Now that every Oregon city with any ambition has a handful of breweries to her name—Oregon City, the state's original capital, will have five by summer's end while Salem's closest rival, Beaverton, has two—Salem is getting serious about its suds.
Last month, four Salem breweries announced plans to form the Salem Brewery Association to represent Salem Ale Works, Santiam Brewing, Vagabond Brewing and Gilgamesh Brewing.
How's the brew south of Keizer? I went and tasted all 54—every beer made by a Salem-based operation, plus the original recipes made by the brewer at the city's McMenamins branch—in a single afternoon. Everyone was really nice, but I would not do this again, nor would I recommend it to others when the charms of Corvallis lie a mere 45 minutes away.
2195 Hyacinth St. NE, Suite 172, Salem, 512-9007, vagabondbrewing.com. 3-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 3 pm-close Friday, noon-close Saturday, 2-10 pm Sunday.
The spot: Vagabond sits in an industrial park on the northern fringe of town, next to a crossfit gym, a tae kwon do place and a store that sells rare Australian coral frags and melanurus wrasses to serious fish keepers. The whole complex is ringed with barbed wire, and there's a Mercedes SUV and a two-door Audi in the lot. Inside, there are high ceilings,
cement concrete floors, leather couches and GPS coordinates painted on the wall. There's also a shuffleboard table, a sit-down Pac-Man Battle Royale cabinet and fliers for upcoming yoga and board-game nights. The air hangs heavy with malt, and a couple guys are working in the brewhouse on a Saturday afternoon.
The beer: Ten house beers and two ciders from Hi-Wheel on our visit, available on two taster trays for $15. After I ordered them all, the barkeeper generously comped my DD a soda.
The bad: The Pioneer Golden ale tasted like an old cider—sweet and vaguely appley. The Irish Red was more like a Newcastle Brown, with none of that spiciness you want from a modern red ale. The Into the Wild IPA was extremely catty, the stout was over-aggressively smoky. The worst concoctions, though, were a collaboration with 7 Brides of Silverton, a milk stout that tasted like smoked Pixy Stix and ground-up pennies and the extra-syrupy barrel-aged version.
The good: The cherry pomegranate wheat, which has a really nice balance between crisp fruit flavors and grainy wheat. It's a little like sucking a cherry pit.
Salem Ale Works
2027 25th St. SE, Salem, 990-8486, aleinsalem.com. 4-9 pm Monday, Thursday-Friday, noon-9 pm Saturday, noon-5 pm Sunday.
The spot: As you work your way into town, you pass the Salem airport and the Big K. This little nook is in the Airport Business Park, a mazelike plaza where you'll also find a store that sells marijuana growing supplies, a store that sells marijuana, and a disc golf pro shop. (Synergy?) Look for the keg stuck to a bike rack. Inside, they're listening to midperiod Black Keys, and a guy passing through from Montana is marveling at how many breweries there are in Portland.
The beer: The brewery usually has 10 on tap, available as 10-beer taster trays for $10. By local standards, they stray hoppy.
The bad: The red was stale and the double IPA was foul—toothpaste, sawdust and a little cat piss on the tongue.
The good: The Hootenanny Honey Basil is a light-sipper that's well-balanced between sweet and herbal notes. The Cast Iron Cascadian Dark Ale is really more of an American stout, with a thick, chocolaty backbone to counterbalance 84 IBUs.
Gilgamesh Brewing: The Campus on Pringle Creek
2065 Madrona Ave. SE, Salem, 584-1789, gilgameshbrewing.com. 11 am-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-midnight Friday-Saturday, 11 am-9 pm Sunday.
The spot: One mile south of Salem Ale Works, on the other end of the airport runway, you find the "grounds" of the city's largest brewery, Gilgamesh. This facility is called "the Campus" and looks like a small version of Stone's San Diego beer gardens. It is behind a muddy field, and you park by the loading dock. The lodgelike interior was built by the owners and includes wood furniture fashioned from alder and Norfolk pine. The back patio is near Pringle Creek and is covered and heated in winter. Unlike Salem's other breweries, it has a full food menu with decent happy-hour deals on pretzels with beer cheese, and chips and salsa.
The beer: This is a full-scale production brewery with bottles, cans and a small barrel-aging program. Much of the beer is solid, with a few really impressive offerings. You can get 12 tasters for $12.
The bad: The Pumphouse Copper Ale barely exists, and the DJ Jazzy Hef is soft and fluttery even for an American-style hefeweizen, a style I usually dislike.
The good: The Filbert Lager, a Pilsner made with Oregon hazelnuts, is clean and ricey. The Hoot Attack IPA, named for the city's famously ill-tempered owls, packs a whole plantation of guava into every sip. I've long been a fan of Hopscotch, a dry-hopped strong ale with a nice earthy heft.
2544 19th St. SE, Salem, 689-1260, santiambrewing.com. Noon-8 pm Monday-Wednesday,
noon-10 pm Thursday-Friday, noon-10 pm Saturday, 2-7 pm Sunday.
The spot: The third operation in Salem's Brewery/Airport District, Santiam sits in an industrial park near the old rock quarry. Inside it's decorated like a British sports pub, with flags, soccer paraphernalia and a row of dart boards. The stereo goes to middlebrow rock like Van Halen's "Right Now" and Hole's "Malibu."
The beer: With 15 house brews on tap (all for $20), Santiam has the largest selection in the city. Because it's got a British tint, four of those are on cask. The restrained menu begins with three lagers.
The bad: Those lagers are pretty boring. Also, being warmer and flatter, as cask conditioning goes, does not benefit a Bohemian Pilsner. The rum barrel-aged beers were far too sweet.
The good: I was a big fan of Ecotopia IPA, which got a really nice spicy fruitness from Amarillo hops.
3575 Liberty Road S, Salem, 363-7286, mcmenamins.com. 11 am-10 pm Sunday-Tuesday, 11 am-11 pm Wednesday-Thursday, 11 am-1 am Friday-Saturday.
The spot: Ah, McMenamins. They always feel like home—like Portland. This house was built for an elderly Civil War veteran back in 1905 and sits outside the Brewery/Airport District in a neighborhood with trees and buildings shorter than a city block. This very busy McMenamins is staffed by a delightfully sassy bartender who pours beers made by brewer Jen Kent, who worked her way up from prep cook. The beer: Like other McMenamins, they brew their own versions of classics like Ruby and Hammerhead along with ambitious Kent creations like a kriek made with sweet tart cherries and fermented with a Belgian yeast. $8 gets you the originals.
The bad: That kriek needs a lot more fruit and maybe body and the honey jalapeño doesn't have much heat, just a lot of honey. The ideas are good, but the flavors need to be dialed up. Maybe this is a tough market for aggressive beers, maybe she just needs to push things further.
The good: Hopped Up Pole Ale has a green and grassy but not unpleasant flavor from Citra hops.