I'd just been handed the menu at the Gasthaus Pub in Portland, Ore., when the man seated on the bar stool next to me insisted I order the Hefeweizen, a light-bodied, lemon-flavored wheat beer. "It's the freshest you'll ever taste," he said confidently. "The Widmer Brothers who own this place were the first Americans to make Hefeweizen, and they did it right here," he said, gesturing around the pub tucked into the Widmer Brothers Brewing Co.

I'm actually a big Hefeweizen fan, and had come here specifically to try America's original version. But I paused a second before hailing the bartender, and my neighbor assumed I needed more prodding. "If you're not sure, just ask the bartender for a sample," he said, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "They'll let you sample anything here."

It was only recently that I'd learned Portland is home to more craft breweries than any other spot on the planet. With 30 breweries located within the city limits, plus another 38 in the metro area, Portland even blows the suds off Munich. In fact, there are so darn many breweries in this city of half a million, locals say you're never more than 10 or 15 minutes away from one.

As a Wisconsinite, I'd always thought my state was tops in the brewing category. Portland, in my mind, was a place for nature-loving cyclists whose most daring drink might be a triple-shot latte.

Intrigued, I decided to launch an all-out investigation with my beer-loving husband, Ed, in tow.

A short history of Beervana

In the early 1980s, the craft brewing craze began to sweep the nation. Portlanders were eager to jump on the bandwagon since they had everything they needed at their fingertips. Oregon was already one of the United States' main hops producers, thanks to its loamy soil and mild climate. That same climate is also conducive to raising two-row barley, which craft brewers prefer over the traditional six-row because it's softer and sweeter. And the pièce de résistance: the Portland region has access to plenty of fresh glacial water from the slopes of nearby Mount Hood.

The city's first craft brewery opened in 1981 and paved the way for three breweries that jump-started Portland's craft-brewing industry: BridgePort Brewing Co.; Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. of Hefeweizen fame, and the McMenamin brothers' Hillsdale Brewery, which contained Portland's first brew pub.

By 1990, Portland -- now called Beervana -- was also dubbed America's Microbrew Capital.

On the tasting trail

Before we left home, I got the lowdown on beer sampling from Karl Ockert, master brewer at BridgePort. "You have to try a brewery's flagship beer, because that's what the brewery made its reputation on," he said. "But it's also good to try things that are outside the scope of what that brewery normally produces, like its seasonal or specialty beers, to see how well they can flex their creative muscle."

Tourism officials informed us we could either join formal tasting tour groups, where we'd be bused to the breweries, or explore on our own via foot, bike or one of the city's two convenient modes of public transportation, the trolley and MAX light rail (both of which are free within the central downtown). Ed and I chose to do a combination of walking and the MAX. The first joint we stumbled upon from our hotel was Deschutes Brewery and Public House.

Founded in 1988, Deschutes is known for its traditional ales and lagers. Most of the tap beer here is made in the brewery visible through large windows behind the bar. Sticking with Ockert's recommendation, we ordered the sampler tray ($6.50), making sure that the six 4-ounce brews of our choice contained Deschutes' famous Cascade Ale and Black Butte Porter, plus the seasonal Twilight Ale and the Black Butte XX. The latter, created this year in honor of Deschute's 20th anniversary, contained coffee and cocoa nibs and was aged in whiskey barrels.

As we sampled the brews, along with house-baked pretzels served with a creamy white-cheddar dipping sauce, I quickly realized I'm not an ale fan, as they're quite hoppy, and hops impart a bitter flavor. While I feared the chocolate-colored porters and stouts would be too heavy for my palate, I found they actually made great sipping beers.

Before we moved on, we quizzed the bartenders behind the counter about their favorite local breweries. "You've got to go to Tugboat," said one. "It's just a tiny hole in the wall, but there's always free live music, and one wall is filled with books and board games."

"Make sure you go to Roots," called out another. Roots, I knew, was America's first all-organic brewery.

"I forgot to mention Laurelwood," interjected the first. "Their brew pubs have kids' areas."

Pairing lessons

Our next stop was BridgePort, Ockert's place and one of Oregon's larger craft breweries. Tucked into a historic 1886 building, BridgePort contains a restaurant and, interestingly, a bakery. The restaurant tries to use beer in as many dishes as possible, serving up bread baked with beer, a white cheddar spread laced with stout, plus such unusual offerings as "beeramisu," a dessert containing barley wine.

"Beer owns the greasy side of the menu right now," Ockert said. He thinks people need to learn that the proper beer, like wine, can enhance any meal. "Hoppy beers are great with spicier foods," she said, "while meats and heartier dishes go well with dark, malty beers." To enlighten the public, BridgePort occasionally holds beer pairing events.

There was one more brew pub on our itinerary for the day -- Widmer's. We hopped on the city's sleek MAX light rail, which whisked us over the Willamette River in minutes. Widmer's is Oregon's largest brewery and the third-largest craft brewery in the United States. As we sipped our lemony Hefeweizens, Ed confessed he hadn't found a local favorite yet, nor a preferred watering hole. The places we visited each had a unique spirit, and each beer had a distinctive flavor.

A few weeks later, back at home, Ed and I headed out to dinner. But instead of grabbing the wine list as I normally did, I inspected the beer menu and found a locally brewed wheat beer. It tasted great with my risotto, and was half the price of the cabernet I typically order. Who can argue with that?

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer from Madison, Wis.