By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
2015 marks the year the Spring Beer & Wine Fest turns 21, a fond age for many of us. Since its inception, it's been more thoughtful than most of us were in our early years. Started by Steve Woolard and his parents -- who were getting ready to retire but he convinced to pitch in with the books, paperwork and marketing — it was held for the first four years at the now-closed dog track in Wood Village. The next four years they utilized space at the Portland Expo Center, being the first tenant in each of two new buildings that were opened, before moving to their current home at the Oregon Convention Center.
Besides being held indoors, something contrary to most festivals in the area, one of the things that sets the Spring Beer & Wine Fest apart from other festivals is the mission behind the event. Steve started it to provide a marketing outlet to vendors, while encouraging owners, brewers or representatives to run their own booths.
Many festivals rely exclusively on volunteers to do this, however, it's not uncommon for those volunteers to be unfamiliar with the product they're pouring or sampling. While some vendors may be OK with that setup, it has been those that are interested in that personal touch model that Steve seeks out. That isn't to say that the festival doesn't rely on volunteers (it takes 500 to make the two-day festival run); rather, it means that those volunteers are key supporting members that are allowed to pick the vendor they would like to pour for. Proving the attractiveness of the model is the fact that some of the volunteers have been with the festival from the beginning. That's right, they've been volunteering for it for 21 years. That's commitment.
The festival is a mix of breweries, wineries, cideries, distilleries and food vendors (cheese and chocolate makers, for example) making it an event that offers something for everyone, even things (wine) that some (beer drinking) people might not know they want. For example, John at TeSóAria Vineyard & Winery, loves the mixed bag of people at the event. The ability to be in front of beer drinkers, people that perhaps haven't had much experience with wine, offers him the chance to show them something they might not have considered before. There's nothing like a personal touch and a positive experience to put a producer in a prime position to attract new customers.
Starting out as a beer-only festival, it still skews in favor of breweries with the majority of them hailing from Oregon. Looking over the list of breweries for this year’s fest, there are a couple big brewers as well as several smaller producers that may be less familiar to some, such as Krauski's Brewskis, Vagabond Brewing, Natian Brewery and the newly-opened Coin Toss Brewing Co. This festival is a prime opportunity for them to tell their story directly to consumers and, in doing so, create a connection that may well lead to future purchases.
Continuing the theme of allowing producers to tell their story is the culinary stage. It started off with scotch tastings and chef stations, evolved into seminars and last year the culinary stage took a big step forward by having all of the segments recorded and available on YouTube. Local food and beer man about town, Steven Shomler, has been instrumental in developing this. He is the co-founder of the Portland Food Cart Festival and met Steve during a visit to the Pod Bar at Carts on Foster in 2013. He offered up his help and since then has been heavily involved, drawing on his festival experience and connections with the local beer and food scene.
What lies ahead for the festival? One thing Steve would like to bring into the mix is marijuana vendors. He's already been exploring the possibility with the Oregon Convention Center, which currently considers it a tobacco product that is not allowed. However, administrators haven't definitively said "no" yet. Steve feels marijuana should be in the same category as beer, wine and spirits as it will be overseen by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Only time will tell if that that pans out for the festival. In the meantime, check it out for yourself and explore all the festival has to offer.
21st Annual Spring Beer & Wine Fest
April 3-4, 2015
Oregon Convention Center
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.