NOW THAT the clock has struck July, it’s time to start salivating over the 29th annual Oregon Brewers Festival (OBF). The near-weeklong celebration of beer from very near to very far will once again soak Tom McCall Waterfront Park in spilled suds. Some 80,000 drinkers from around the world will get to sample their way through 88 beers that span dozens of different styles, and that’s just in the main festival alone.
Since its start three years ago, the International Beer Garden might have become OBF’s coolest feature. It’s not that watermelon beers—or mushroom beers like the buzzworthy entry from Old Town Brewing last year—aren’t reason enough to attend. But the fest now also hosts select breweries from places with a keen though not obvious connection to Portland.
As OBF co-founder Art Larrance tells it, the International Beer Garden was conceived to bring together Portland’s many sister cities. He explains this at his Raccoon Lodge bar, the Beaverton brewpub of Cascade Brewing, where I got to enjoy a glass of Frite Gaulois (sort of a sour saison or gose, brewed with sea salt, orange peel, and cherries)—my first of numerous four-ounce samples from last year’s fest.
Actually, most of this year’s fest beers will be poured in Portland for the first and only time, as is likely the case with Shiga Kogen No. 10. First brewed by Tamamura Honten in Nagano, Japan, on the occasion of its 10th anniversary as a brewery (2014), this imperial IPA is brewed with the same homegrown sake rice that Tamamura Honten has been using for its sakes since 1805.
OBF’s selection of Japanese breweries was left to a man named Red Gillen, the blogger behind oshuushu.com, a Japanese language blog devoted to Oregon beer. The six Japanese breweries featured at this year’s fest are Baird, North Island, Shonan, Y Market, an unnamed one that’s the winner of a Japan Beer Journalists Association competition, and of course Shiga Kogen, who’ll also bring out Isseki Sancho, an imperial dark saison aged in highly regarded Ichiro malt whisky barrels. Shiga Kogen has already collaborated with Portland’s Hair of the Dog and will do so again in the days before OBF, as well as with Gigantic Brewing. (Both Portland breweries export to Japan.)
Shiga Kogen’s brewmaster Eigo Sato says, "The variation of beers brewed by Japanese breweries has been diversified, and American-inspired beers like IPAs are gaining popularity lately." Sato uses unusual ingredients that Oregon breweries don’t often have access to, like yuzu, sansho pepper, Japanese peach, kokuto, and sake rice.
Jing-A Brewery from Beijing is also attending, and the brewery is known for its beers featuring Chinese ingredients like red rice koji and Sichuan peppercorn.
A contingency from the Netherlands returns this year. Dutch brewers were the first class of OBF visitors who were part of the original idea of bringing over Portland’s sister-city brewers. Utrecht is classified as one of Portland’s Friendship Cities (it may soon be upgraded to a “Connected City”), but only two of the Dutchies coming over are actually based in Utrecht: Brouwerij Maximus and Brouwerij Oproer. The other brouwerijen are De Molen, Frontaal, Oersoep, Van Moll, and Amsterdam’s Oedipus (whose flagship pale ale is called Mama). Oedipus’ OBF entry will be a saison with lemongrass and Sichuan pepper called Mannenliefde or “Man-love.” Two German brauereien will also visit: Nothhaft und Lang Bräu. Oproer’s Mark Strooker selects the breweries as he’s done since 2014.
Oedipus’ Rick Nelson says he loves soaking up the Portland beer scene and community, and returns with “a lot of great memories and a couple of extra pounds. My buddies over here really want to know everything about... the great beers in Oregon.”
Last year’s primary guest nation, New Zealand, boasts no sister city connection, but they do have a beerfest called Beervana. Last year, two kiwi beers—the Garage Project’s Venusian Pale Ale brewed with grapefruit peel, makrut lime leaf, and lemongrass; and Yeastie Boys’ Gunnamatta, a floral IPA with Earl Grey tea—were my fest faves. In 2017, the slated guest nation is Italy, where Bologna is a bona fide Portland sister city.
It’s doubtful other sister cities like Khabarovsk, Russia, even have a single brewery. Maybe that will free up some space for more Oregon ones. This year there will be 55 from Oregon out of the 135 total that applied.