Tour de Gorge

By Frank James

As any Portland beer enthusiast knows, there’s beer in the Columbia Gorge.  Lots of it, lots of really good beer and lots of it offered within an hour’s drive of the city.  This Friday we loaded up the two dogs and headed east on a whirlwind excursion that took us to three different towns, five brewpubs, and lots of excellent, fresh beer, all within an hour of Portland.

The best  beer road trips surprise and delight and provide memories that easily justify an hour-long drive and a nice chunk of gas money.  This trip certainly satisfied on that level.  At each brewpub we came across at least one beer, and something else about the establishment that made a detour to that particular pub worthwhile.  For the most part, it was the beer, but it may have also been the patio, the food,  the spectacular views or a combination of all of the above.

Our itinerary was simple: initial stop, Walking Man in Stevenson, Washington; over to Everybody’s Brewing in  White Salmon; and, then across the bridge  to Hood River for the real smörgåsbord –  Double Mountain, Big Horse and, of course, the big dog on the block, Full Sail.

For sheer aesthetics, a drive from Portland on the Washington side of the river,  east on  Highway 14 can’t be beat.  But it does tend to  stretch out the drive time, so we always take I-84 to Cascade Locks and then rumble across the Bridge of the Gods, hoping that we don’t have a bit of buzzard’s luck and  catch the narrow, metallic-grate bridge during a rainy squall.   From there, it’s a quick two to three mile drive east on 14 into the little town of Stevenson.

A first-time visitor might miss the inconspicuous brewpub if they didn’t know exactly where they were heading.  It sits in  an  unassuming, gray house on a small street  just off the main drag.  There is a  decent-sized “Walking Man” sign, marking the brewpub’s facade, but you have to approach the building from the west in order to see the sign.  The large outdoor seating area, is one of the pub’s best assets  and it’s a great place to hang out with the  dogs.  As is usually the case, there were several groups, with canines, and we decided on a table in a shady area immediately adjacent to the building.

There was one major disappointment, though it was soon forgotten.  They had just run out of their Homo Erectus, an Imperial IPA, and one of my favorite beers.  But initially disappointment gave way to pure delight as I dove into my alternative choice, their IPA, a toned down version of Homo Erectus.  I never order it at the pub, and it was a real treat: a very well-balanced ale that provides just the right blend of malts and hops.  It’s an excellent version of that classic NW IPA,  just bursting with caramel and citrus hop flavors.  My partner had their Brown Ale, which was  also a nice surprise.  Brown ales typically leave me wanting.  As the beer flows down the throat,  I’m always waiting for something, – an interesting flavor –  a compelling taste, to trip across my tongue.  With most brown ales, nothing really happens.  Drinking brown ales is usually anti-climatic, like listening to a loop of the coda from Layla, playing over and over and over again. Walking Man’s Brown Ale is different.   It tastes like a hybrid brown ale/IPA and the design works well.   Smooth and nutty,  it still leaves you with a nice hop finish.   Certainly not the kind of hoppiness you’d find in their IPA,  or another typical NW IPA, but there’s just enough hops to zing your tongue and make it an interesting  drinking experience. Finally, I thought as I siphoned off some of my partner’s pint, a brown ale that reminds me of a real beer.

Walking Man also had a new IPA: their Runaway IPA.   Brewed with Centennial and Sorachi Ace hops, it was a very different approach to their typical IPA/IIPA. Lighter in color, with a more crisp, dryer flavor, it’s apparently typical of beers brewed with Sorachi Ace hops, as those hops supposedly provide an almost lemony edge to a beer.  That’s certainly consistent with my sample of the Runaway IPA, and I’ll reserve judgment until I have a chance to drink a full pint. It was different and unusual enough so that I really couldn’t form a real judgment about the beer based on a two ounce sample. We’d just wanted to make a quick stop on our way further east, so I  resigned myself to that one pint, and samplers of the Brown Ale and the Runaway IPA. Then it was on to White Salmon, 22 miles further east on 14.

The drive east on 14 is worth an afternoon, in and of itself.  We’d thought of doubling back to 84 and hitting Hood River first, but decided to take the more scenic route directly into White Salmon. Any time you’re driving through the Gorge, it’s pretty spectacular, but the trip east on two-lane 14 is especially so.  It’s worth the extra time. This was my first trip to Everybody’s Brewing in White Salmon, though I’d had their Country Boy IPA many times.  I also  have a beer-drinking buddy who actually lives there, and he’s been encouraging me to visit the pub since it opened.  I’d  always imagined that he was simply shilling for friends who owned the pub, but I have to say that Everybody’s Brewing  was the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the entire trip.

