A Tale of Two Fests
Spring Beer and Wine Festival
Friday and Saturday, March 29 & 30
Oregon Convention Center, noon to 11pm
Farmhouse and Wild Ale Festival
Saturday and Sunday, March 30 & 31
Saraveza, 1-10, 1-9pm
Ezra Johnson-Greenough has within his heart a devilish nature. This latter-day Art Larrance has assembled a new event this weekend called the Farmhouse and Wild Ale Fest. It is scheduled for the same weekend as that old hound of Portland fests, The Spring Beer and Wine Fest. If he's trying to make a point, he's not doing it very subtly. The point is made: times have changed. One of these events shows us where we've been, one shows us where we're going.
Where We've Been
I recall one of the earlier Spring Beer Fests--probably around 1996. It was relatively small, but nearly every booth was manned by the brewer and/or owner (which in those days usually meant the same man). I was introduced to Caldera and Walking Man there, that's where I first met Pelican's Darron Welch--those kinds of discoveries were common. The year I have in mind, the guy I met was Dan Carey from New Glarus. It was pretty cool because I was in Madison at grad school when New Glarus opened. Carey, a Wisconsinite who did apprentice brewing in Germany, debuted with a slate of stellar lagers. But he didn't bring a lager to the Spring Beer Fest and, indeed, hadn't started New Glarus to brew lagers.
His real brewing inspiration came when he made a discovery while he was living in Germany. He and his family were vacationing in neighboring Belgium and found a funny little brewery near Brussels. "We went to Lindemans brewery," he told me recently. "René Lineman was there and it was sort of a rustic farmhouse brewery. He was very open and he showed us around, showed us how he brewed the beer and we thought it was just cool."
Carey lived in Portland and worked at JV Northwest in the 1980s, where he "took some stainless steel out of a scrap pile and built a little 15-gallon pilot brewery." For six years he tried to develop a beer like he'd tasted in Belgium, and when he'd finally mastered it, that's when he opened New Glarus. When he finally unveiled Wisconsin Belgian Red, he made sure to bring it back to Portland so the old town could get a taste, and it debuted at the Spring Beer and Wine Fest. It created a massive sensation, just like it did nationally. (So far as I know, Carey gets credit for introducing the first serious wild ale to America.) And that's when I met Dan Carey and tasted what would become one of the more important American beers brewed in the 1990s.
The Spring Beer Fest was the place to go to learn about new breweries and interesting new beers. It was the place you could actually speak to the brewers in a tasting-friendly environment, not the mosh pit the Oregon Brewers Guild had already become. But of course, craft beer wasn't the same big business venture it is now, so organizers had to include wine and a potpourri of weird vendors hawking things like vinyl siding. It was okay; you just hung out in the brewing area. Who knew, maybe you'd find the next Dan Carey there.
Where We Are Now
Things have changed. I just finished a little shorty section in The Beer Bible talking about festivals, and it took everything I had not to just talk about Oregon. We have fests for winter ales, for fresh hop ales, for fruit beers (Ezra again), for Belgian beers, for barrel-aged beers--for damn near any kind of beer you can think of. (At some point, Mighty Mites will rise from the ashes, and all will be complete--but that's a different post.)
Now we have fests as individual as the beer scene. Sometimes we like a big-ass celebratory fest like the OBF or Holiday Ale Fest, but sometimes we like to have a specialized, curated fest where all the beers are placed as intentionally as flowers in an ikebana arrangement. Two decades on, if you want to find the next Dan Carey, you're much more likely to find him at Ezra's gig--where his last name will be something like Kahler, Pfriem, Logsdon, or Arzner.
This year's Spring Beer Fest has the same vibe as did the one a decade ago: beer, wine, weird vendors (no vinyl siding!). It also has chocolate, cheese, distilleries, and ciders--which is all cool. And for the first time in years, I can say that the beer list actually has lots of interest. It has always been a place for little breweries from the hinterland to come pour their beers, and this year you can find Boring, Heathen, and Rusty Truck there. (There's also a full line up of various (MillerCoors labels like Batch 19 and Leinenkugel.) But there's a really ad hoc feel about it--very different from the carefully-selected beers pouring at Saraveza.
I'm not sure there's a "best" here. But the Spring Beer and Wine Fest has the feel of an old Alice in Chains hit, while Erza's rocking a Lumineers vibe. One plays large venues, one plays to a more core audience. They are very different beasts. Since I am an old man and can look back over the beautiful expanse of our now-kinda-long history, it all has a nice melody.