [of] brewing.”

In fact, the menu is so experimental for the South Lake Union neighborhood that local diners have approached Mollusk’s food with some trepidation. So while foodies and critics embraced Kukull’s innovation, area residents have not. “We just want to show that beer is not as simple as people perceive,” says Kukull, who stepped down as head chef in late June. “Asian flavors and products tend to enhance the complexity of beer, it opens people up to thinking outside the box, and it awakens their senses, kick-starts the brain into thinking about the food and drinks they are consuming.”

With food sales failing to keep pace with the beer, Morris will adapt Mollusk’s menu to attract a wider audience while preserving the essence of the concept. “The food program is simplifying… but with a continued focus on high-quality ingredients,” he says. “We also have launched a major vinegar program and are making mustards and hot sauces with the vinegar we’re producing in house.” Beer pairing favorites like the in-house charcuterie program and teaming up with local cheesemakers for beer-washed cheeses will continue, however. And Morris still plans on “doing events centered around beer releases with foods that pair with that beer, coursed beer-paired dinners, and themed mini-festivals.”