My wife and I have been travelling the Pacific Northwest and beyond in search of all things beer for about 15 years. We are frequent visitors to Oregon, which is the past and current State Of Beer in our opinion, and many others’. But having been to most parts of Oregon, especially Portland (to excess), we were looking for new pastures. Recently we took a train trip on Amtrak to the one large town in the region that we had never before investigated properly: Eugene, Oregon.
About the trip and why we’re sharing this
We spent 3 nights of a long weekend in Eugene and made a fair number of stops, as outlined in the itinerary below. After this whirlwind tour we were left with the impression that this was indeed a place worth visiting for any beer enthusiast. It stood to reason that there may be other beer lovers in BC who appreciate Oregon but had not yet gone this deep into the interior.
One could not be blamed for overlooking towns like Hood River, Bend and Eugene in favour of all-consuming Portland or the Oregon coast, especially if one doesn’t want to drive all over the state. But that’s what made this trip viable and simple: we left our car at the train station, put our feet up and rode the rails.
We did our research in advance and set up the following schedule, which is reflected in our full photostream. As mentioned, there is more for a beer lover to do in and on the way to Eugene than you might think. When you consider that this list doesn’t include beer on the train itself, that’s a lot of potential drinking.
DAY 1: FRIDAY
- Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen
- Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro
On arrival in Eugene:
- Steelhead Brewery
- David Minor Theater: 24 oz pints in your seat cupholder
DAY 2: SATURDAY
- McMenamin’s High Street Brewery & Café
- The Bier Stein: this was special
- Oakshire Brewing
- Ninkasi Brewing: this was the main event
- Rogue Ales Public House
DAY 3: SUNDAY
- University of Oregon for a sports break: took in a baseball game
- McMenamins North Bank
- Hop Valley Brewing Company
- Falling Sky Brewing, including a brewer’s dinner
DAY 4: MONDAY
- Deschutes Brewery, Portland
- Return home
Before planning the trip, we were concerned that there wouldn’t be much to do in Eugene and worried that three nights and two full days there might be too much. As it turned out, visiting this list of craft beer locations turned out to be gruelling; we easily could have filled another day. Overall on our weekend we packed in over a dozen beer outlets including 10 in Eugene, and we had to leave some others on the table.
Trip Options And Staging Area
If you go to Eugene, the train you’ll want to catch leaves Vancouver pretty early in the morning. Because we live in Surrey, relatively close to the border, we decided to set up our trip a little differently than most people would. We crossed the border the night before, and caught the train when it arrived in Bellingham. This gave us two advantages: we avoided having to get up at 4 AM to travel downtown, and (our real motivation) we added the opportunity to visit a couple of local establishments to get warmed up. But you don’t have to do that; most will catch the train at the main station in Vancouver, or get on a feeder bus that makes stops in Richmond and Surrey.
You get to be your own travel agent when using Amtrak’s website. We added another tweak to our trip: a layover in Portland on the way back. We deliberately scheduled a 2.5 hour gap into our train itinerary so that we could have lunch in the big city before returning home. However again, most people will elect to go and come straight back on one seamless trip.
About Rail Travel On Amtrak
It works the same way as plane or bus travel: you are in a moving vehicle with seats on each side of an aisle, and washrooms at the front/back of each car. The ride isn’t always smooth; the vehicle does tend to shake more than a bus. It could be compared to being on a plane with minor turbulence every so often. However, this doesn’t tend to affect you when you’re seated. It’s only noticeable when you get up to walk around. If you tend to get carsick, you will suffer the same way on a train as well.
There is WiFi. It’s not lightning-fast, but it’s a useable Internet connection. The seats have one electrical outlet per pair, so you can use a laptop or charge a mobile device as desired.
You can check and carry a lot of baggage. Carry-on allowance is up to 2 x 50 lbs. per person. You can check in a very large bag with no problem; actually you could practically bring a small trunk without going over their limit of 75 total linear inches per baggage item (L + W + H). Whatever you check will be ready for you upon arrival, just like on a bus. I didn’t actually try shipping boxes of beer back this way, but I did bring back a number of bottles in our suitcases without going over the weight limit. Since you will most likely be out of Canada for over 48 hours, you can return home with all you can fit in your cab to the train station.
Food and Drink
As you may have heard, you can drink on the train. It’s not the same as being on a beer tour bus (nobody is passing bottles around) but it’s the only legitimate travel option you have that includes a licensed, moving restaurant. That—the Dining Car—is truly the magical element of rail travel. You won’t get that on a plane or bus.
The actual (bottled) craft beer selection is small but smart. First, they have the obligatory macros which cover the lager segment (BC was represented by Kokanee). Then they add only 3 micros, but wisely they cover the spectrum well without ‘wasting’ one on a lager again. All three found on this trip were from veteran leaders of the Northwest craft beer establishment:
- Widmer Hefeweizen
- Pyramid IPA
- Deschutes Black Butte Porter
It can get quite busy on some trips, especially at lunchtime, so just like on the ferry you have to either beat the rush or wait for the lineup to subside. Note: there are actually two cars involved: one for the galley, and a Lounge Car to sit and eat in. It’s nice to get out of your regular seat and lounge for a while.
