There are a couple of disadvantages to being seated in the back row of an Air New Zealand Boeing 747 on the 11-plus hour flight from Auckland to San Francisco.
Firstly, you can't recline your seat all the way and secondly, after a few hours you end up being overshadowed by people queuing for the loo.
Having said that there are also a couple of pluses: you can store baggage under your own seat as well as the seat in front, which gives you extra leg-room, and you never get kicked in the back while you're attempting to sleep. In my book both are major bonuses.
However, when it comes to getting a decent beer on our national carrier it seems little has changed since my last trip to America two years ago. As usual the friendly Kiwi cabin crew provided a relaxed, but slick inflight service, during which Graeme, Di and I were offered a selection of classy New Zealand varietal wines on at least half a dozen occasions.
Beerwise, however, the choice remains stuck in the dark ages, limited to three mainstream lager brands: Speight's, Steinlager Pure and Heineken.
Having arrived at San Francisco airport, queued to be photographed and fingerprinted by United States customs, checked in for our connecting flight, then queued again to undergo full body scans, we found we still had four hours to kill. Our first beer on US soil was in the domestic terminal at one of those uninspiring cafe bars you see in most airports, but the choice was good.
Spurning the ubiquitous Bud and Corona, Graeme and I opted for San Francisco's iconic Anchor Steam Beer, while Di chose a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
The Steam Beer offered its usual combination of caramel, toffee and fruity (vaguely gluey?) esters, while the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, bursting with fresh, zingy citrus hop notes over a light biscuity malt base, was our pick of the pair.
By the time we boarded Alaska Airlines flight 2614 to Portland, some 24 hours after we'd checked in at Blenheim Airport, I was very tired and in need of sleep. But things were about to liven up.
Although the Bombardier Q400 bore the Alaska livery, the flight was operated by Horizon Air, Alaska's sister company. Horizon, it transpires, has a wonderfully enlightened policy regarding craft beer.
Even before take-off I'd discovered the company offers a "monthly selection of wines or microbrews from California, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest at no additional charge".
For April there was Full Sail Amber Ale, a "sweet malty ale with [a] spicy, floral hop finish". Travellers in May will be offered Redhook Copper Hook, while those flying in June can look forward to Bridgeport India Pale Ale.
Wow, I was impressed.
As the Bombardier climbed out of San Francisco the flight attendant gave a brief description of Full Sail Amber and the brewery. Despite coping with a full flight of 75 people, Erica and Jamine handed out plastic glasses of the Hood River (Oregon) brewery's famous amber ale.
We mentioned our interest in craft beer and the nature of our trip and Erica returned with a bottle of Ninkasi Believer Double Red Ale - another Oregon-brewed craft beer - and poured tastings for Graeme, Di and me, much to the amusement and jealousy of several of our fellow passengers.
While sipping this roasty, intensely hopped brew I asked her about the level of interest in craft beer among the passengers. Erica estimated she and Jasmine had poured around 50 tastings of the Full Sail beer during our two-hour flight, a figure I'd wager would be far higher than on most other airlines.
Having landed in Portland I left the plane wondering what I could do to encourage our national carrier to promote New Zealand as a craft beer destination in a similar manner.
After a good night's sleep, the next morning the three of us set off to explore the city. Straddling the Willamette River close to its confluence with the Columbia River, Portland has a population approaching 600,000, making it Oregon's most populous city and the 29th largest in the US.
With a bustling inland port, the two halves of the city are connected by endless bridges, most of which raise to allow the passage of large ships. Portland's buildings and bridges represent a mish-mash of architectural styles, mostly more functional than aesthetically pleasing, but overall the place seems to have a vibrant buzz and confident sureness about it.
Oregon is home to at least 112 working breweries and Portland itself has more than any other city in the world. With the help of an old friend and fellow beer judge, Jon Graber, who lives in the city, Graeme, Di and I set off on what turned out to be a magical mystery tour of the breweries.
Over four hours we visited what Jon regards as some of the city's most interesting new beer-makers.
Our first stop was Breakside Brewery where we sampled a tasting tray of various styles, including a beer flavoured with habanero chillies, an Amarillo hopped wheat beer and a bourbon barrel-aged Belgian-style tripel.
While we were working our way through those Jon talked the barman into making us a special cocktail beer, which involved Breakside's aromatically hopped IPA, a coffee plunger and shallots.
Next up was a visit to Occidental Brewing Company, where brewer-owner Ben Engel took us through his range of German-style beers. Why German, I asked.
In his makeshift tasting room set among the brewing vessels, Ben explained that he wanted to have point of difference from the more "extreme" hop-fuelled styles produced by so many other local brewers.
I could see his point.
Upright Brewing also has a point of difference. In this region of uber-hopped pale ales, it specialises in open fermented Franco-Belgian styles such as saisons and bieres de garde but there's also a delicious, generously hopped unfiltered Pilsener.
The brewery and tasting room are located in the basement of a modern converted warehouse and, without a sign to herald their existence, would have been nigh on impossible to find had Jon not been with us. I'm glad he was; the beers were magnificent.
Our last port of call was the Cascade Brewing Barrel House, which is famous for Belgian-inspired sour beers. It is a curious place which somehow manages to take this ancient style of brewing and implant it into the environment of a modern, and extremely popular, sports bar.
Only in a city with such a mature beer culture as Portland can I imagine such a venture working.
Next week I'll be reporting from Pacific City, a tiny fishing village on the Pacific coast.
- The Marlborough Express