OBF and the Future of Fests

Photo by Cat Seltzer/BrewPublic

Tonight, the Oregon Brewers Fest Brewers Dinner kicks off the 31st iteration of Oregon's biggest beer festival. To Oregonians, OBF has a kind of cultural solidity that makes it seem permanent; just as spring follows winter, on the last full weekend of July, we all go to the OBF. For the third year, Patrick and I did our pre-fest podcast special considering the odd and alluring beers and the larger trends in brewing we see in them. Plug: go listen.

But for the first time in my adult life, OBF seems to be on shaky ground. Attendance has been trending down in recent years, and the fest has jiggered prices to address sliding profits. Last year, fest owner Art Larrance told me, "I come to see that we are a weather-related event" after weekend days edged toward 90 degrees and further suppressed attendance. That seems like the new norm, though--this year we're slogging through our second heat wave of the summer, and forecasts call for temperatures in the mid- to upper-90s through the run of the fest. I'm sure Larrance and Co. are bracing for even smaller numbers this year. And, as long as climate change continues to warm to the West, it seems like this is the new normal, not a rare outlier.

The larger context is that the OBF has a lot more competition than it did even a decade ago. Ezra has a long post today describing the landscape of proliferating fests and the casualties older fests have already suffered. He has run several of these through the years, and gets into the nuts and bolts of operations. His perspective is framed by someone concerned about the business viability of beer festivals, and is well worth a read.

One thing he doesn't go deeply into, but which has been much on my mind as the OBF nears, is a more existential question. What is the role of the beer festival in a city with 75 breweries within a country that has 6,500? More pointedly, is the model itself obsolete?

The early beer festivals served an important function of putting obscure/unusual beer and people together in the same place. In the 1980s and 90s, little breweries didn't have wide distribution, so people had a hard time tracking them down. The beer festival was a solution to scarcity. As things evolved, so did beer fests. At first, breweries would use them to introduce people to their flagship product. As the 90s stretched on and people started to know the breweries, attendees began using fests to send new or specialty beers. This was the new area of scarcity--what new product does Brewery X have? Fests got us up to speed.

Eventually, fests began to specialize--and Ezra does a good job of surveying all the different kinds we've seen in Portland over the years. These, too continued to serve the purpose of want. Ezra's own fruit festival explored the way fruit can transform different types of beer. The Holiday Ale Fest became a showcase of big, boozy beers to warm a December night. At each iteration, the same logic was at work--putting people in contact with unexplored realms of beer.

But as long as that remains the logic--serving scarcity--the purpose of a fest seems increasingly marginal. Breweries make 50-100 different beers each year, and walking into a taproom is like attending a mini-fest. Pubs with 20-50 taps proliferate, and most offer a selection of beer so broad that even the nichiest itches may be scratched. We are absolutely suffused with choice. It's hard to imagine any fest locating some unexplored domain.

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There are, of course, other reasons to go to a fest. Munich's Oktoberfest is not a celebration of beer--it's a celebration with beer. The same beer from the same few breweries, year after year. That model of a fest is an older approach--a community celebration, like ice cream socials and Fourth of July (or in Portland, Rose Festival) parades. This may offer a way forward.

There's a very good reason to think that some of these fests may transform into cultural events. The OBF is already halfway there. The Holiday Ale Fest is a perfect way to beat the early chill of winter, and I go not for the beer, but to stand under the Christmas tree and spend time with friends. The turning toward this type of fest would have to be intentional, and the focus would have to shift from the beer to the event. It would require rethinking the logic and purpose of these events.

I won't be at the OBF this year. I'll be in Duluth, MN giving a speech at the All Pints North Technical Conference. I'll confess, however, that even without the conflict I'd have to confront whether I'd want to brave the heat to go drink beers of a type I could find in any pub in the city. Some friends I normally attend the fest with have suggested doing a walking tour of breweries one Saturday this year. We'd get to hang out and drink some great beer--all without the crowds and chaos. I can't imagine my heresy is unique. Going forward, fests are going to have to figure out how to get erstwhile fans like me back to the tables. It will be interesting to see if there's yet another phase of evolution left, and whether fests transform one more time.

Jeff Alworth