While there are those who love to kvetch about Portland’s many beer festivals, they keep proliferating. In fact, visit PortlandBeerFestivals.com— created by area beer writer/podcaster Steven Shomler (this writer is affiliated with it, too)—and you’ll find around 42 local beer fests. And for many, that’s a good thing.
“As a beer drinker, I enjoy the increasing diversity of beer festivals,” said the Commons Brewery brand manager Josh Grgas. “It gets to showcase the wide breadth of Oregon beers and the adventurous nature of our consumers. However, at some point this whole thing will tip, or jump the shark, right? How many beer events can we handle in 365 days?”
Thirty years ago, beer fests weren’t as ubiquitous. Unsurprisingly, Portland was light-years ahead of its time with the Oregon Brewers Festival (OBF). Back in 1988, Oregon was home to just seven breweries. Today we’re knocking on 260. So it stands to reason that the number of festivals has grown at an equal pace. June 9-19 marks Portland Beer Week (yes, it’s 10 days long) anchored by events such as Fruit Beer Fest, Rye Beer Fest, and Beer and Cheese Fest. It segues into Oregon Craft Beer Month, taking up all of July. What we really seem to have is Portland Beer Year, since there’s always some style, some pairing event, some reason to congregate and try new, often freaky beers. And to anyone who protests that this whole beer thing has in any way jumped the shark, why does the population of breweries keep growing? Very few close, and those that do are generally for personal reasons rather than anything pointing to market saturation. Likewise, I can’t think of a major beer festival we’ve completely lost, or any smaller recurring ones, for that matter.
When OBF returns to Tom McCall Waterfront Park July 26-30, more than 80 beers will be available to sample. Only those with acute cases of FOMO will attempt to taste all or most of them. When it comes to Portland beer festivals, the audience isn’t necessarily beer geeks who fear missing out on every given beer. As beer festival champion Chris Crabb puts it, “Portland is a big enough city with enough different audiences that everybody is going to find something different that satisfies them.”
Crabb can be spotted wearing her T-shirt that reads, “I organize beer festivals. What’s your super power?” Her credits include OBF, organic beer lovers’ BrewFest in the Park, and Holiday Ale Fest. Comparing fests to flicks, Crabb added, “We went to the movies the other night. A ton come out every week. You’re not going to see every one, but you go to the ones that interest you.”
Some of the largest events have broad appeal, such as OBF and the statewide Zwickle-mania. Others are increasingly specialized: Portland Cheers to Belgian Beers (June 2-3) will feature more than 70 Belgian style ales all fermented with the same yeast strain. Fruit Beer Fest (June 9-11) features fruity ales devoid of extracts. Hood River Hops Fest (Sept 23) is exclusively for fresh-hopped beers, which is why its only equal is in Yakima Valley.
An ongoing trend of the beer fest circuit is that brewers are routinely asked to create one-off beers. Attendees, generally, don’t want to pay for admission or drink tickets just to try a brewery’s flagship beer that’s readily available. Asked for his take on this, Gigantic co-founder Van Havig opined, “On the one hand, those ‘festival beers’ or ‘stunt beers’ allow you to explore some ridiculous ideas. On the other, I think most brewers are much more proud of their production beers, because they put months or years developing them. A brewer may wish that people would line up to drink their German helles, but inevitably it’s their Blackforest Cake beer that gets all the attention.”
At last year’s OBF, Zoiglhaus, which specializes in clean, authentic German lagers, created a beer that tasted exactly like pesto. It received the most buzz.
At the inaugural BrewFest in the Park some 60 organic beers wiAt the inaugural BrewFest in the Park, some 60 organic beers will pour in Overlook Park the weekend of June 23-25. Two miles away in the North Park Blocks, Portland International Beerfest will see some 200 beers pouring. And 80 miles east in Parkdale, Kriekfest presents exclusively sour cherry beers and ciders in the Belgian lambic tradition on June 24 (full disclosure: this author produces it). Three beer festivals. All different focuses. All going on at once. Trés Oregon.
Grgas said, “A well done festival is valuable in attracting an uninitiated audience by allowing people to purchase small pours they otherwise wouldn’t order in a traditional setting. It’s an essential gateway into consumers visiting all the great breweries and beer bars. As long as there’s demand and people keep coming up with good ideas, I don’t see the festival circuit slowing down anytime soon.”
“It is fun for the brewer... for the most part,” said Grgas’ colleague, the Commons’ brewer Sean Burke. “Really, the wackier or more daring beers are more fun to make than regular production beers. It’s our chance to spread our wings a bit.”