photos by Elijah Hasan
We’re still feeling the aftershocks of the Great Portland Brewery Glut of the early and mid-2010s, but alongside the recent news of brewery closures and ownership transfers in our city’s oversaturated market comes a bright light in the form of Level Beer, which opened shop last summer in the Argay neighborhood of Northeast Portland. Just a couple of football fields’ distance from the south shore of the Columbia River, Level Beer has—after a year or so of brewing in collaboration with various other breweries in Portland—landed on a promisingly spacious location at the edge of the city that they can call their own. It’s an ideal pit stop going into or out of the Gorge, or the perfect place to wind down if you’ve spent the day cycling on Northeast Marine Drive. And, of course, it’s poised to be a focal point of the Argay and Parkrose neighborhoods, a much-needed “third place” that’s equally inviting to families, childless twentysomethings, and thirsty beer questers.
Level’s aesthetic is a happy mishmash of rustic barn and cozy dorm room. The brewery’s name reflects an affection for classic-era video games; on a recent visit, the taproom walls were covered in paintings of Nintendo characters. The beers themselves wield a variety of game-inspired appellations, such as Ready Player One, Press Pause, and Pixelated Pale. (Fittingly, a Ms. Pac-Man table sits in one corner, opposite a small stash of board games in another.) A large, three-dimensional version of their arcade-like logo sits atop the impressive draft tower, looking both futuristic and retro.
If you’re looking at that logo, you’ve also got your eye on the brewery itself, extending behind the bar into the warehouse-sized room. You may even see the brewers at work—Jason Barbee, formerly of Deschutes and Ex Novo, and Shane Watterson, formerly of Laurelwood—on the shiny new 20-barrel Criveller system, or tinkering on a separate 2.5-barrel pilot system for concocting new recipes. Level’s third partner, Geoff Phillips of Bailey’s Taproom and the Upper Lip, carries his well-regarded beer bars’ attention to presentation over to Level as well.
The brewery also seems to be emphasizing relatively low-alcohol “session” beers, with only two out of 15 taps pouring beers above seven percent ABV, and a total of six coming in at five percent or lower. Our team of three drinkers tasted all 15 that were available, and while Level’s beers are not unilaterally great (it seems they’re still trying out recipes and haven’t settled on a regular roster just yet), the best ones are very good indeed. By and large, these winners seemed to follow traditional British styles: We liked the clean, nutty flavor of the Be Your Own Dad best bitter quite a bit, as well as a mellow porter named I Believe in a Thing Called Love, which was compulsively drinkable while offering a substantial amount of roast. We were mixed on the And the Crowd Goes Mild, a dark English mild that one of us really enjoyed and others appreciated for the relative rarity of the style. A surprising triumph was the Button SMASHer, made with a single type of malt and a single hop variety—a beginner homebrewer’s trick that paid dividends in this case. And the ExEx, a farmhouse ale made with Buddha’s hand, a bizarre-looking citrus fruit, floored all three of us, with a crisp, yeasty flavor and an unmistakable Asian twist.
We were also lucky enough to try an exquisitely balanced cask-conditioned rendition of their Neon Snowsuit winter warmer, which poured directly off the bar top from a half-firkin (or “pin”); it was only the third time Level has ever offered a cask beer, so it may not be a regular thing just yet, but let’s hope it becomes one.
The brewery/taproom is inside a big red barn, but Level’s real draw is the great, huge, covered patio, and a former greenhouse that stayed awfully warm even on a chilly December evening. There are currently three food carts outside if you need to line your stomach while you drink—Flor de Guelaguetza makes Oaxacan dishes like tlayudas and molotes, Bam Pow Burgers delivers an array of brewpub staples, and Nature’s Old Time Meats has a varied if vegetarian-unfriendly menu that includes terrific barbecue and pasta. There’s ample room for more carts to join them.
It’s already a wonderfully inviting place, but what’s more exciting is Level’s potential, with plans for the two-acre space to include more outdoor seating, farmers markets, and hops grown on-site. Be aware that it currently closes at 8 pm on weeknights, although it’s open until 10 on Friday and Saturday.