The India Pale Ale, as its name implies, wasn’t born in Oregon. The deliciously bitter style first became popular in the 18th century on the decks of British trading ships headed to India. Beer spoils over time (tropical heat doesn’t help), so long ship voyages required ales with a higher alcohol content and a boatload of hops, both natural preservatives. What started as a necessity soon became a preference and, much later, an obsession. Two centuries removed from those hops-loving sailors, Portlanders have taken the style and run with it.
Indeed, the city’s galaxy of ale styles is sparklingly diverse and wonderfully experimental— pales, stouts, browns, hefeweizens and saisons share tap space alongside tripels and dubbels and blondes, pilsners, kölsches and lagers. But at the end of the day, however, the question by which most local breweries live and die has remained the same: “Is their IPA any good?”
“Portland has historically been an IPA town,” says Paul Reiter, cofounder of Great Notion Brewing, which brews several of the city’s most beloved specimens. “The more bitter or hoppier the better. I feel like it grew from the trees, from logging — maybe that’s where we got that from, that we like things green.”
What makes a Portland IPA? It’s complicated. Beyond the requisite hop-forward bitterness, they tend to be pungent, floral, piney, caramel-colored beers. From that generalization, similarities break down fast. Some may be citrus-forward, others sweeter and maltier, still others lighter or darker in color. Where Cascade, Chinook and Centennial hops used to be king in town, new hop varieties like Mosaic and Citra have elbowed their way in, making possible a wide range of juicier, fruitier IPAs. The city has all but adopted the Northeast “hazy” style as its own and, recently, a slew of lighter, easier to pound “session” IPAs have surfaced.
Whatever the Portland IPA is, one thing is clear: Portland is dedicated to the style. When asked whether other cities might be catching up to Portland’s roaring IPA scene, Breakside brewer Ben Edmunds offers a comparison: “I’m sure that there’s like a really great thriving community theater scene in Dallas or Austin,” he says. “But would anyone ever doubt that New York is still the epicenter of the American theater world?”
Feeling thirsty yet? Here are five essential Portland IPAs to get you started.
If you can only have one beer, there’s really no other choice. The Breakside IPA is the gold standard and a well-polished jewel in the city’s microbrew crown: a copper, citrus-forward pint with exquisitely balanced bitterness. No wonder it’s won numerous gold and silver medals in national and international IPA taste-offs.
“For me, one of the things that makes it successful is that we weren’t trying to reinvent the IPA category; it was really just to do the best version of a classic northwest IPA,” says Edmunds. “All the best elements from classic Northwest and Seattle, from eastern Oregon, from western Oregon, from the coast — we brought those together.”
Ex Novo Eliot IPA
Named after the Northeast Portland neighborhood where this small, bike-friendly brewpub is located, Ex Novo offers a flagship IPA that’s a crisp, citrusy take on the genre, brewed with Mosaic, Citra and Simcoe hops. (As an added bonus, the brewery donates all of its profits to charitable causes, so drinking a few pints doubles as your good deed of the day.)
Great Notion Juice Jr.
No one really knew what to expect when Great Notion opened its doors on Northeast Alberta Street in late 2016. We certainly didn’t expect them to change the IPA conversation entirely, and yet that’s exactly what happened. Concocting addictive, fruity, cloudy IPAs in the Northeast style, the brewery had to put a limit on growler fills and expand with a 30-barrel production facility in Northwest Portland to keep up with demand. Just two years later, you can find the hazy IPA all over the city — but be sure to visit the Northeast Portland brewery for the full experience.
We have a soft spot for this Southeast Portland brewery’s big, bold flagship IPA. Gigantic brewer Ben Love — a veteran of Hopworks Urban Brewery, another local IPA institution — made a no-nonsense West Coast IPA with notes of grapefruit and citrus with a toasted malt backbone.