The US has more than 8,000 breweries and these days, there are plenty of decent beer destinations. Beer writer Jeff Alworth guides us to the Pacific Northwest, a region known for its hops production and hoppy ales.
Author: Malin Norman
Jeff Alworth is an experienced beer writer based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of several books about beer and cider including The Beer Bible and The Secrets of Master Brewers, and he also co-hosts the Beervana Podcast – so he is a great guide to what’s happening in the US right now.
How would you describe the American beer market?
We have lots of small breweries making more experimental beer, a few regional breweries and the few giants that make most of the beer in the US. But there is a quirk or two. While it’s true that the large majority of beer sold in the US is mass market lagers, most drinkers are more promiscuous. When you look at the entire population of US beer drinkers, a majority sample from a broad range of styles. That’s why when you go out to a restaurant or pub, you’ll see a taplist studded largely with so-called “craft” styles. Within that craft spectrum, hoppy ales are the most popular, and getting more popular each year.
Which beer destinations are interesting to visit?
If you want the fullest experience, the Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington) offer more than anywhere else in the US. The region had a half dozen old breweries from pre-prohibition times that survived into the 80s and 90s, and that created a network throughout the region; hop fields, malthouses, and university programs. Hoppy American ales get their character from new styles developed in the 1970s and 80s at the USDA research center in Corvallis, and the modern explosion of hops come from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and Yakima Valley in Washington.
Everyone here drinks local beer, including women, who account for half of all drinkers. The style diversity is more dense, the beers have higher quality across the board, and the culture is just more evolved. Visiting Portland or Seattle is something like visiting Prague or Munich.
Which breweries would you recommend?
In Washington, try Cloudburst and Machine House in Seattle. The former makes exceptional, world-class hoppy ales, while Machine House focuses on classic English cask ales. In Yakima, Bale Breaker makes some of the freshest and hoppiest beers, which makes sense since the owners come from a hop-growing family. In remote Goldendale, a husband and wife team make some of the most amazing wild and spontaneous ales at Dwinell.
In Oregon, try Breakside for hops. They do things differently than Cloudburst and Bale Breaker, which shows that even in one region, approaches vary. In Hood River, pFriem does everything right, from hoppy ales, to spontaneous and wild ales to, especially, their clean lagers. Upright Brewing in Portland is something like pFriem in their diversity, except that brewer Alex Ganum is a genius at traditional styles. And finally, down in Corvallis, Block 15 is most famous for their hoppy ales, but a favorite of mine because of what brewer Nick Arzner does in his barrel room.
What trends can you see in the beer market?
Americans love hops, and the major trends going back to the mid-1990s have all involved them. Much like Bavaria likes lagers, we like hoppy ales. Fortunately, there are a few other veins running through the market. Lagers have finally come back around and a number of breweries specialize in them, to great effect. Fruit has become a regular feature in American brewing, and can be found broadly across styles. Finally, barrel-aging, both with wild yeast and without, is a solid part of the scene here.
For interesting beer stories by Jeff, check out his blog www.beervanablog.com.