By Ezra Johnson-Greenough
For the Oregon Beer Growler
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Oregon Brewers Festival. It’s not just a festival, but THE festival of the Pacific Northwest and the largest of its kind in the country. So large does the OBF loom that when you mention “Portland” and “beer festival,” most assume you’re talking about OBF. It’s become the measuring stick for all other beer events, and in 2017 OBF will set the bar even higher by working to end intoxicated driving by launching a Safe Ride Home program.
This July 26-30th marks the 30th anniversary of OBF, held at Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park. It’s the largest beer fest in the U.S. by attendees, claiming 80,000 or so visitors annually and in 2016 it contributed an estimated $29.3 million to the local economy. Other impressive stats it boasts: 44.2 percent of last year’s attendees were women and 20.2 percent of out-of-town visitors stayed in rental lodging.
Art Larrance, now of Cascade Brewing, founded OBF in 1988 after being inspired by Oktoberfest in Munich and the first Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland. At the time, Larrance and Fred Bowman had founded Portland Brewing — the city’s fourth brewery — and were asked to provide beer for a new event. The two Hillsboro High alums launched the Papa Aldo’s Pizza Blues Festival during the last weekend of July at Waterfront Park. The inaugural celebration was a hit, with kegs kicking as quickly as they could tap them. Surprisingly, then, the event sponsors sold the Blues Festival to the Cascade Blues Association and the date was moved to the Fourth of July weekend. That left an opportunity to purchase the park rental space during the last weekend of July, which Larrance did for $500. He reached out to Widmer Brothers Brewing, BridgePort Brewing Company and McMenamins for help starting a beer festival that no one expected to succeed.
“One of the big questions we got were, ‘How much alcohol do you get out of the hops?’ People did not have a clue what the hops were. Now, people are going ‘I want to try that Citra hop!’ We are all becoming hop experts,” Larrance said.
The first OBF in ‘88 created a template for the token-based, low-cost outdoor beer event that has become perhaps the most popular model. The Great American Beer Festival was founded in 1987 and took place indoors with a session-based entry fee featuring unlimited (but small) pours. Larrance did almost everything differently. OBF, with an outdoor setting, was free to enter and attendees could purchase a plastic mug and $1 drink tickets. The only major change in the last 30 years is a switch from paper tickets to reusable wooden that also double as free advertisement for the fest. That first event featured 22 breweries from six states. With an expected attendance of around 5,000, approximately 15,000 showed up, which had brewers scrambling to keep up with beer sales. These days, the festival takes up twice the length of Waterfront Park that it used to and has stretched from two days to five.
In 1994, Larrance left Portland Brewing. “They said, ‘You’re kind of a starter, but we need more of a finisher. We need more nationally known people … MacTarnahan’s had bought more stock and they didn’t want me around.” Portland Brewing gave Larrance their interest in OBF and he went on to purchase the rest of the shares of ownership from the Widmers and the Ponzis (founders of BridgePort).
A major misconception about OBF is that it does not or should feature more Oregon brewers, but from the beginning that was not the goal. “We wanted to showcase Oregon beer, but not to say we were the best. We want to get out-of-staters ... to stand the local beers up against all the others so that people would say ‘Oh, that Oregon beer is pretty darned good.’ We wanted people to make up their own mind.” A lottery system is used to choose participants, though breweries that have been longtime supporters are grandfathered in. Larrance says narrowing down contributors is the most difficult aspect of the event.
In 2013 the festival attempted a switch to real glassware instead of the much-maligned plastic mugs. Unfortunately, the Boston Marathon bombing put an end to that two years later with law enforcement insisting upon no glass in the park. “The police said glass can be a weapon and I know it can ever since I was chased around a strawberry patch by a girl with a broken beer bottle because I hit her with a strawberry 60-some years ago” says Larrance.
Another aspect that sets OBF apart from other beer events is Larrance’s insistence on keeping it family friendly. He fought the Oregon Liquor Control Commission when a contingent tried to prohibit children. Larrance strongly believes in keeping the family unit together and said “We really had to work hard to show them [OLCC] we were aware of the minors and we really want them there with their parents.” As a compromise, event organizers created a permission slip for parents to sign in order to bring their kids.
In 2012, OBF introduced the International Tent that featured beers from the Netherlands. “It all started with Mark Strooker,” recalls Larrance. “He started it by contacting Travel Portland and saying ‘I want to try to get the Oregon Brewers Festival to the Netherlands.’ Well, I thought, I haven’t been to the Netherlands since 1976. So I went over there to a festival at De Molen Brewery called the Borefts Beer Festival.” Larrance asked Strooker to invite 10 or so Netherlands brewers to OBF. The festival would pay for travel and the featured beers.
Larrance soon found out that the brewers actually did not know each other that well and the trip to Portland strengthened their bond. Since then, Larrance has traveled back to the Netherlands to explore setting up OBF there but doubts remain about the cost and attendance. Still, Larrance says, “I fell in love with the country, the people, the attitude. It’s kind of like us 20 years ago.”
Since the first International Tent, OBF has brought brewers from other countries. However, import costs have skyrocketed, so the feature will take some time off this year. To beat escalating shipping costs, Larrance wants to fly beer makers here to make a special batch at an Oregon brewery. While that may mark the end of the International Tent, it also relaunches a Specialty Tent (formerly called the Buzz Tent), which will serve smaller kegs not available at the regular pouring stations.
The Safe Ride Home Program is a new update to this year’s festival and was still in the works as of press time. Working with the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Larrance and OBF want to eliminate any post-festival intoxicated driving. “We want to have zero loss from the festival. We want people to get rides home safely.”
The program has a few initiatives, some of which they are still figuring out how to implement. One is a deal with SmartPark Garages. Drivers who come to the festival will be given a receipt that provides a $5 discount for anyone who decides to leave the vehicle overnight and pick it up the next day between 9 a.m. and noon. Another option is an expanded deal with Radio Cab. A little-known OBF benefit is that two taxis are available at the event to transport intoxicated patrons. This year, $20,000 has been raised to fund a fleet of cabs that will be located across the street from the park and discounts will be given to festival goers.
“We are working with Portland Police. We have the same motive to get people home safely. We want them to come back next year.” says Larrance.
Art also hopes the program will go beyond OBF and extend to all the states’ beer fests. “It’s not going to be just for us. We are trying to set up for all beer festivals and working with the guild so they can implement the same thing to work it out this year and figure out how it works best. So you know if you come to Oregon and go to our festivals, there won’t be any issues and you will come back. We will get you home safe.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.