My (Failed) Attempt At Conquering The Bend Ale Trail

beerThere must be someone in Bend, Oregon, who drinks Coors or Bud Light. But I imagine that this mythical, mass produced beer loving android keeps a very low profile so as not to be shunned, like an alcoholic Amish swinger, in what must be America’s best craft beer town. Bend is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and some 250 days of sunshine a year. There are so many opportunities to hike, kayak, go trail running, white water rafting, skiing or snowboarding that one doesn’t have to feel too guilty about throwing back a few craft beers at one of Bend’s 13 breweries.

With a population of just under 80,000, Bend apparently has the most per capita breweries in the nation. Inside the city limits, there are 10 brewpubs and three breweries (Boneyard has a tasting room open to the public, Below Grade Brewing isn’t open to the public and the Ale Apothecary is by appointment only). There are two more brewpubs in the neighboring towns of Sunriver and Sisters, and I’m told there is one more brewpub set to open later this summer called Riverside and another brewery called Rathole about to open any time now. Bend also has a Cycle Pub that gives drinkers and bike enthusiasts to combine their two favorite pastimes.

But it’s not just the quantity of microbrew offerings in Bend – locals know good beer and in a place with this many breweries, brewers know that their product had better be good. And it is.

On a four-day visit to Bend, my plan was to visit each of Bend’s brewpubs, plus another brewpub, Three Creeks Brewing Company, in nearby Sisters. Tourism officials have established an official Bend Ale Trail detailing where the brewpubs are and what they specialize in. Drinkers can download an app or pick up a passport; those who get stamps from every brewery are entitled to a free mug. The mug is worth no more than about $5, but securing it seemed like a worthy quest.

deschutes brewery beerI started at Bend’s oldest brewpub, founded in 1988, the Deschutes Brewery, which is named after the river that runs through town. I ordered Bachelor Bitter, named after the towering, snowcapped, 9,000-foot peak that’s just outside town, and my wife ordered a Trees of Doom Dunkel as we listened in on a couple who told our waitress they wanted to move to Bend. In the days to come, we’d realize that nearly every visitor in town seemed to be pondering a move to Bend. And by the time I started guzzling my second pint, a malty, sweet little number called a Free Ride Cream Ale, I was ready to move to Bend myself.

In the days that followed, I hit six more brewpubs in the area; below you’ll find some observations about each place.

Three Creeks Brewery- Three Creeks is located about 20 minutes northwest of Bend in Sisters, an interesting little town with a cool, Old West flavor to it. (There’s also a great independent bookstore in town called Paulina Springs Books.) It was a hot day, so we sat outside, facing a parking lot backed by some towering evergreens, and I ordered their lightest beer, a Knotty Blonde, which they advertised as being “as light as the hair of our pistol carrying honey.” It was good but not particularly memorable, though I liked the fact that they advertise all the beer’s stats – including its original gravity (OG) of 1.039, its final gravity (FG) of 1.008, its alcohol content (4.0%) and its International bittering units (IBU) total. (I had to Google these terms to find out that the OG and FG have to do with the beer’s sugar content and the IBU has to do with how hoppy the beer is.)

10 Barrel Brewing Company- As soon as I walked into this Westside brewpub, I wanted to buy the place, or, at the very least, become a regular. There’s an inviting fire pit with benches and tables built around it and half the bar stools are outside. I ordered a “Mike Saw a Sasquatch” Session Ale, a golden Summer Ale, made with Cascade and Sterling hops and honey and 2-row pale malts. It tasted a little hoppier than its low (26) IBU rating suggested but, once again, I loved how much information was provided about the beer.

Bend Brewing Company- This brewpub is right downtown with an obstructed view of the Deschutes River. I sat on the outdoor patio with my 5-year-old son, who made friends with a 4-year-old-girl at the table next to us while I enjoyed a Maibock on a warm spring day. It was a solid choice – clean, with a nice malty finish.

mcmenamins brewery bendMcMenamins Old St. Francis School Brewery- This place was converted from a school to a hotel and brewpub in 2004. It was Central Oregon’s first parochial school, opened in 1936, and it has an incredibly ornate 102 degree Fahrenheit soaking pool that looks like one of the fancy bathhouses in Budapest, not to mention a cinema, three cozy pubs and an outdoor fire pit to drink by.

This was my favorite brewpub in Bend, both in terms of atmosphere and quality of beer. I had a seasonal English Brown Ale that was nutty, a little smoky and deliciously creamy and smooth. Something like a beer milkshake, it was the best beer I’ve had in a very long time. Next time I return to Bend, I plan to stay in the hotel.

Old Mill Brew Werks- This is a neighborhood brewpub in the Old Mill District that serves good food and has some tasty beers. We sat outside and I had another English Brown Ale that was outstanding, though perhaps a notch below the version I drank at McMenamins and a bit pricey at $4 for a small 10 ounce glass. But our waitress was friendly and her story – she has a masters degree in Science but doesn’t mind working in a brewpub because she wants to live in Bend – reinforced my impression that this is a place worth rearranging one’s life for.

Crux Fermentation Project- Located in an industrial area adjacent to downtown Bend, this place is Bend’s newest brewpub, at just a year old. It was full of happy drinkers, many of them parents with their kids in tow, like us, on a warm, sunny, Tuesday afternoon. I sampled the Marzen and an On the Fence NW Pale Ale, and couldn’t decide which one I like more. They were both outstanding.

There was a large group gathered for a birthday party, and the birthday girl gave my sons her leftover cupcakes. Another couple, who were watching a game of horseshoes on the patio, told my wife that they moved to Bend from San Francisco eight years ago and haven’t regretted it for a moment since.

I asked our waiter why the place was called a project, rather than a brewpub, and I thought his answer was a perfect metaphor for the city itself.

“We call it a project because it is like a project,” he said. “We’re constantly tinkering, trying to make it better. The place will always be changing.”

Conclusion- I’m a little ashamed to say that I didn’t make it to several breweries that were on my to-do list, namely Cascade Lakes Brewing Company, GoodLife, Boneyard, Worthy Brewing Company, and Silver Moon, but I think that subconsciously I wanted to miss a few, so that I have a good excuse to come back to Bend.

Bend Ale Trail