By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
You’ve likely passed by Preston Weesner dozens of times and never realized it if you’ve attended a beer festival in this state. It’s because you won’t find him standing still very long. If someone is having a problem with a keg in one area of the event, he’ll be there to check on it. If there’s an issue with beer delivery on the opposite side of the venue, he’s rushing to put out that fire as well. And if Weesner is lucky, he’ll have a moment to pause for a bite of festival food before the next emergency.
The former construction worker clearly has a knack for building things, whether they’re underground tunnels for TriMet’s light rail or beer communities that seemingly appear overnight. Weesner is currently the general manager for the Holiday Ale Festival, which takes place in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, and runs the production company Peerless Management. But his involvement with beer celebrations doesn’t end there. He has roles at the Spring Beer and Wine Fest, the Oregon Garden Brewfest, the Bite of Oregon and still finds time to lend a helping hand to any organizer who asks. This list is actually pared down from a time where he was working on 12 or 13 events. But grueling schedules are still a part of his life. Come Holiday Ale Festival time, he’ll clock in 20 hour days for nine days straight. Weesner is so drained by the end of the project that he always swears to his wife he won’t do it another year. Luckily, the months that follow are enough time to help him forget the pain, the lack of sleep and the breaking point. He keeps coming back because the memory of the rewards last longer.
Below is my interview with Weesner, which was edited for length:
Q: When was your first beer festival and what was the experience like?
PW: I think it was, gosh, had to be 17 or 18 years ago. It was the Holiday Ale Fest. Backing up a little bit, it was the end of the summer I’d gone to a friend’s house for a barbecue and I was big into NorWester’s Raspberry Weizen. Think what you will, but it tasted better than the Bud I was drinking at that time. At the barbecue my friend gave me one and afterwards asked if I enjoyed it. And I said ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘I made that.’ And I was like, ‘No you didn’t.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I did!’ I’m like, ‘You can make beer?’ It seems innocent enough, but at the time that wasn’t something that was really talked about. I was more perplexed — like, you can make beer? I just figured it came out of the silver faucet on the wall or the bottle, right? He told me he’d gotten the kit at F.H. Steinbart, so my wife actually went and purchased a kit for me and I read the book in a day. I think I was homebrewing the next weekend.
That winter I was at Steinbart’s buying ingredients and someone at the counter said, ‘Well are you going to go to the Holiday Ale Fest?’ ‘Well what is that?’ ‘Well, it’s a beer festival.’ Again, I was perplexed there was a festival for beer. Went to the festival; was enamored. I walked up and asked instantly, ‘Hey, do you need any volunteers the next day?’ And they did. So I volunteered the next two days. It was an amazing experience to see that many people coming down in a tent in the middle of winter and rain, drinking beer and having a good time.
Fast-forward a couple of months, I heard about the Spring Beer Fest, volunteered there. Oregon Brewers Fest, volunteered there. I started asking friends in other cities, like ‘Hey, what beer fests do you have?’ And they’re like, ‘What’s a beer fest?’ It was something very unique to Portland.
Q: Can you take the average reader of OBG through planning something like Holiday Ale Fest?
PW: In regards to Holiday Ale Fest, I’m literally planning next year’s event a year in advance and specifically at the event. Each year I’m writing down notes, I’m making connections, I’m talking about how to make it better this year. Sometimes my staff gets on me. They’re like, ‘We’re in this year right now and you’re already talking about next year?!’ But if we don’t think about and remember it now, then we won’t be able to make preparations.
I always would say I could probably throw a great barbecue with a week’s notice. I could probably throw a pretty darn good party with a month’s notice. But if you’re looking to throw an event — a wedding planner would be a good idea. A wedding planner starts working six months before the wedding for about 200 or 300 friends. You start involving the public and the numbers start climbing into the thousands, you really have to have a team of people. If you’re not working on it a year in advance, or at least nine months in advance, you’re maybe not running the most efficient or effective show.
Q: Can you think of something you learned last year that you’re going to change this time around?
PW: I don’t particularly have something for next year, but I’ll give you an example from two years ago. We’d always use beer trailers from the distributors and we’d park them as far against one wall as we could. Well, the problem with the trailers is they actually displaced more room than they held beer. For years I thought, you know this is the middle of winter. Average temperature is 45-50 degrees. Why are we killing ourselves with these trailers? Guys are hitting their heads. We’re getting back injuries from lifting kegs. I mean, it was a nightmare! We used to have to bring in a special crew in the morning just to change the kegs because the event staff was beaten and flogged from changing kegs during the event.
