Correcting the Record on the Oregon Brewers Fest

PHOTO: Oregon Brewers Festival

A month ago, I wrote a quickie post on the Oregon Brewers Fest. I used as my principle source a piece in BrewBound and ... I got a fair amount wrong. Apparently some of the stuff from the BrewBound piece was wrong and then I compounded matters with other wrong things. An alarmed Chris Crabb, who is one of the main organizers of the Fest, reached out and asked if I would meet with her and Art Larrance to set the record straight. As I would do anything for Chris Crabb, I agreed immediately.

We had a great conversation, and I pretty quickly went beyond the subject of the original post, and so you're about to get a fair amount of bonus material. Here goes.

The fest has suffered some attrition in recent years, but my original post overstated things. A year ago, attendance was a robust 86k. It dipped to 70k this year--but in 2015 it was 74k. The first thing Art said when I sat down was "I come to see that we are a weather-related event." It's not hard to imagine hot weather suppressing attendance 10%--and Saturday and Sunday were pushing 90 this year. A lot goes on in the beer world, and the OBF has come down off recent highs. But things are cyclical; Munich Oktoberfest bounces around, too. It's hard to envision an event running decades that doesn't experience troughs and peaks.

Pricing History
As far back as the early 1990s, and possibly earlier, a sample pour at OBF was a buck. In 2018 it will be a buck. To have kept pace with inflation, it would be about double that now. That's important context when discussing pour prices. I and others mistook an experiment in 2017 for the norm. In fact, in 2018, when the Fest will offer a 12 oz mug and 3 oz sample pour, it's returning to the pricing of 2016. Last year's 5-token 14 oz full-pour was the experiment. If you look further into the past, you'll find 4 oz sample pours, but it's pretty reasonable to see that drop since the dollar token has never risen in price.

Selection Process
This was one of the most interesting parts of the discussion. I've only heard second-hand how the selection process works--and sometimes from disgruntled breweries that didn't make the cut. The actual current process was new to me. Breweries don't apply first and then decide on a beer later; they actually apply with a beer. Organizers can't demand that a brewery create a new beer with the Fest in mind, but suffice it to say that if a brewery enters with a flagship that's available all over town, it's not going to excite Art and Chris. This means there's always an element of uncertainty. If a brewery enters an IPA, its likelihood of getting in will depend on how many other IPAs--and what types--were entered.

There are a couple of other factors at play. Good, admired breweries get overlooked every year because of their beer choice. If that happens three years in a row, they're much, much more likely to get in the next year. The old-timers who were there at the start--Full Sail, Widmer, Rogue, etc.--are effectively grandfathered in each year. With a caveat. Art is very much a proponent of independent breweries and won't admit corporate-owned brands. They basically use the Brewers Association definition of independent, though they make greater allowance for Widmer Brothers. That's why you don't always see Portland Brewing, another founder but now entirely corporate-owned.

Trying to figure out the slate of beers is a challenge. Chris and Art are very sensitive to trends (as I have documented), so entering something modern is smart. But they also strive for balance. "One thing I've learned is there should always be a couple of dark ales," Chris said, by way of describing the different constituents who show up. Some folks only drink dark beers, some lagers, some fruit beers, etc. Ideally, all the beers would be popular, and that's what they shoot for--but obviously it's almost impossible to guess what 70,000 people will want. And here too weather plays a role.

"For the Brewers"
One thing Art kept coming back to is that the Fest has always been conceived as an event for the brewers themselves. A kind of celebration and conclave. That's why they do the brewers dinner and opening-day brunch. Breweries are encouraged to send people down, and I can confirm that, especially on the opening day, you see lots of brewers walking the grounds. There was a bit of bragging, too. "We thought we were better," Art said. "We wanted to show everybody how good we were." In the late 80s, it must have been rather bold to hold a festival for tiny breweries and assume people would clamor to taste them.

This also gets to the recent experiments with foreign breweries. It was an extension of Art's interest in using the Fest as a platform to promote beer and educate drinkers. In recent years they brought in crews from The Netherlands, New Zealand, and Japan, and it was enlightening. (Patrick and I chatted with some of the brewers in 2015, and last year I got a taste of the scene in Japan.) The thing is, it was enormously expensive. The Fest not only bought the very expensive beer from the foreign breweries, but flew the brewers in and put them up in Portland. Art would very much like to continue this and will continue to explore cheaper ways of doing it, but that's the reason we're unlikely to see a batch of, say, Norwegian farmhouse brewers. (Although that gives me a fabulous idea for a gofundme campaign. Hey Art, let's talk...)

Photo by Cat Stelzer/Brewpublic

I got a bit of a taste of what it costs to run these events, too. Right off the bat, the Fest has to plunk down $45,000 to use Waterfront Park, and another $7-$8,000 as a "reseeding fee." (Anyone who's been to the Fest knows what 140,000 feet do to the grass.) They buy kegs outright, which is another big chunk of money. Then there's all the costs associated with porta-potty and trailer rentals, promotion, and so on. One of the more interesting factors is that sample line on the mug. Last year it was apparently not obvious where it was, and so over-pours were ubiquitous. With four hundred thousand pours, that can start to really cut into the bottom line. If even half the volunteers overpoured those glasses by an ounce, the Fest would have handed out fifty barrels of free beer.

As I go out, I would personally like to apologize for that last post. I know everyone here is used to errors of fact, judgment, and decency around here--but only to a point. I hope this sets the record straight.

Jeff AlworthOBF2 Comments