Whale Hunting: Confessions of a Great Beer Hunter

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It hit me while visiting the second Portland bottle shop. Here I was, in one of the country’s best beer cities, hunting for bottles that were brewed not in the great state of Oregon, but beer crafted in California and Colorado—breweries, mind you, that don’t distribute to my home city of Washington, DC. But still, at that moment it felt…wrong. Like a betrayal of the homespun beers that surrounded me.

Of course, for trainspotting collectors like myself, this is a common feeling. My wife’s friend spends entire days scouring liquor stores in one-stoplight towns in bourbon country, hoping to find a long-lost, ultra-rare bottle. It’s a passion that has created one of the largest bourbon collections in the country, but he’s certain to have missed a few non-bottle attractions along the way. Another friend in Portland makes a living visiting estate sales and thrift shops in search of records that he sells on consignment or online, much like a DC-area friend who buys old school Jamaican music from collectors living in Scandinavia.

This geographic ambivalence—trying to find something not where it came from, but where it has ended up—could be one of the central hallmarks of an unhealthy obsession. That and spending sums that would make the less driven shake their heads in disbelief.

But it did feel odd, passing over a Ninkasi IPA for a 12-ounce bottle of Dogpatch Sour Ale from San Fran-based Almanac Brewing, one of several bottles that I chased down while visiting half a dozen bottle shops in the Portland area.

I was specifically hunting for bottles of Consecration and Supplication, two of the most accomplished barrel-aged sour beers from California-based Russian River. These beers rarely surface in DC. And when they do, they’re either double the price you’d find on the West Coast, or they’re part of some event that trigger a mob scene of like-minded beer obsessives. Previous visits to Portland’s Belmont Station—one of the city’s best bottle shops—had proved fruitful in this years-long pursuit.

But not this time.

I did return with that afore-mentioned Almanac, a rare sour from Crooked Stave (out of Denver, Colorado), and a bottle of pinot noir from the Willamette. But no 750ml bottles from the sour powerhouse of Cascade Brewing or any of the coveted, high-octane bottles from Hair of the Dog, two of the Portland-only beer experiences.

Shameful, I know.

But I do fondly remember the beer I did encounter throughout the weeklong trip. The two pints of Breakside’s fresh-hopped Mosaic IPAs at Bailey’s Taproom in downtown Portland, followed by a $4 banh mi sandwich from a nearby food truck, one of the best and least expensive version of that Vietnamese classic I’ve ever eaten. I recall the pale ale from Heater Allen, a smaller brewery in McMinnville, Oregon, whose IPA is in constant demand and whose Session still packs a punch, and was heartily recommended by the bartender at Clyde’s Common. I remember The Broadside Berliner Weisse and the hopped sour collaboration between Portland’s own Hub Brewing and indie-uber New Belgium Brewery. I fondly recall drinking and eating at Full Sail and the relative newcomer pFriem Family Brewery, both in Hood River. Moments, in other words, that only existed there, and aren’t necessarily transportable, unless you want to risk burying a growler in your checked luggage.

Besides, I told myself as the plane took off, Cascade Brewing offers their beer via mail order—or so I thought. Seems they’ve recently suspended their online store due to “the legalities of sending beer across state lines.”

Guess I should’ve shopped smarter after all.