Regarding the dining: think ‘oversized lunchwagon’ with a kitchen shoehorned into cramped quarters. This means that they don’t actually have chefs cooking all of the food; some of it is prepared off-site and reheated. In particular, stay away from burgers; they come in a microwaved pouch and the bun suffers badly for this. However there were plenty of other hot meals and vegetarian options, especially on the daily specials ‘fresh’ sheet.
Pros and Cons of Rail vs. Car Travel
PROS OF RAIL TRAVEL
- Dining Car:
- Hot meals
- Craft beer
- WiFi. You won’t get that in your car or on a bus. A long trip would be unbearable without it.
- Lots of luggage for free, just like in your car.
- You don’t have to drive. Driving to Eugene in a day is certainly possible, and you could beat the train there if you raced it, but it would not be fun.
CONS OF RAIL TRAVEL
- Public. You have no control over who else is in the car with you.
- Non-Smoking. Well, this is a Pro for most people. However the trip would be tough for smokers: it could be up to 3 hours between cigarette breaks.
- Shaking and turbulence for walking around. But hey, you can walk around.
- Travel with a partner/buddy:
- because the seats on the train are in pairs; two columns on each side of the aisle, so you’ll be sitting with one other person. If there is an even number in your party, you are insulated
- so you have someone who can watch your stuff when you have to excuse yourself
- so one of you can hold some seats in the dining car while the other gets the food; handy during the lunch rush
- Walk carefully on the train. Don’t carry stuff in both hands when walking between cars. Definitely don’t carry open drinks (ie cups) through the passenger coaches; use a lid or pour out the bottle after you get to your seat.
- Bring a backpack. Eugene is not a day trip; you don’t go there to come back the same night. So you’ll need a hotel. For the day or two that you spend there with no car, you’ll also need something to carry essentials around with on foot, in cabs or on the bus (all of which we employed).
About Oregon And Eugene
If you haven’t been to Oregon before, you will want to go to Portland first to understand the vibe. You will soon understand why craft beer people talk about it all the time. Yes, the beer scene there dwarfs ours; Portland is legitimately a world centre for beer culture, and is the de facto capital of the Cascadian craft beer region.
But there’s more. The vibe in Portland, and Oregon in general, is very attractive to the types of folks who happen to join craft beer clubs. Let’s say that Portland is kind of like East Vancouver’s Commercial Drive with just a touch of Yaletown. It’s funky, it’s laid back and feels a bit like you didn’t leave home. It’s safe, as American cities go, and it’s friendly; the people can be very giving (more on that later). Their unofficial motto is Keep Portland Weird.
As big as craft beer has been in Oregon for a few decades, it’s still re-exploding the same way it is in the rest of Cascadia and North America right now. That seems impossible when you consider that Oregon has been playing on another level compared to BC and Canada when it comes to craft beer awareness. My understanding is that forty percent (40%) of beer consumed in Oregon is craft beer. That is unmatched anywhere in North America (well, I doubt you would find a match for that in any beer-drinking region outside of the core European countries that comprise the home of beer as we know it). There are no dominant macrobreweries here; this is a relative desert for Bud and Miller. The largest-selling light lager and unofficial layperson’s beer is Pabst Blue Ribbon. As I say, Oregon’s folks like to keep it weird, and they apply their fierce pride in being different to their beer drinking.
Once you’ve had enough of Portland (which for my wife and I has taken quite a number of trips –put it this way: we honeymooned there), it’s time to look around wider Oregon. We’ve done a lot of that too, always by car, and there’s a lot to see. However until now we had not explored Eugene.
Eugene is the second city of Oregon. It’s not large; most things are within walking distance, like they are within downtown Vancouver or Victoria. It’s a college town; its University of Oregon is immensely popular locally. Everything in Eugene (and actually a lot of Oregon) is coloured green and gold to match the school’s colours. A lot of money has been pumped into their Oregon Ducks sports teams by local powerhouse Nike, founded half a century ago by U of O track athlete Phil Knight and his coach Bill Bowerman.
Eugene has become a sports town in another sense; its nickname is TrackTown due to its significant running culture. It’s not a coincidence that a footwear company comes from these parts. You can feel the presence of Nike here the same way Boeing and Microsoft dominate the corporate landscape in Seattle.
The Eugene Beer Scene: Where To Go
When researching Eugene, we found a number of contending destinations with the usual map searches. However, once we arrived on the scene we found more. As in other markets including BC, the brewers and front of house staff all know and support each other, and that made it easy to source out information that wasn’t stumbled upon via Internet.
There is an area in Eugene called the Whiteaker District that is becoming the home of a number of craft beer outlets. Ninkasi Brewing is based here, as is Rogue’s TrackTown Brewery. Soon to be moving into the area are new, expanded production breweries for some of the up and coming players on the Eugene beer scene.
Ninkasi was the primary destination we looked forward to in advance. Here we experienced a full brewery tour and were impressed by their amazing building with a beautiful taproom and patio. The word that comes to mind is ‘class’. They are clearly the leaders on the local scene, much like Deschutes is in Bend. Their beer has become available in BC, but you’ll of course find much more of it at the source.