White Salmon itself is nondescript, and the pub blends in so well that we drove past a couple of times before we finally found it. Somewhat appropriately, it’s in a building that is literally painted dark brown, and the only sign for the pub itself is the one painted on the front door glass. “Goodwill Lodge”, an apparent reference to a former occupant, is the most visible sign on the front of the building. I won’t bore you with that old cliché about books and covers, but this is one example of a brewpub that  blows away preconceived notions about what might be inside such a dull-looking little building. Yes, its on the sleepy little main street of a sleepy little town , but there’s lots of great beer sloshing around in that little building. The pub itself is fairly large, about the size of the new Sandy Boulevard Laurelwood Pub’s first floor (They call themselves a small to medium-sized brewpub).  It’s new and bright; well-maintained and it has a large outdoor deck with a gorgeous unobstructed view of Mount Hood–one of the best you’ll see from any bar in the area.  And, oh yes, the beers are excellent.

I enjoyed a pint of Everybody’s house IPA,  the Country Boy, and sampled their season Goodwill IPA. I also sampled their Daily Bread common ale, their Law of Nature Pale Ale and their Cash Stout Oatmeal Stout. Each beer was brewed in a very distinctive fashion, with its own strong identity. The Country Boy is described in the bar menu in this fashion:

Dry, clean, crisp with great citrus character. This beer is made for the hop lovers. Centennial, Amarillo and Cascade hops provide a wonderful aroma and flavor in this beer.  Golden in color, with grapefruit and lemongrass notes in the finish.

That description is dead on, and at 80 IBUs, it  does leave a strong impression.
The Goodwill IPA is a deeper ruby color,  smoother and more like an English IPA.  It’s a bit less bitter (at 70 IBUs) and it has a more prominent malt presence.  After a sample, it was tough to decide between the beers.
While both IPAs were excellent, the real surprise was the Daily Bread Common Ale.  It’s sort of a hybrid pale ale and IPA. And sort of a hybrid lager and ale. And it works. It’s clearly meant to be a session beer, but it blows away any other session beer I’ve had. It only comes in at 5.5 ABV, but packs a nice little punch with 65 IBUs and just loads of flavor and taste.  The deep, rich color is the first clue to it’s depth and the first sip is really a joy.
It’s the first California common ale that I’ve really enjoyed.  I’ve tried Anchor Steam and several of the current, local attempts at that style and I’ve always wanted a beer with more zip, more umph to it.  Everybody’s Brewing’s Daily Bread Common Ale is exactly that type of beer.

Everybody’s Brewing was our second quick stop.  We only  stopped for a beer, and samples, and I’d been fixating on a Double Mountain pizza all day.  White Salmon deserves another visit, soon, and I can’t wait to get back and sample more beers and have a meal.  But visions of Double Mountain’s Molten Lava and their charred-crust pizza were stuck in the forefront of my consciousness dancing in my head so after pouring down a couple of pints of water, we headed four miles down the hill and across the river to Hood River and a multitude of choices. Although there were several special offerings, I was mildly disappointed with the beer menu.  I cannot recall if our last trip up to Hood River had been on a special weekend – it may have been their anniversary party –  but they’d had an incredible selection of some of their best brews.  This weekend, they had several special items from the vault – including a 2009 vintage of FaLaLaLaLa and their Terrible Two – but I’d been hoping to find either their Imperial Chaos Imperial Stout or the Molten Lava Imperial IPA and, alas, neither was available.

The 2009 FaLaLaLaLa was very tasty, an excellent beer that you could probably get lost in. It flows down so nicely and easily and smoothly you could probably drink pint after pint and not realize how much you’d consumed.  In fact, because this batch has apparently been sitting around for over a year, it’s lost a lot of the hoppy bitterness that was noticeable when the beer was fresher.  When I commented that it tasted a bit different the bartender explained that the hop flavor will always fade first as the beer ages.  Again, it’s an extremely tasty beer, but it’s changed quite a bit in a year.  It’s a beer that is very  different from the freshly brewed and served FaLaLaLaLa.

