“Do you want to go to the Shell or Chevron?” asks Andrea as we heft our mountain bikes onto car racks after a ride at Shevlin Park, a 650-acre spread three miles northwest of downtown Bend, Ore. I tell Andrea I don’t care where she gets gas.
“I’m not getting gas,” she says. “I don’t have any beer to go with dinner. I’ve got my growler to fill.”
Oregon law doesn’t allow you pump your own gas. But the beer scene in Bend, an outdoors playground anchored by mountain biking in the summer and the Mt. Bachelor ski area in the winter, is such that a local company, the Growler Guys, successfully pushed to make it legal for them to have taps in gas station convenience stores.
“While they’re filling up your car, I run inside and get a growler filled,” Andrea says. “It’s so much more convenient than buying a six-pack at the grocery store or going to a brewery itself.”
Inside the Chevron there are 36 taps; 30 dispense beer or hard cider and six dispense kombucha. As a guy fills Andrea’s growler — an accessory here akin to a briefcase on Capitol Hill — with Boneyard Beer’s flagship brew, RPM, a pale ale brewed with six different varieties of locally grown hops, we’re offered samples. I go for What Does the Fox Say?, a Cascadian dark ale from local Riverbend Brewing. It’s described as having a slightly chocolate flavor. The mouthwash-size sample comes in a mouthwash-size plastic cup.
Sipping it, I see a handwritten sign taped above taps: “Pints now available. Limit 2.” In Wyoming, where I live, there are drive-through liquor stores. This is another level, though.
No other place to try beer
Here’s the problem: I hate the taste of beer. Never in my entire life — college fraternity parties included — have I been able to drink an entire pint without throwing up in my mouth. As an adult, friends have sometimes sneaked beer into an opaque glass before handing it to me just to watch my facial expressions. The adjectives I use to describe beer’s taste and smell, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a pilsner, IPA, hefeweizen or stout, include “toe cheese,” “cat urine” and, when I’m low on imagination, “bitter.” I’ve never had a beer I didn’t find bitter. I do not like bitter.
My taste buds pick up no chocolate in What Does the Fox Say? They do pick up bitter. And as much as Andrea, and the rest of Bend, love Boneyard’s RPM, it makes me pucker.
I wish I liked beer. My mom loves it and collects bottles from around the world; the souvenir can’t be in the collection unless she drank its contents. Twenty-five years ago her collection started on one shelf high on a kitchen wall. Over the past two decades, my father built shelves extensive enough to ring the entire kitchen. Some walls have double-decker shelves, and many shelves have bottles two deep. No two are the same. One of my wildest dreams is to enjoy a beer with her — without getting sick.
Visiting Bend this past summer, I quickly see it as a city especially qualified to help me realize this dream.
The Bend Ale Trail, promoted as “the largest beer trail in the West,” includes 16 breweries; you can bike or walk between most of them.
Last year, the lifestyle website Livability named Bend the No. 1 Beer City in the country, writing that it has one of the highest concentrations of craft breweries per capita in the U.S. Within the city limits there are about 81,000 people and 21 breweries (with seven additional breweries nearby).
They include one of the biggest craft breweries in the country, Deschutes, as well as the tiny Ale Apothecary, which barrel-ages all of its wild fermented beer in the garage of former Deschutes brewer Paul Arney, its headquarters. (Wild fermentation uses yeast from the air or a reused barrel instead of a cultivated one, like brewer’s yeast.) It sells for about $30 a bottle, if you can get your hands on one. Last year, the Ale Apothecary produced only 150 barrels of beer; Arney gets about 300 bottles of beer per barrel.
In Bend, people drink beer like wine — sniffing, sipping and savoring before talking about things like undertones of grapefruit, vanilla or caramel. This is the most basic level of Bend beer conversation and connoisseurship. “This is definitely a place that goes for quality over quantity,” says Arney, who was voted the city’s best brewer in August by readers of Bend’s City Source. “There might be a saturation point for how many brewery/restaurants Bend can support, but I don’t think there is one for well-crafted beer. People here will always appreciate that and seek out new tastes.”
The tasting begins
On the outskirts of the orderly downtown in a building that was formerly an Aamco, Crux Fermentation Project is so packed there’s an official parking attendant. The main lot is full, and I’m directed to a satellite lot. Seats at a communal table are even harder to find than a parking spot, but we snag some in time to hear our new neighbor ask the server whether his beer has Brettanomyces or Lactobacillus in it.
Is this beer or a biology class? “Brettanomyces,” she replies. The man turns to his friend. “I told you so.” That's the next level of Bend beerdom.
When Anna Roberts returns with my four samples, I can’t help but ask, “Isn’t Lactobacillus what’s in yogurt?” It turns out I’ve asked the right person. Roberts is near the highest level of beer expertise; she’s a Cicerone. A Cicerone is to beer what a sommelier is to wine and, over the course of my Bend beer research, I find that everyone here (a) is either studying to become a Cicerone or (b) bikes with someone who is. (The two words that best sum Bend up are “beer” and “biking.” Bend’s 14-person Cycle Pub is exactly what it sounds like and is an example of the sum being greater than its individual parts.)