Nearby Rogue is another mandatory stop. This location has nothing on their Newport outlet for charm, but it’s still amazing. Rogue operates a large tavern here with their usual vast selection of brews. The brewery is downstairs.
Hop Valley Brewing is a newcomer that we were tipped off about by Ninkasi staff. It’s a brewpub that at first glance looks like a typical restaurant with beer as a theme. However they were highly regarded by the other local beer people, and indeed turned out to have a large line of brews on tap. They are one of the aforementioned operations constructing a separate brewing facility, much like brewpubs Central City and Howe Sound here. Expect to hear that name in the future.
Oakshire Brewing is a micro with a brewery tap. We were treated to a brewery tour here as well. They also are expanding into the downtown Whiteaker district. Because both Oakshire and Hop Valley are located well outside of the town core and require a long cab ride or public transit to visit, this consolidation of locations will be welcomed. Perhaps it will come to pass in time for your visit.
The piece de resistance in our tour of brewing excellence was Falling Sky Brewing, where by amazing luck we timed our visit with a brewer’s dinner they had scheduled. As holders of Canadian credit cards, we were unable to pay in advance for our tickets to this sold-out event via their website, so we had to rely on good old telephone to entreat them to hold our seats. It was well worth the effort.
You can tell when you reach Falling Sky that they are serious about beer because on the street side of the brewhouse they operate a brewing supply store. Inside their restaurant and taphouse they have a huge variety of ales. They poured four of them freely with the dinner; not just the obligatory pint but pitchers were put forth for copious sharing. The dinner itself was more than one could eat, with its four courses demonstrating dexterity in repertoire on the part of their head chef. Again, look for their name to become known outside Eugene some day, for the beer.
Rating the beer and food found at the various locations would be too much for this article, but suffice to say that you will be safe in visiting any of the above first-rate breweries. However there are many other places to obtain craft beer.
Within two blocks’ distance of the Amtrak station you will find Steelhead Brewing, a typical restaurant-style brewpub. Although they are not of the same calibre as the aforementioned breweries, their lineup is respectable and their location is perfect.
Right across the street from Steelhead is the David Minor Theater, a second run cinema with two screens. As you may have heard, Oregon is slightly ahead of us when it comes to liberalization of liquor codes. To the point, you can drink beer at the movies there, in many places. The DMT is an excellent example because they pour massive 24 oz (or 16 oz) pints of excellent beers from the breweries I’ve recommended above, and they do it in a classic, homey setting with a meaningful history. Check out their website for more on that.
There are three McMenamins. This ‘chain’ isn’t always viewed with due respect by beer elitists, but it’s another Oregon tradition. As with Rogue, their best properties are elsewhere (Edgefield in full operation is simply superlative) but we highly enjoyed stopping in at a couple of their quirky outlets. We have to say that the vista in view from the patio of their riverside North Bank location is stunning.
I mentioned that people here are friendly and giving. In our experiences at many of the above places, we found people going out of their way to please, and in some cases that included a liberal attitude toward sampling their beer. The waiter at the McMenamins High Street Café made sure to slip in something extra onto our taster tray, and the kind folks at Ninkasi beat that by comping a full flight.
Besides Ninkasi and Falling Sky, the highlight of the trip was the incredible opportunity we were afforded at The Bier Stein. This bottle shop, restaurant and taphouse is beloved by locals but unknown to outsiders. We didn’t find it in our Web searches and it wasn’t on our agenda until it turned up by fluke on a random smartphone local search. I would understate things to describe this turn of events as fortuitous, because again by pure luck when we took a chance and walked up we found that it was their last day in operation at their original location.
The new 12,000 sq. ft. Bier Stein which they are opening soon will apparently have an 18-door refrigerator section to belittle many other Cascadian competitors. As it was, the “reduced inventory” of beers we saw at the old 2,000 sq. ft. location was already on par with top-notch big city offerings. What really made this store special is that it’s also a pub where you can drink the bottled beers along with a number of other local on-tap features. More than just a pub though, the place we visited could be described as a beer shrine. The walls were festooned with breweriana in a manner similar to that you might see at Pike Place in Seattle. It was truly a home for beer and those who love it. Oregonians are not dumb, so on this final day we arrived to a packed house as they bid their surely irreplaceable shrine a fond farewell. We were fortunate to have witnessed it.
With all this action, we were exhausted by the conclusion of our long weekend but still had enough strength left to visit Deschutes Brewery on the way home via Portland. If you haven’t been to their main facility in Bend we highly recommend it; the brewery tour is excellent. But for this day their stunning Portland location provided a fitting conclusion to a most enjoyable journey into the heart of Oregon by rail.
Full Photo Gallery of this trip:
Ninkasi brewery tour info
Oakshire Brewing tour info
Rogue brewery tour hours
Standard daily Dining Car food & beverage menu:
Dave & Ivana Smith took an interest in craft beer in the late 1990s and have been members of CAMRA BC for about a decade. They live in Surrey BC Canada with 3 kids, a cat and a large beer bottle collection (the ‘Beer Wall’, which has long since overflowed into the garage).