I sampled the Terrible Two that first day, came back for a 6 ounce taste of it the next day and my views on the beer remained decidedly mixed. It’s one of those beers that you can appreciate, even if you might not want to drink it.  It’s very much like a very rich, sweet brown ale with a dash of bourbon blended in.  But without the depth or complexity of a bourbon-aged double IPA, imperial stout or even a strong ale.  For six ounces, it’s a memorable ale and you get the bourbon and the very strong flavor of currants and chocolate and it’s all very pleasant in a small dose.   But I kept wanting just a little something more to balance out those other very strong flavors, and I was more than satisfied with that small glass.

Not much more to say about Double Mountain. Great beer, great food, and our favorite destination in Hood River. I’ve been enjoying their beer in Hood River since a couple of months after it opened, and its  always well worth the drive.

My Full Sail experience is a bit more complex.  I’ve stopped drinking their regular line-up of beers and haven’t been by the Hood River Tasting Room since Double Mountain opened in 2007.  Previously, a Full Sail Hood River run had been a regular part of my routine, and I’d always pick up a couple of cases from their Tasting Room’s overstock deals.  My fridge was always stocked with their IPA, or whatever else they’d  have on sale, and there was always a case or two in reserve. Then something happened a few years ago.  It’s possibly something weird and idiosyncratic going on with my  taste  buds, but it has been happening. Most of their beers started having a very similar taste.   To me.  The  pale ales, the IPAs,  their amber, all of them, except for some of the seasonals and specialty beers, started to have a basic flavor that ran from one to the other. Maybe I drank too much of it, to the exclusion of just about anything else.  I don’t know …  And it may simply be in my head, but for whatever reason, a disconcertingly similar flavor thread runs through most of the Full Sail ales I’ve tried to drink over the last few years.  So I just gave up.  Over the last few years, other than some of the heavier stouts and specialty ales like their barleywines, I’ve avoided drinking their beers. I’ve tried to explain this to a couple of friends who are brewers and they’ve both responded that I may be tasting the yeast, because it is possible that Full Sail uses a proprietary yeast that I keep tasting from one beer to the next. And for whatever reason, I may be more sensitive to it than many other consumers.  That makes sense, but  the bottom line for me is that I drink Full Sail beers very rarely now.

But  this trip was designed to sample all of the Hood River options so I made certain to stop by and see what they had brewing. My partner had their Sanctuary, a Belgian-style Dubbel; a very drinkable and pleasant beer. Not a great beer, but definitely one that you could consume and and enjoy.

I had the Lupulin Fresh Hop Ale. I love fresh hop ales and always make it to at least two of the three local fresh hop festivals.  So I was excited to have stumbled across Full Sail’s new fresh hop ale, already being poured, even though they’ll only be officially tapped at both their Hood River and Portland locations this Wednesday. The Lupulin is a gorgeous beer–a clear, golden hue that is unusual because of the depth and intensity of the color.  In one of Full Sail’s imperial pint glasses it’s truly an impressive-looking beer, one that screams: drink me!  The beer itself, I was not that impressed by… initially.  I do have to say that by the time I finished the imperial pint, it had started to grow on me a bit.  Why wasn’t it that impressive initially? Most importantly, it has that familiar Full Sail flavor. Is it the yeast?  I don’t know. I really am not certain, though I’d love to sit and actually talk with the brewer in order to figure it out and work through  it.  That flavor is very prominent, right up front, though it did become less noticeable as the beer got warmer and I became more accustomed to it.  In fact, by the time I finished the pint, I’d decided that I would try another pint of it in the future, as the beer’s other qualities were intriguing enough to make me forget that maddeningly familiar Full Sail taste.

Big Horse was our final destination. It was our last stop Friday night and our last stop Saturday before we walked the dogs around Hood River and then headed back to Portland. Obviously, it made a good impression.

Friday night, we stopped by the pub just as the sun was setting and we were pleasantly surprised at the great patio area out back.  One of the main qualities that we look for when we are considering a pub is whether we’ll be able to comfortably take our dogs with us.  The Big Horse patio area, about half the size of a tennis court was spacious, well-maintained and obviously popular with dog-owners because three of the six tables were populated with dogs and humans. It was a gorge-ous Oregon night, unusual and more like the Midwest because a slight bit of humidity kept the evening warm and comfortable, even in shorts and short sleeves. I kept thinking that I could relax back there under the stars all night.

