As someone born and raised in Southern California and a resident of Portland for going on 6 years now, I find myself uniquely qualified to respond to our NYC Correspondent’s assertion that San Diego has “the best beer scene period.“
As a writer and non-brewer, I am beholden to no single brewery or even a region of the country when it comes to preferences, for I’ve lived in Los Angeles, Orange County, Chicago and Minneapolis for years at a time. I’ve written about San Diego. I’ve travelled to all but 4 of our states, sampled beers throughout Colorado and Northern California. I’m also a member of the PDX Cellar Society, enabling me to regularly sample beer trades from Florida to New England, and Belgium to Japan. So I know quality beer when I taste it.
This is a debate that has been raging for years now. San Diego is the IPA capital, Portland has more breweries per capita and on and on… If only the debate were that simple, for in the end it does come down to quality and here’s my case to explain why there is no other town, on the planet, that can hold a candle to what Portland offers the craft beer world today.
By the time San Diego’s brewing history began in 1896, Portland had already seen the consolidation of Henry Saxer’s Liberty Brewery (1852) and Henry Weinhard’s Brewery (1856) into City Brewing (1862), the production of Weinhard’s beer had surpassed 100,000 barrels annually (1890), the exporting of beer to Asia and the beginning of a women’s temperance movement (1883).
While Weinhard passed away in 1904, his brews and legacy lived on through prohibition, becoming Blitz-Weinhard and the original City Brewery location (now Henry’s 12th Street Tavern) continued to churn out it’s famous Private Reserve, among others, until 1999. Growing up in the early 80’s, Weinhard’s and Anchor (Weinhard’s predates Anchor by 40+ years) were pretty much the only options to buy on the west coast, aside from The Big Three brewers and microbrews at the source.
Conversely, San Diego had three large breweries following prohibition, lasting until 1953 when The Big Three took over, leaving the San Diego region bereft of local brewers until the opening of Karl Strauss’ brewpub in 1989. Portland’s oldest existing craft brewer is BridgePort Brewing, in operation since 1984 (though local craft brewing started in the late 70’s), then at least 3 more opened their doors by 1989 and roughly 10 by the time Stone began production in 1996.
Most of America’s hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, predominantly Idaho, Washington and Oregon (95% of US production). This enables brewers in the region access to arguably the freshest, largest and most diverse hop varieties in the world, with many farms within an hour drive.
Portland’s brewers also have access to one of the best water sources in the country, the Bull Run Watershed, considered “some of the highest raw water quality of surface water sources in the U.S.” Some of San Diego’s most prominent brewers use reverse osmosis to treat their water, giving it a hard quality, often masked by high doses of hops. Those who’ve lived in California know the water and we can leave it at that.
One other factor that really sets Portland’s brewing scene apart from San Diego’s is their historic use of roasted malts. Sure, there are brewers in the South that brew with darker malts (a necessity for darker brews such as porters, stouts and reds), yet Portland’s Germanic foundations and cooler climate called brewers to offer more dark options, excelling in the art of Alt, Red, Porter, Stout and Belgian styles. And while the hopped up West Coast style did not originate in San Diego (Anchor and Sierra Nevada can claim this), the American Hefeweizen and Cascadian Dark Ale styles did in Portland.
When one discusses the scope of the San Diego brewing scene, it is the county that is identified, or roughly a whopping 4,526 square miles. The Portland Metro area is the scope given in comparison, which would be three counties: Multnomah (466 square miles), Washington (726 sq mi) Clackamas (1,883 sq mi). In square milage, the Portland Metro area (3,075) pales in comparison to San Diego County.
You could include Hood River County (534 sq mi) and Tillamook County (1,133 sq mi) and be only slightly larger than San Diego County. I suppose the point here is that Portland is more accessible, as most of Portland’s brewers can be found within a 25 mile radius of downtown, with most easily reached by public transit, bike and foot. The English beer writer Michael Jackson referred to Portland as both “Munich on the Willamette” and the “Beer Capital of the World” in reference to having more breweries within its city limits than Munich or Cologne, respectively.
By the numbers, Portland is consistently ranked top three in breweries per capita and at last count there are roughly 130 breweries and brewpubs in the aforementioned metro area. San Diego, as of March 11th, has roughly 137 breweries and brewpubs. Both numbers include all satellite locations and tasting/tap rooms (McMenamins, Lompocs, Lucky Labradors and Pizza Ports, Ballast Points, Stones, respectively). In the end, Portland provides a nearly identical number of options within an area at least 1,500 square miles smaller.
Using GABF or other prestigious awards as a metric by which to measure quality can be a double edged sword. To me, GABF and the World Beer Cup are a great means to determine how well brewers are able to “brew to style.” Yet both Zach and I agree that it seems inconsequential when both San Diego and Portland are known for breaking the rules when it comes to style and innovation, the latter not often offered acclaim by the largest awards.
I’d argue that quality can only be determined by the tastes of the beer holder. Here, again, Portland can boast an advantage by having some of the most experienced beer tasting buds on the planet. When you combine the long history of brewing darker and more balanced beers, the quality of the water and hops immediately available in the region and the variety of options within a denser area, in a smaller state that’s #1 in breweries per capita, in money spent on craft beer per capita and in economic impact per capita, it’s hard to argue that “innovation and quality” sets San Diego apart from all others.
In the end, I understand why San Diego would want to claim themselves the “Craft Beer Capital of America.” They have a great variety of styles, international distribution and acclaim, plus a distinguished history of brewing IPAs. My brother lives there, so we trade beers from time to time and I’ve always enjoyed everything I’ve tried. San Diego makes great IPAs, though the Northeast can argue differently and Portland is no slouch either.
Yet, great brewing regions rely on a foundation. Quality brewing spreads like a brilliant virus, for as the most successful breweries grow and expand, brewers often leave to start their own new operations, passing along what they’ve learned to new acolytes. So the numbers do matter. It is here that Portland excels, for it is a tighter community where the biggest brewers co-exist and support the newest upstarts.
It is this unique culture, community, quality ingredients and time tested quality that have given Portland, and it’s greater environs, the titles Brewvana, Beervana and Best Beer City in the World (San Diego was #5). You can fill growlers at mini-marts, find 20 craft taps at strip clubs, enjoy beer at theaters, mini-golf courses, tattoo parlors, museums and arcades. You can also sleep at a hotel that brews it’s own beer, distills it’s own booze and has a winery on the same premises.
I could go on for days explaining why the Rose City wears the crown in the US, but the real question is, who else on the planet can make such a claim? While I can’t be convinced that it’s San Diego (obvious biases not withstanding), only your taste buds can make that decision.