Ben Dobler has some pretty strong opinions about pale ales.
With nearly 30 years of experience in Portland's craft brewing industry, working for big names like Widmer and BridgePort, that certainly gives him the right. Dobler's firm conviction that a pale must exhibit a perfect balance of malts and hops certainly doesn't sound controversial. But in recent years, more brewers have rejected the equilibrium found in classics like Deschutes' Mirror Pond in favor of ramping up the levels of palate-buckling bitterness. It's a bandwagon he refuses to jump on.
"One of my biggest eye-opening experiences was last year judging the [Oregon Beer Awards], and I was in the medal round of pale ales," Dobler says. "Those, to me, were not pale ales. They were all IPA or IPA-lite."
Call it stubbornness or simple loyalty, but Dobler's approach to the pale ale is consistent with all of the beers at Hammer & Stitch, the brewery he co-founded with two brothers, Adam and Jason Babkes, on the northernmost edge of Slabtown. The five core offerings on tap since last October's opening are all true to form and don't rely on gimmicks to win drinkers over. Even the names of the beers are straightforward—if you want an IPA, you order The IPA.
"One of our mantras is, 'Keep is simple, stupid,"' Dobler says. "With our standards, it was producing beers that are just right down the fairway—that you know what it is, it's a pale ale, it's a lager. I think by keeping them simple, the consumer has responded really well."
That's not to say simple equates to dull. The Lager stands out for its bracing minimalism—each straw yellow sip is light, crisp and offers a quick burst of bubbles, like a Champagne cork popping against the tongue, that ends with just a whisper of bitterness. It's the kind of beverage that can go the distance to help you get the job done: the lawnmower beer, the shower beer, the "power through a lousy four hour Super Bowl" beer.
While it might be tempting to stick with The Lager, heed the advice emblazoned on the wall in red neon at the brewery: "Love all styles." It's a slogan Dobler and his head brewer, Cam Murphy, abide by. They can knock out a traditional, caramel-forward amber just as deftly as they can produce a crowd-pleasing IPA.
The latter, which tastes as though a pine bough was wrung of its juices, will take you back to the craft beer scene about a dozen years ago, long before the tropical punch and hazy takes on the style were ubiquitous. In fact, a visit to the taproom on Northwest Wilson Street will remind you of that earlier era, when breweries often popped up on the industrial fringes, and tracking down those old warehouses and repurposed auto garages felt like a scavenger hunt only beer nerds knew about.
Hammer & Stitch's 6,000-square-foot space, which sits in the factory-dotted shadow of the Montgomery Park building, used to house Clear Creek Distillery. A wide open design scheme provides an unobstructed view of the 15-barrel Agile Stainless-built brewhouse, now situated in the stills' footprint.
Opening in the former Clear Creek building brings Dobler's career full circle in a way: Years ago, while working for Kurt and Rob Widmer, he helped make a whiskey wash for the distiller. He is also, coincidentally, in the beer business with a pair of siblings once again.
"Ironically enough," Dobler says, "I'm working with two brothers now instead of for two brothers."
Number of tables: Eight
Distance between tables: 6 feet
Safety precautions: Menus available via QR code, hand sanitizer pumps at the bar, employees clean surfaces after every use.
Peak hours: 12:30-1:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 5-7 pm Friday-Saturday
DRINK: Hammer & Stitch, 2377 NW Wilson St., 971-254-8982, hsbrew.co. Noon-6 pm Wednesday-Thursday and Sunday, noon-8 pm Friday-Saturday.