Lactobacillus is the bacteria in yogurt, and Brettanomyces is another wild strain of bacteria that brewers are now allowing, or introducing, into their fermentation processes. It creates what is called a “sour beer.”
“A lot of the time Bend is ahead of the curve,” Roberts says. “I think sours are going to be the next big thing.”
I save Crux’s sour, Banished Freakcake, for last, hoping I’ll like the “next big thing.”
Because the idea of “liking” something is fairly subjective, early on I decide that for me to be able to say I like a beer, I must be able to drink an entire pint of it under two conditions: without making any funny faces and with enjoyment.
I start with Flanders Red, Crux’s interpretation of a traditional Belgian-style red ale. It tastes like foot mold to me. The Farmhouse Ale, a saison, is slightly better — minty and light — but it’d be a struggle for me to get an entire pint down.
Freakcake time. Freakcake is not only a sour, but also barrel aged. There is a 2013 and a 2014 on the menu. I try both. I’m a fiend for espresso, and these immediately appeal to me — they’ve got crema, the foam layer on top of a properly pulled espresso; are almost the color of coal; and I can smell coffee notes as soon as I pull them near me.
I’m unable to distinguish the nuances between the 2013 and the 2014 Freakcakes, but I return to each sample for second and third sips. If they weren’t 10.5 percent alcohol, I think I could like both. They are the first beers I have had in my life with a positive flavor profile: I taste the fig and dried cranberry the menu description promises. (I don’t pick up the mentioned hints of sour cherries, raisins, dates, currants or lemon and orange zest.)
Next up is Deschutes. I do a morning tour of their 91,000-square-foot production facility. Deschutes began brewing beer in 1988 in a smaller facility in downtown Bend and today makes 337,000 barrels (one barrel is 31 gallons) annually in this bigger one, which opened in 1993, expanded in 2004 and does daily free tours. Every 23 minutes, the tour guide tells us, they bottle a lifetime supply of beer for someone who lives to the average age, which they say is 79, and drinks the average annual number of beers, which they say is 219.
There’s a tasting room at the brewery, but I save myself for Deschutes’ downtown Bend Public House, which was their original production facility and where they today serve not only standards such as Black Butte Porter, Obsidian Stout, Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Chainbreaker IPA, but also limited-edition special projects. “We use people at the brewpub as guinea pigs,” says Gina Schauland, Deschutes’ social media coordinator and also the founder of the Central Oregon Beer Angels, a group of women beer drinkers that has nearly 400 members.
If a limited-edition beer does well at the brewpub, Deschutes makes it again and it becomes a “pub exclusive.” Three of our six samples, Pine Mountain Pilsner, Central Oregon Saison and Summer Piquant, are pub exclusives. The others are Twilight Summer Ale, Nitro Obsidian Stout and the Black Butte.
An enthusiastic 20-something delivers the four-ounce samples and applauds our selection. “I’m really inspired by your order,” he says. I think he’s joking. But no. “I really like what you guys have done here.” Because Bend is a hop-crazy town, he probably thinks our selections are shrewd and meaningful. The only meaning is that they are the six least hoppy beers of the 17 currently on tap.
Five of the six fail with me. The sixth, Nitro Obsidian Stout, I kind of like, probably because it’s like drinking dessert — part espresso, part chocolate.
Since I’m getting closer to liking something, I don’t stop.
Worthy Brewing has a beer that comes with a side of raspberry syrup to sweeten it up, but it’s still too bitter. McMenamins’ Terminator Stout and Ruby, an ale with added raspberries, fall into the same category as the Nitro Obsidian Stout: getting closer, but not quite to “like” yet.
I bypass liking and fall in love at 10 Barrel. Some Bend locals began boycotting this brewery after Anheuser-Busch InBev bought it last year — for a reported $50 million and changing nothing really, besides investing $10 million — but since I have no history with it, I don’t care. And that’s a good thing because I love its Swill.
It’s only 4.5 percent alcohol, and I drink an entire pint of Swill without making a single funny face. Swill is based on a Berliner weisse and is lemony, effervescent and thirst-quenching. I don’t sip it slowly, but swig it like water after a long run. And then I call my mom with the good news.
“I’ve found a beer I really like!”
“It’s an American radler. I drank the whole pint!”
“Did you hear? I drank a whole pint of beer!”
“Radler isn’t beer. But I guess it’s a start.”
Despite her high standards — after checking with several other sources, the consensus is that radler is beer, but “it’s what Germans drink when they don’t want to drink” — I leave Bend saying I like beer.
Dina Mishev is the editor-in-chief of Jackson Hole magazine and an editor of Inspirato.