“Do you want to go to the Shell or Chevron?” asks Andrea as we heft our mountain bikes on to car racks after a ride at Shevlin Park, northwest of downtown Bend, Oregon. 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 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 in most big cities — with RPM, a pale ale with six different varieties of local hops, we’re offered samples. I go for What Does the Fox Say?, a Cascadian dark ale from local Riverbend Brewing described as having a slightly chocolate flavour.
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.
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. 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 realise 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, lifestyle website Livability named Bend the No. 1 Beer City in the US, with one of the highest concentrations of craft breweries per capita. In the city limits there are about 81,000 people and 21 breweries (and 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 its wild fermented beer in the garage of former Deschutes brewer Paul Arney. It sells for about $30 a bottle, if you can get your hands on one.
In Bend, people drink beer like wine — sniffing, sipping and savouring 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, voted the city’s best brewer in August by readers of Bend’s City Source.
On the outskirts of the orderly downtown, 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 neighbour 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 yoghurt?” 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.
Lactobacillus is the bacteria in yoghurt, and brettanomyces is another wild strain of bacteria brewers are introducing into their fermentation. It creates what is called a “sour beer”.
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 Belgian-style red ale. It tastes like foot mould to me. The Farmhouse Ale, a saison, is slightly better — minty and light — but it’d be a struggle for me to get a pint down.
Freakcake time. Freakcake is not only 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 colour of coal; and I can smell coffee notes.
I’m unable to distinguish the nuances between the 2013 and the 2014 Freakcakes, but return for second and third sips. If they weren’t 10.5 per cent alcohol, I think I could like both. They are the first beers I have had in my life with a positive flavour 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 8000sq m production facility. Deschutes began brewing beer in 1988 and today makes 337,000 barrels annually.
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’s 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.
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 brewing biant Anheuser-Busch InBev bought it last year — for a reported $50m and changing nothing really, besides investing $10m — 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 per cent alcohol, and I drink an entire pint 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.