Our planet; this floating, spinning, orbiting and gravitationally differentiated mass of solids, liquid and gas is a pretty interesting place. Right? It’s core, a hot reactor of dense iron, enriched gold and platinum is hidden away 3,500 miles below our feet. It’s skin, the lithosphere, a dynamic puzzle of plates, continental and oceanic, comprise only the smallest fraction of it’s depth; the observable surface of which is covered in water.
Over two-thirds of the Earths surface is soaked by the covalent bondage of hydrogen to oxygen (Our bodies too are about two-thirds water). In fact, 97% of surface waters are held in our salty oceans with an additional 2.4% locked up, salt-free, in polar ice caps and glaciers. Folks, that leaves less than 1% of water available as a potentially fresh source for dependent life forms like ourselves and the statistics continue to divide from there. My point though and sudden conclusion of a seemingly irrelevant brief history of our planet’s composition – this slice of perspective about our basic hydrology; is that Beer (yes, beer) is after all mostly water – fermented, hop flavored, malt sugared water.
Beer brewing is a craft evolved from centuries upon centuries of experiments, accidents and clear obsession. It is a beverage celebrated and documented in human history far further even than the construction of the Egyptian Pyramids which believe it or not, were paid for in part by barter with an ancient beer, or “Kash”. The history is fascinating, and potentially not to be trusted on Wikipedia, but is very well documented in many other trusted volumes. The libraries though have had to wait a moment because we are surrounded by the second largest population of craft breweries per capita in North America.
With more than 30 breweries within the metro area – greater than any other city in the U.S. – Portland, OR has become a destination for beer snobs, enthusiasts and sippers world wide. Other cities will contest and downright argue for that title. Like my hometown, the other Portland in Maine, which despite having fewer breweries actually has a higher brewery-to-person ratio because of it’s smaller population. No kidding, the competition is very real.
While in Portland West we’ve had the pleasure to stand overwhelmed by enormous selections in even the small corner stores that barely seem to carry a granola bar and rub our eyes in disbelief when a brewery tour guide presented free pitchers to us at 11 AM Saturday morning. Did you know that there are technically only two kinds of beers and that they are defined by the yeast used? It’s true. There are top fermenting Ale yeasts and slow bottom fermenting Lager yeasts that make up the majority of beers consumed (in this country anyway).
Ever wonder why it’s called an “India” Pale Ale? During the British occupation of India extra bitter ales were less likely to spoil during transit to the warmer climate because of the antiseptic properties of hops. What the tour guides don’t talk about though, is the craft of the branding and design. Now, I enjoy a good hop in a Pale Ale, a thick Oatmeal Stout and even a crisp pop-top Lager but my attention for taste and recipe here is challenged by the choice of the label in this diverse craft scene. I’m talking about judging a beer by it’s cover, and I know you do it too.
Even if some triple hopped, 840 IBU, 9% ABV small batch IPA is the tastiest fermented nectar ever created; the label plays a significant role I think, and must interact well with the visual cortex or it will most likely not inspire my fingers to reach for it in the aisle. Certainly, there are plenty of great brews with mediocre design. Rock Art Brewery for instance, a growing craft brewery based in rural Northern Vermont, has an incredibly tasty selection of creative ales and lagers. Their graphics though, leave something to be desired and are yet another stale appropriation of Kokopelli, a deity and spirit of music to Pueblo cultures. What is good design anyway? And should it matter for an industry thats more about the aroma and flavor of it’s product?
No matter what your opinion of design, flavor or home place – it’s clear that a demand for a more creative, independent and local beer is thriving in this city. Beervana, as Portland has come to be known, is also more than just it’s breweries, bacon-flavored donuts and ridiculously hip bicycle enthusiasts. It is a thriving community of people participating in a new urbanism. A different standard and a unique rhythm. For as much as I enjoy the creative beers, its much more the collectivity and cultural creativity that is so much a part of the social fabric that inspires me. We can laugh at the absurdity in IFC’s “Portlandia” series and continue to grapple with the definition of a hipster, but it’s time to embrace it my friends and “Keep Portland Weird”. Cheers!