BEND, Ore. – It was when the 20-something guest-of-honor in a beer-saturated bachelor party aboard the Cycle Pub mooned a passing limo that Bend really proved that, if anything, it’s not boring.
If there’s any doubt that this Central Oregon city of 81,000 has become the ultimate destination for combining outdoor recreation with beer tourism, the Cycle Pub should cinch it.
This common sight around downtown Bend combines the elements of a bicycle and – yes – a pub. Six bike seats, each with a set of pedals, face inward on each side of a bar counter. There’s a big tire at each corner, a canopy overhead and a nondrinking driver. Bike meets beer.
Cycle Pub builder James Watts, a Bend local, saw a similar contraption in Germany two years ago, and “I just knew the minute I saw it, it was a perfect cultural match for Bend.”
Among cities in beer-crazy Oregon, Bend now has the most craft breweries per capita. Some locals have started calling this “Beer City USA.” More breweries are opening soon. What better way to visit a few?
“We had a blast,” said Ian Berg, organizer of the bachelor party, which pedaled the town with AC-DC tunes blaring on the “Pub’s” stereo in between stops to refill glass jugs – “growlers,” as they’re known in the trade – at some of the town’s nine breweries.
And, hey, nobody fell off.
After Gary Fish opened Deschutes Brewery in a downtown storefront in 1988, brewing erupted here like the lava domes that formed this pretty high-desert country.
Having long-since added a big brewery overlooking its namesake river, Deschutes is now the fifth-largest craft brewer in the nation. But its beers retain local names, such as Mirror Pond Pale Ale, after Bend’s little midtown lake, and Red Chair, commemorating a ski lift at nearby Mount Bachelor (and named “World’s Best Beer” in the 2010 World Beer Awards). You get to see these places when you visit, beer hounds. Get psyched.
Visitors will also find a thriving downtown with busy shops and restaurants, including the brewhouses that serve food (go for fish ’n’ chips at Bend Brewing Co., crawfish cakes at 10 Barrel, or a great $10 Reuben at Cascade Lakes Brewery).
At the town’s center is the 72-year-old, neon-bedizened Tower Theatre, renovated in 2004, offering bills such as a one-man show on Groucho Marx or a recent Leo Kottke concert. There’s more shopping, too, at the Old Mill District ( www.theoldmill.com), a renovated lumber-mill site just south of downtown with high-end shops and riverfront trails.
Before happiness was measured by hoppy-ness here, visitors came for skiing, river sports, hiking and mountain biking in nearby Deschutes National Forest, or rock climbing on world-famous Smith Rock, just up Highway 97.
Maybe it was natural that a town full of extreme skiers, crazy paddlers and rock jocks would take to beer.
“People are here to celebrate life, and in doing that everything is strenuous and physical … and at the end of that experience, you want a beer!” said Larry Sidor, 62, who recently left after eight years as the brewmaster at Deschutes to start his own craft brewery, expected to open here in June (see www.yettobenamedbrewery.com).
“We’re so accustomed to the spandex-clad outdoors person who’s here to bike or ski,” said Doug LaPlaca, president of Visit Bend, the tourism bureau. But since launching a promotional effort dubbed the Bend Ale Trail in 2010, “We’ve found the beer tourist looks very different – people with patches all over their vests, to show what breweries they’ve visited.”
“I’ve had three couples come for their honeymoon, from places like Arizona, just to do the Ale Trail,” said David Bafford, innkeeper at Bend’s Mill Inn.
Don’t know much about beer? In this town of Triple IPAs, India Brown Ales, Northwest Pale Ales, and porters and stouts and everything malty and hoppy – chances are, you’ll learn before you leave.
Through its growing years, Sidor said, Deschutes has acted as a de facto training ground for local brewers. Several went on to open their own craft breweries, such as the popular, off-kilter Boneyard brewery ( www.boneyardbeer.com).
Housed in an old auto shop (37 N.W. Lake Place), it’s called “Boneyard” because it started with used equipment from other brewers. A skull-and-crossbones logo helps set the snowboard-bum, biker-bar vibe, along with beers with names such as “Skunkape.”
“It is dramatically opposite what most people think of in a craft brewery,” LaPlaca said. “It’s all tattoos and trucker hats.”
Open just over a year, Boneyard had planned to start canning its beer by now, but delayed that because it can’t keep up with demand for keg beer, said Maddy Wasserman, self-described “Beer Wench Extraordinaire,” who shows visitors around. (Most brewers offer tours and tasting.)
Such wild popularity is typical for the newer generation of Bend’s brewers. The 5-year-old 10 Barrel brewery has just expanded to a new 50-barrel brewhouse.
One thing was evident among Bend’s brewers: These are happy people.
“It’s a very friendly, compatriot type of environment,” said 28-year-old Ty Barnett, a former home brewer who is a partner in GoodLife Brewing ( www.goodlifebrewing.com), which launched last year in a room-to-grow warehouse (with authentic German-style beer garden) at 70 S.W. Century Drive, on the road to Mount Bachelor.
“We grew up on Mirror Pond (ale). We grew up on the guys who started it all: Deschutes, Widmer, Sierra Nevada … A dozen or so paved the way.”
His crowd is helping to push beer lovers to the next horizon, paying greater attention to flavors and aromas. Visitors to GoodLife learn all about “hop bursting,” a technique for extracting citrusy hop flavors without lemon-peel bitterness. Stop in at 10 Barrel and they talk about beer and food pairing (“We don’t employ a cook, we employ a chef”).
These guys sound a bit like, well, wine snobs – but with a sense of humor. Good-Life’s brew list includes the higher-alcohol “Pass Stout.” (Say it fast.)
Another factor sets the grinning beer drinker apart from the cuff-shooting wine connoisseur, and makes a Bend getaway more affordable than Napa: “I can buy the most expensive bottle of beer in the world for $20,” Barnett said with a smile.
Premium beers are easy to find here. Most supermarkets feature a cooler of ales like you won’t find many places in the world. The take-home prize from my visit: bottles of The Abyss stout, a Larry Sidor creation from Deschutes that’s aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels and flavored with licorice and molasses. At around $12 for a 22-ounce bottle, it’s a bit like drinking alcoholic sipping chocolate.
It’s also a souvenir that will go really nicely with pulled pork. You can’t say that about a T-shirt.
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