Thirty Years at the Oregon Brewers Festival

Thirty years is not a terribly long time, really. If you saw a hardware store celebrating its thirtieth, you wouldn’t give it much thought. Marriages that last thirty years are worth a nod of appreciation, but perhaps not wonder. Three decades is living memory for relatively young people. But in the life of beer, this interval marks a period of radical change. Tomorrow the Oregon Brewers Fest (OBF) will open its doors for the thirtieth time, and looking back allows us to see the distance we’ve come--and remember why the fest has always had a special place in Beervana.

I wasn’t in attendance at the inaugural fest (among other things, I was 19). The first time I visited the OBF was about 1990, give or take a year. It was entirely unmemorable. What beers they offered, whether they were any good, I can’t say. My strongest recollection is that it seemed, to my post-college pocketbook, like a lot of money (I distinctly remember the conversation where we mentioned the price of a full pour--four dollars--was substantially higher than a pint in a pub.) I recall the stay was brief, lasting as long as my meager funds allowed.

(Fun fact. That one-dollar token goes way back, if perhaps not all the way to 1987. Had the wooden token kept its value over thirty years, though, it would now cost $2.15. Today's OBF is relatively cheap.)

The first fest that really sticks in my memory was around 1995. I’d been interested in good beer for nearly a decade by that time and had even started homebrewing, but the range available at the local brewpub was still woeful. I thought I knew a lot about beer, but the following anecdote puts truth to my actual level of knowledge. At that fest I was introduced to witbier, which seemed at the time like an impossibly exotic ale. I have no idea who made it or how authentic it was, but it must have at least been well-made because it remains in my memory still. I tell this story not to embarrass myself, but to illustrate just how far we’ve come. In 1995, eight years into the OBF, a simple witbier unlocked the door to a totally new frontier of traditions and flavors.

The first decade of the fest was just an introduction to the possibility of beer beyond mass market lagers, but just. It was full of ambers and pales and hefeweizens (because Widmer). Beers were not uncommonly badly-made, some had off-flavors even I could identify, and the brewers rarely understood the style they were trying to imitate. Drinkers were seriously unsophisticated and many were attracted to what you might call naive beers--sweet and simple. Still, this wave pushed us past mass market lagers, and we felt like bold explorers.

I volunteered for the tenth OBF, and my friend Joe and I requested serving Wild River’s beers. He, like the brewery, was a Grants Pass native, and they were pouring one of our favorites, Double Eagle Stout. We had visions of turning people onto it, and speaking from our vast treasure of knowledge about the style. (Later that year, my first ever beer column would be about stouts.) In 1997, an imperial stout counted as a master’s level beer. Sadly, there was a mix-up and the brewery sent its Hefeweizen--one of the most common types of beer in Oregon at the time. We ended up catering to newbies who wanted something close to “normal beer.”

In the second decade of the fest, our collective experience and sophistication grew. I remember drinking my first mead there, and my first barrel-aged beer. (A bock made by Widmer, which my friend said “smells just like my grandpa”--of bourbon, of course.) Trends sent beer in a hopward trajectory, though they weren’t initially IPAs. The first hoppy ales Oregonians regularly drank were strong ales and barley wines, which were big enough beers the brewer could smuggle in titanic amounts of hops. One of the classics of this era was Wild Duck’s famous Sasquatch Strong, a hop monster brewed by the late Glen Falconer (Wild Duck, a Eugene brewery, later went out of business). In this era I witnessed Ninkasi’s Jamie Floyd, then of Steelhead, debate my college buddy David Zuckerman. Zuck had gone on to become Boulder Beer’s brewer, and he was not a fan of our hoppy trend.

Care to guess the year?

The third decade has been OBF’s most interesting. In the early years, the OBF was an opportunity for Portlanders to get to taste beers from around the country. But as the number of local breweries and fest tourists grew, the focus has shifted to home-state beers. For years and years, many breweries thought the OBF was a great opportunity to promote core brands, but a few realized releasing experimental one-offs would bring more people to their beer. In its third decade, the fest started showcasing diversity. Now experimentation is almost demanded. To take one example, there are twice as many kettle-soured beers this year as there are pale ales. Twenty years ago I thought a witbier was radical.

It’s been a long time since the OBF was the coolest place to be or could plausibly boast being a beer-geek showcase (it’s far more likely to be accused of being a bro-y frat party). That misses a key part of the Fest’s attraction, though. Ever since the first one, when it was so hot the beer foamed over and they blew kegs too early, it’s really been more a simple celebration. It’s the moment we all go down to the park, sit in the shade, and drink a lot of good beer (and, of course, some bad beer, too).

The OBF emerged in a moment when the city was just discovering that beer could be something sensual as well as social, that it could be local. In the decades I've been going, the point has never been the beer, it's been the experience. There is a propensity in the every-more-serious craft beer world to fetishize beer. In its purest, most ancient form, though, beer has always been something both more and less. It is an excuse to get together, a social glue, a point of connection. Of course, the experience of discovery is a big part of the fest, and discussing and sharing what you're drinking is a big part of the fun. But the real joy for me, for 26 of the past thirty OBFs, has been sitting on the banks of the Willamette, my beautiful city rising to the west, and drinking good beer with friends.

Tomorrow I'll head out again. Say hi if you see me in the throngs--