Full Sail Brewing Co.

If you ever survived dysentery long enough to make it to the end of classic educational video game The Oregon Trail, you were faced with the mighty Columbia River, the un-fordable artery of the Pacific Northwest. Like Lewis and Clark before them, those digital, buffalo meat-hoarding pioneers were in a rush to escape the rain-drenched landscape, opting to risk rapids on the Mississippi of the NW to get to the coast, fast.

They should have stuck around. When they disembarked to brighter pastures, explorers (and floppy-disk adventurers) left behind what would inevitably become, a century and a half later, one of the most robust beer regions in the nation. Now, the Columbia River Gorge flows amber, and its heart is a tiny, picturesque town of 8,500 far from the spotlight-hogging beer meccas of Portland and Bend.

Even if it had but one nice bar, Hood River, Oregon, would be worth a trip simply for its embarrassment of natural riches. This is a city that looks like a particularly vibrant, hilly Norman Rockwell vignette come to life. It overlooks one of the west’s most startlingly beautiful sights and sits in the shadow of Mt. Hood. It’s the kite-boarding capital of the US, a destination for hikers, mountain bikers, and snowshoers. The nearby Fruit Loop produces 40% of the nation’s winter pears, plus cider and wine. In a word, it’s gorgeous.
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But it also happens to be home to one of the highest per-capita brewery/full-time resident scenes in the world, with five breweries operating within walking distance of one another, constituting one brewery per approximately 1,700 residents. And here’s the craziest thing: they’re really, really good.

“Depending on what you’re looking for, you can find an outstanding beer,” says Ashlee Bridgewater, marketing and events coordinator for the city’s beloved Double Mountain Brewery. “There’s something that will appeal to just about everybody.”

In a scant 30 years, Hood River has become perhaps the most welcoming and consistently great beer towns in Oregon, a jumping-off point for a fast-developing sub region of rural breweries. If you’re limiting your beer tourism to Portland alone, you’re missing out on something magical.

The Gorge’s Tight-Knit Brewery Scene

Having operated for a mere 30 years, it’s strange to think of Full Sail Brewing Co. as a granddaddy. But since opening back in 1987, it’s become the beating heart of the region, a craft brewery with a mastery of lagers and ambers that has grown into one of the biggest independents in the nation. It was also the first to really take advantage of what makes the Gorge such a smart, sustainable place to start a brewery: the abundance of natural resources.

“We have such amazing resources right here. The water is incredible: We don’t have to filter it to treat it,” says Anneke Ayers, brand and events manager for Full Sail, marketing lead for Breweries in the Gorge, the two-state nonprofit promoting the area’s breweries. “Within two hours of any direction we have fresh hops. We have malts nearby. We have yeast labs that do custom yeast cultures and strains for brewers in the area. We have amazing krieks and sours because we have access to fruits a stone’s throw away. We’re in the heart of an area that has so many key ingredients.”

It didn’t take long for other breweries to follow suit. A year after Full Sail tapped into its wares, Big Horse Brew Pub opened up across town, taking over a four-story building on the town’s hillside overlooking the Gorge and pouring beers like the Pale Rider IPA and its Macstallion Scotch ale on decks offering a panoramic view of the city.

Like any proud parent, Full Sail also served to birth the area’s next generation of brewers. The city’s three other breweries aren’t just operated by folks who did time in Full Sail’s riverside brewery -- they also represent some of the best purveyors in Oregon. Logsdon Farmhouse Ales is an award-winning crafter of Belgian-influenced saisons that recently opened a downtown taproom after publically closing its homestead facility up the mountain; Double Mountain is currently celebrating 10 years of serving the state’s best pizza alongside crowd-pleasing beers like its IRA and experimental sours; and pFriem Family Brewers has been playing fast and loose with everything from IPAs and pales to lagers since immediately becoming a cult hit when it opened in 2012.

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For those not counting, those are five breweries that would easily land at the top of the pile as the best in many states -- all of which are within walking distance from one another. While this might sound like excess, the breweries have actually worked together to elevate the status of Hood River in the greater consciousness by sticking to what they do best and offering drinkers a little bit of everything.

“It was a fairly saturated market, which is good for us because we didn’t have to make beer with a defined focus,” says pFriem founder Josh Pfriem, who also did time at Bellingham, Washington’s Chuckanut before debuting his operation five years ago. “We didn’t have to make amber ale because that was already happening in the town. We wanted to open a place where we could make the beer that we wanted to drink in a cool spot with elevated food.”

It’s a pretty great formula, really. With a concentration of great brewers all operating as neighbors, they effectively ensure that they’re all held to a higher standard, whether they mean to or not. It’s a win win for them, and certainly for the drinkers.

“Rising tides float all boats. It’s a cool, exciting thing that we can all come together,” says Ayers. “The brewers make sure that they consistently make great beer that’s innovative and local and resourceful. There’s a bar that’s been set in the region that you have to make exceptional beer. Set it and you can’t fudge it.”

The Gorge Lifestyle

Hood River is the epicenter, but the emergent beer scene is making its way through the Gorge. Within 20 miles in any directions – spanning the Oregon and Washington sides of the water – are more than a dozen breweries within walking/biking/boating distance from the docks of downtown, making it entirely possible (and highly recommended) to tour the scenic wonderland.

From the laid-back Everybody’s Brewing in White Salmon, Washington, to renowned IPA pioneers Walking Man in Stevenson, Washington, and the 10-barrel newcomer Freebridge -- the first brewery to open in neighboring The Dalles, Oregon -- you can switch locations and scenery while still guaranteeing a quality tasting experience with jaw-dropping views.

With the plethora of beautiful vistas and boozing opportunities, some have christened the region “Portland’s backyard,” but let’s get real: Even in the off season – long after the tourists who double the area’s population in the summer have gone back to Stumptown – every brewpub in Hood River and its surrounding areas is bustling with locals coming together for great beer, great food, and gorgeous views. Luckily, it’s something the locals are exceedingly cool with sharing with the outside world.

“There’s something about mountains that makes people thirsty. People like to drink beer in pretty places,” says Pfriem.

How to Experience Hood River

Activities range from high-intensity sports like mountain biking and kite boarding to zero-intensity activities like birding, fly fishing, and sitting on the water to watch the sunset. And at the end of the day (or mid-day, for the growler equipped), it’s a city that brings the thunder when it’s time to unwind.

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Along with the breweries, great taps are everywhere, from coffee shops to the Skylight Theater & Pub -- where you can grab a local pint and a flick -- to the 30-deep 64 Taphouse pouring most of the local breweries (including Ferment, which will begin pouring this summer). Take a ride up to Parkdale on the Mount Hood Railroad and you’ll be treated to local beers -- plus wines from the Fruit Loop -- before getting a chance to take in one of the best views of Mt. Hood on the back lawn of Solera, a brewery founded by yet another Full Sail alum.

And if it’s a crowd you crave, September’s Hood River Hops Fest, now in its 14th year, draws big crowds to the downtown area while maintaining the small-town sensibility. It’s so well managed, in fact, that the city has limited its growth intentionally, a move that has seen it rank among the top three Oregon brew festivals for three years running, according to the Oregon Beer Awards.

“We’re not trying to inundate the town,” says Ashley May, director of the Hood River chamber of commerce event department. “We have a duty to our community to have sustainable events, so we’ve just been focused on quality.” And those events seem to be united by a vibe that best represents the Hood River lifestyle. “It’s laid-back,” as May describes it. “[Residents and visitors] are there to enjoy the things they love, and celebrate that together.”