This was the nightcap before heading back to the motel and my partner – our trip’s driver – had a bowl of ice cream, while I opted for  their new Cascadian Dark Ale. The waiter described that beer as over-the-top and overhopped, their Blacksmith Striker Black IPA (The next day I heard another server use almost the exact same language in describing the beer to another customer, so I imagine that description is Big Horse-approved).  The description is pretty accurate, and certainly not hyperbole.  The beer poured brownish/black,  about the color of dark milk chocolate, with a heavy, heavy taste of roasted malts – just this side of burnt –  and a bitter hoppiness.  A couple of weeks ago, at Alameda’s 14th Anniversary, I had a Cascadian Dark Ale from their taps, and that beer is  probably my favorite example of this relatively new style of ale.  It’s very similar to the Big Horse Blacksmith Striker, but  everything is simply smoother, better blended, and seemingly more finished.  Similar style, similar beers, but the Blacksmith Striker is a bigger, darker, more muscular version of the two ales. It took a few sips to get accustomed to the intensity of the beer, and in the end I left about a third of the pint on the table. Even though I didn’t finish the beer, it was intriguing enough to entice  me back for another glass.

We came back to Big Horse for lunch the next afternoon. I had their house IPA with a burger, and my partner had their Scottish Ale with her burger.The IPA was a good, solid Northwest-style IPA, not quite as malty as a Walking Man IPA, but closer to Amnesia’s Copacetic, with a very sharp and refreshing citrus finish. I sampled her Scottish Ale and was  surprised by it. First, the color was a deep golden brown, unlike the darker tan-brown that  I usually associate with Scottish Ales.  Actually, it tasted more like a golden ale with very strong honey and herbal flavors, unlike the typically darker, smoky, roastier Scottish Ales I’m accustomed to drinking.  It was definitely  a very drinkable, solid beer, but one that was a bit unusual for its style.

My last beer of the trip was a half-pint of the Blacksmith Striker.  By the time I got to the bottom of the glass, it struck me as a beer with lots of potential, but a beer that wasn’t quite ready.  I made a pork stew yesterday and when I tasted it after five hours in the slow-cooker, the flavors hadn’t quite melded and I could taste the garlic and the two beers I’d used for the sauce and a bit of the red pepper and all the other individual elements.  After seven hours, it looked like a real stew, and the flavors were a bit less distinct and it started to taste like a real stew.  After 12 hours in the slow-cooker, all of the various elements – the carrots, the potatoes, the onions, the pork, the spices, the chicken broth and the two beers I used for the sauce – had all blended and combined to make a delicious stew (Thanks to Sean Campbell at  The Beermongers, who  recommended the  dubbel I used.  It worked extremely well). Big Horse’s Blacksmith Striker tasted like it just needed a bit more time to settle in and come together, like that stew. When it does, it’ll probably be a big, delicious beer, as it seems to have all the right elements in place.

We get up to Hood River fairly often, but we always end up at Double Mountain first and it’s very easy to get stuck there and not leave. So many beers, such great pizza.  But after this  trip, Big Horse, will be a mandatory stop the next time we’re in  town. I’m planning on being there for the Fresh Hop Fest on October 2, my favorite of the area’s fresh hop fests.  It seems to have the best line-up of vendors and beers and I always look forward to Big Horse’s Vernon the Rabbit Slayer, a monstrous DIPA, which may be my favorite fresh hop beer. Ever.

So, all in all, a great trip.  Becoming acquainted with Everybody’s Brewing was the highlight.  Walking Man’s Brown Ale was a beer I’ll look for in the future, as it has substance I normally wouldn’t associate with brown ales.  And I’m committed to finding more Full Sail beers that don’t have that same old, same old taste.  It seems like the Lupulin Fresh Hop Ale may be  one of those beers.  Double Mountain is as excellent as ever, both for food and beer, and Big Horse is still tweaking the big boys in town by brewing big, adventurous beers that push boundaries.

It’s extremely easy to stay within the Portland city limits or the immediate metro area and not venture out. A little tour like our excellent adventure to White Salmon and beyond is just a reminder that it’s often well worth it to venture past the convenient.   There’s a whole gorge of beer out there to discover.


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