USA: Slurping off to Beervana

America's far northwest
America's far northwest
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From coffee roasters to real ale craft breweries, Polly Weeks explores the DIY drinking culture exploding in America.

The enthusiastic barista urges: “Remember, you’ve really got to slurp it; the louder the better,” at the Nossa Familia coffee shop in Portland which all sounds a bit bad mannered to me. I’m clearly more of a polite sipper.

America's far northwest

America's far northwest

I arrived in Portland, Oregon just a few days ago, and will soon be making my way to Olympia and Seattle in a quest to explore the Pacific Northwest’s coffee and beer culture. Whether it’s a shot of espresso or a bottle of something much stronger, having a drink has become a cultural pursuit in these cities, with more and more tourists thirsty for a taste of the action.

To prepare myself for the work ahead, I check into Portland’s Ace Hotel. It’s achingly hip, but then so is everything in Portland. The streets are filled with women dressed in thrift store finds and men flashing daring tattoos or sporting handlebar moustaches. It’s a city that’s keen to shun big brands and embrace DIY culture, so it’s no surprise craft breweries and independent coffee roasters are thriving.

“People are more likely to set up their own roasters here, because not only are premises cheaper, but you don’t have to fill the traditional stereotype of a businessman,” says Matt Brown, director of wholesale at Portland’s Coava Coffee.

“Even in the most expensive restaurants, people will still be having business meetings in jeans and T-shirts. Running a business seems more accessible.”

Matt says there are 51 roasters in Portand, the biggest being Stumptown, which also has branches in Seattle, New York and Los Angeles. Coava, meanwhile, is the epitome of Portland’s coffee scene: it has a trendy outlet (a warehouse, which in addition to operating as a coffee bar, also houses a bamboo workshop), produces single origin coffee (rather than blends) and when it comes to the farmers, it is ethically minded.

While it’s impossible to slurp my way through them all, I visit Portland’s key coffee houses on a Third Wave Coffee Tour. Two highlights are the wonderful and tiny Sterling, where we are served espresso in brandy glasses (so you can appreciate the taste and smell), and Nossa Familia, which is where we do our ‘cupping’ class (to learn how to taste the coffee correctly).

But there’s only so much caffeine I can take, and I soon switch my attention to beer. I pop along to Hopworks Urban Brewery, the brainchild of beer and bike enthusiast Christian Ettinger. Marketing itself as an Eco-Brewpub, this wooden-chalet style pub also offers tours of its 20-barrel brewery.

From the ingredients used to the beer-making process employed, everything here is done with the environment in mind. I order a tasting sampler, starting with the light and less bitter varieties, then gradually make my way through their darker ales. The rich and citrusy IPA is incredible.

With so many local breweries, this region has been given the nickname Beervana. Widmer Brothers, BridgePort and McMenamins are all well established, with the latter having plenty of pubs throughout the city. Hair of the Dog, which opened in the Nineties, is also worth a visit and has a cult-like following in the city.

McMenamins in Olympia, part of the neighbouring Washington state, has a Spar Cafe branch with a little brewery in the back, using water from their own well. Their rich, chocolaty Terminator Stout is outstanding. The final stop on this particular crawl is Fishtails Brewery. A local institution, this brightly-painted pub sits opposite its brewery. My fish-shaped beer sampler, featuring organic ales, goes down a treat.

After a night spent sleeping it all off at the comforting Red Lion Hotel, coffee is definitely needed. Batdorf & Bronson’s lovely tasting room is close to Olympia’s farmers’ market, and a hidden gem.

You can sample their latest brews for free and watch the roasters at work. I try four varieties and am especially keen on the organic French roast, which has a slightly caramelised flavour.

But no caffeine-themed trip to these parts would be complete without a visit to Seattle, home to the world’s biggest coffee shop chain – Starbucks.

I check into The Crown Plaza Seattle, which has fantastic views of the skyline and the Space Needle observation tower. Walk down to Pike Place Market and find the original Starbucks, opened in 1971 by three friends who met as students.

People pose for pictures outside the iconic landmark, which offers quite a different experience to the usual ‘bucks. They even serve a local Pike Place brew.

Eager to explore more of what’s on offer, I take a Savor Seattle Gourmet Tour. It lasts around three hours and we visit seven places – including the impressive Pike Brewing Company where beer is paired with cheese.

After waking early at boutique hotel Inn At The Market, it’s a perfect day for wandering through the stalls. But the real find of my trip is ETG Coffee in Fremont.

Jazz music plays on the stereo, while caffeine addicts cram beneath a chandelier and a waitress tots up bills on a Victorian cash register. There may be little room to move, but it’s certainly atmospheric.

Coffee and beer may not sound quite as sophisticated as a wine tour, but I don’t think I’ve come across an industry which is so concerned with quality control.

I’m now thoroughly educated about the importance of buying fair trade coffee and reassured by the lack of chemicals in beer from a high-end real ale brewer.

Clearly on my way to becoming a drinks snob, I wonder if I’m less of a sipper than I thought...