I’d talked to several draft technicians in town and I was like, ‘Why can’t we set [the kegs] outside? We’ll wall it off and blow some cold air on it from a unit we took off a semi-truck.’ And he looked at me as though I were speaking in a foreign language. And he said, ‘That would never work.’ I’m like, ‘What history do we have to prove it?’ ‘Well, we’ve never done it before.’ So I just vowed the next year, I’m going to try this. All the draft guys, all the distributors stood there with tools in hand, ready and willing to cut things apart … and it worked. We were able to then go from 30-40 breweries to 55 breweries because we could hold more beer on site.
Q: How have you seen festivals in Oregon evolve since your involvement with them began?
PW: Certainly the attendance has gone up. That means there’s not just an increased passion for beer; there’s also an increased knowledge of beer. People are wanting to try new beers. There’s the potential to have beers or breweries you’ve never heard of at the event. It’s not just about going and getting a beer for the weekend; it’s really changed into more of a beer geek kind of thing where you’re looking to go there and you’re hoping to find something you’ve never heard of. They’re looking for Easter eggs. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt for good beer.
Q: People would probably say you have a dream job. But there have to be struggles. What’s a failure from the past and how did you overcome it?
PW: Well there’s failures every year, whether it’s failures to meet a deadline and how to recover from that, there’s failures in implementation — you know, if the beers don’t go on from the tap list we’ve promoted, how do you rectify that and get it back on track? Those are all little hiccups. But here’s a great failure: I think it was five years in to when I started stewarding the festival I was looking around at other great beer events — the St. Patrick’s Day events. It’s like, wow, if you want to go stand in line for two hours to maybe get into Kells and then have five frat guys dump your drink on you — we should just have a little craft beer festival. People can come by and maybe get a beer, hand out, relax — go down to Kells and then come here. It was called the Shamrock Ale Fest.
We had no intentions of it being something big and special. We just wanted to give an opportunity for those who didn’t want to wait in line to actually get a beer. So we worked with 10 breweries who each did two beers. It didn’t do well financially. When I had to explain to the board of directors how it had actually not just lost some money but a lot of money, I was personally on the hook for that because it was my idea to do it. I never thought that because Holiday Ale was successful that I could do an event anywhere at any time. I guess the reality was just because one thing works doesn’t mean that everything’ll work.
Q: You’ve mentioned a lot of things that you like when it comes to your work. Would you have anything you’d cite as your favorite?
PW: Well I’m a builder. I like to build things. I’ve always been a fan of the underdog. Being told it can’t be done just empowers me more. Being told, ‘Well, it’s never been done before,’ just lets me know that somebody else didn’t succeed. I’m going to try.
I like to see the festivals come together — the chaos of all the parts that are mingling around and coming together suddenly gel and the team pulls and suddenly the boat surges ahead toward the finish line. It’s always nice to see the culmination of something, especially when it’s a long, arduous project to make it happen. But to see it truly recognized and appreciated — there’s no money involved there. That’s just a personal thing. To see people enjoying it. That’s a huge reward.
Q: So if you had to advise a newbie and give them the nuts and bolts, what makes a successful event?
PW: More planning. More planning. Just when you think you’ve got enough, do more planning. Lay out a schedule — a timeline — and work the timeline backwards from the opening and allow extra time. For things that should take 30 minutes, allow an hour. You want good PR. If you’re 90 days out trying to plan an event, it’s probably going to be a rough event. There’s probably going to be a lot of hiccups. There’s probably going to be a lot of heartache and crying and pain, but you’ll learn something from that.
There’s untold things that can go wrong and you need to have backup plans for everything. What happens when your mugs don’t arrive? What happens when your tickets don’t arrive? What happens if your wristbands are the wrong color? Because if it can go wrong, eventually it will.
Q: Festivals are fun. You get to drink beer. But what larger role do you think these events play in terms of facilitating a sense of social connectedness of community identity?
PW: They’re a community that didn’t exist and they only exist for the festival. And the anticipation for the community to spring back up is there all year long. As an example, at Holiday Ale we would always say it’s the worst time of year. Everybody’s running out of money. The holidays are coming. You’ve got to buy gifts not only for people you care about, but for people you’re only going to see once a year. You’re racing around; workload is heavy. You’re trying to get your workload done so you can go to the Christmas party, go to your mom and dad’s house. Everybody’s working extra hours trying to squeeze in all this stuff. It’s like, wait. Hold on. Take a second for yourself. Come down to the festival. Arrange to meet a friend there — even if you’re doing it in between shopping trips, just take two seconds, have a beer, catch up with some friends and then go back to your credit-laden plans to ruin yourselves for the holidays. The community aspect is just that. The festivals are a microcosm of community and people are coming together to support the event but also just to see each other, to talk.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.