When this waning year was a heck of a lot lot newer, there was quite a brouhaha brewing over which US city should be named Beertown USA. The impetus for this kerfuffle was a post on Examiner.com from beer guru Charlie Papazian in which he named a huge number of cities and asked folks to vote. Madness ensued and Papazian eventually decided to create a list of criteria to determine the real Beertown USA.
For cities with three or more brewpubs (part of the criteria) Papazian determined the number of breweries per capita based on 2007 US Census figures to reach his conclusion. And tiny Hood River, Ore., with three breweries for a population of 6,736 – or a brewery for every 2,345 residents – came out on top.
Hood River is a scenic hour’s drive from Portland on eastbound Interstate 84. Because of its location in the stunning, yet often windy, Columbia River Gorge, Hood River is also the windsurfing capital of Oregon, if not the entire country. Outdoor activities such as kayaking, snow skiing, fishing and hiking also are in abundance – almost as ubiquitous as the luscious fruits that are grown in the region’s orchards and the views of the snowcapped peaks, Mount Hood and Mount Adams. The small city is quite quaint, with loads of fun stores and great restaurants. In other words, there’s a little something for just about anybody.
But an assignment from the newly launched Beer Connoisseur magazine was what sent me driving into the Gorge toward Hood River on a gray winter day last week. While there, I drank in the uniqueness of this town’s trio of breweries.
Double MountainFirst stop was Double Mountain Brewing, the new kids on the block. Co-founders Matt Swihart and Charlie Devereux welcomed me in their cozy taproom, even though, at noon, it wasn’t going to be opened for a few more hours. When it is opened, though, it’s almost always buzzing with happy local and touring beer fans who are there to enjoy Double Mountain’s wide variety of beers.
Double Mountain opened its doors for business on St. Patrick’s Day 2007 in a more than 70-year-old building just off Hood River’s main drag — and Devereux and Swihart have been trying to catch up with their nearly instant popularity ever since. The day I was there, they were readying to pour another concrete pad so they could bring in more fermenters. Both men expressed hope that the new additions would give them a bit of breathing room as well as help them keep to their brewing practice of allowing all their beers ferment for at least three to four weeks so the beers clarify naturally.
Double Mountain currently makes three year-round beers, Hop Lava, an assertively hoppy yet well-balanced IPA; India Red Ale, a rich, red ale with the hop profile of an IPA; and Kölsch, a hoppier kissin’ cousin to the traditional Cologne version. But Swihart and the other brewers also release a multitude of ever-changing seasonals.Double Mountain, which is a locals’ term for a view where you can stand in one place and see both Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams, is also home to double house yeast strains. They use a Belgian Abbey strain (Rochefort) for Hop Lava and the IRA, for example, and a Kölsch strain, appropriately, for their Kölsch and a few of their other beers. In some of their beers, such as the Devil’s Kriek, a Belgian-style ale made with cherries from Swihart’s orchard, the brewers use both yeasts to get the flavor profile they want in the beer.
With more than 100 locations serving Double Mountain in Portland, it’s easy to find best-sellers style on tap, but it’s worth the drive to the brewpub to check out some of the beers that never make it out the brewery’s door, not to mention just to hang out with the locals that come to quaff great beer, meet with friends and share a handmade pizza in the vibrant taproom.
Big HorseOf Hood River’s brewery trifecta, Big Horse, with a capacity of about 350 barrels a year, is definitely the smallest and often the most overlooked. But it still draws enough of a crowd that brewer Jason Kahler can barely keep up with demand.
Big Horse started as a restaurant named Horsefeathers but got the moniker Big Horse when the four-barrel brewery was introduced a few years later. In the 20-plus years that Big Horse has been in operation, it has not grown in capacity, and Big Horse does not normally sell its beer beyond its walls.
Perched atop a hill with a view of all of Hood River and the mighty Columbia River, Big Horse arguably has the best location among the brewpubs. As would be expected from a former restaurant, this brewpub’s food is well-planned, with a good variety that should please anyone.
On the beer side, Kahler tries to keep up with brewing both standards and seasonal, but sometimes – especially in the tourist-friendly summer months – he is barely able to keep pace with demand for the regular beers. But because the brewhouse is so small and the demand is so high, you can rest assured that the beers are always super fresh.
Often overlooked because of its size in comparison to Double Mountain and Full Sail – and because the name recognition is lower thanks to its not distributing outside its walls, Big Horse is still worthy of a visit – and Kahler is producing some great stuff.
Full SailThe oldest and largest Hood River brewery, and the fourth-oldest in Oregon, Full Sail Brewing no doubt has the honor of being the most well-known.
“When we became the fourth brewery to open in Oregon, we thought we’d be the last,” founder Irene Firmat told me as we sat in the brewery’s spacious and airy tasting room with a view of the Columbia below. “We really thought, ‘Boy, the market is saturated – this is it’ when we started up.”
Being among the first on the West Coast to bottle their beers has given Full Sail a lot more exposure than Hood River’s other two breweries. And that’s not the only thing that set Full Sail apart; it’s also the only majority employee -owned craft brewery in the country – and they have been since 1999.
You could, literally, fit both Double Mountain and Big Horse’s breweries inside Full Sail’s, but the brewery’s tasting room still makes visitors feel like home. And Hood River’s unique lifestyle is reflected in both the space, which features murals from a local artist, as well as the food and beer menus. The burgers are made with locally raised beef from a Mt. Hood rancher, vegetables and fruit are from the region’s lush farms and orchards and the taps offer tastes from at least a dozen or so of Full Sail’s award-winning beers, including seasonals, Brewers Share and Brewmaster Reserve special releases – such as Black Gold Bourbon-Barrel Aged Imperial Stout and the soon-to-be-released Bourbon-Barrel Aged Imperial Porter. (The two are released every other year, so on odd years, it’s the stout and on even years, it’s the porter.)So there you have it; a tale of three very distinctive breweries within about three blocks of each other in one extremely unique town. If you’re lucky and you really hit the trifecta — a day when all three are brewing –make sure to take a big whiff when you happen across the center of town, because Hood River can smell pretty to a beer geek on those magical days.
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