By Gail Oberst
For a man who will probably be the most toasted in Oregon this month, Art Larrance maintains a surprisingly modest office. Barely 10 by 20 feet, his office door at Raccoon Lodge opens directly onto the brewery, landing within smelling distance of the brewing kettles, bags of grain, and somebody’s wet dog in the office next door. The man who established Oregon’s largest beer festival and reinvigorated Oregon’s craft brewing industry has carved out a couple of hours to talk to me, and despite ringing telephones, staff at the door and dinging e-mails, he seems to have all the time in the world. I’m in interviewer’s heaven.
Most beer geeks know the public Art Larrance: He’s the guy at the Oregon Brewers Festival who welcomes everyone on the first day – his privilege because he actually owns the festival. He’s the guy that started Portland Brewing Company with partners, eventually selling it and opening his current Portland businesses – Cascade Barrel House, a unique “sour” beer brewery, and Raccoon Lodge, a family brewpub, brewery and bar in Raleigh Hills.
And speaking of brewpubs, if you know your geek history, he’s the guy – along with several other brewery owners – who made brewpubs possible in Oregon. Art, Fred Bowman, Nancy and Dick Ponzi, the McMenamins and the Widmers lobbied to change Oregon’s laws in 1985 so fans of Oregon’s craft beers could drink them at the brewery. Today, a brewery is barely considered to have arrived until it has its own brewery-based pub or tasting room.
For that effort alone, raise a glass to Art.
But who is Art? Enquiring minds and all that ... If you’re taking the time to read this, maybe you might like to know a little more about the man whose life twisted and turned its way into Oregon’s craft beer, to our advantage.
He was born in 1944 in Bremerton, Wash., the son of a sailor in the U.S. Navy. His dad was stationed in Honolulu but he married Art’s mom, a Portland native, on Nov. 12, 1941, in Portland. Three weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Art’s Dad was, luckily for Art, in Portland at the time.
Art’s Portland roots go deep: his grandparents had lived in the same house on N.E. Fremont Street since the 1920s. His mother inherited 15 acres in what was then “Reedville,” now Aloha, and that is where Art grew up, attending Reedville Grade School and Hillsboro High School. He was an Eagle Scout and a baseball player, taking his teams to championships in high school in 1962 and Linfield College in 1966. Perhaps it was here that he developed the adage he shared with me: “Beer is the reason baseball was invented.”
During and after college, Art followed an industrial career, working for ESCO Corp., an international steel manufacturer headquartered in Portland. At the ripe age of 25 he opened his own real estate company, purchasing his first house, a Victorian triplex on NW Flanders, for $10,500. His Sylvan Development Company organized subdivisions, construction and sales of 125 houses.
Art and Fred Bowman, with whom Art would later found Portland Brewing, met in high school and have been friends since. Fred started home brewing in the ’70s and Art joined him, along with the late Jim Goodwin. “After a while, we started drinking and chatting and thinking our beer tasted real good,” Art said.
The Goodwin-Bowman-Larrance team began brewing up a dream brewery. “Stagflation” was biting into his real estate career. “I was looking for a change,” Art said. “I jokingly said I wanted to be in the booze business, and that’s proven to be true.”
To their credit, Art said they approached the idea of a brewery with the intent to make good beer. Art describes his quest-like visit in 1983 with Bert Grant, the founder of Yakima Brewing and Redhook, in tones of reverence. “He was the grandfather of brewing, a hop chemist,” said Art.
At the time, Redhook was operating out of an old transmission shop. The trio founded Portland Brewing Company in the working-class shipyards of Portland, writing their first checks to Grant for “consultation.”
Although he’s been a bachelor for most of his life, he was married early on for five years. He has two children, a son and a daughter, Tim and Alissa.
When he sold his share in the Portland Brewing Co., he took with him brewer Ron Gansberg with plans to open another brewery. It was 1998, and already hop-centric breweries were clogging the craft beer market. “Ron and I looked at each other and decided we had to make our own mark,” Art said. “We wanted to distinguish ourselves from the others.”
The “House of Sour,” AKA Cascade Barrel House, evolved from Art’s willingness to experiment, as long as the resources were local, readily available and inexpensive. The combination of local cherries, spent wine barrels from the burgeoning Oregon wine industry, and a surprising amount of press attention helped establish the new business. Medals at Denver’s Great American Brew Festival, followed by national and international accolades have further cemented success. Today, nearly 80 percent of the 3,300 barrels of beer brewed annually by Cascade is “sour” beer, with Kriek, its original cherry sour, still leading the pack.
So where does this festival business come in?
In 1987, while Art was still at Portland Brewing, Papa Aldos Pizza asked Art, the Widmer Brothers and two other breweries to serve beer at its new blues festival. The first year, Portland Brewing blew through 76 kegs by the end of the festival. “I said ‘holy smokes’,” said Art. The first festival cost $500 to rent the park. This year, park rental was $38,400 plus $6,500 in restoration fees. “Things have changed,” Art said. Art owned the festival with partners until 1994, when he bought their shares.
I asked Art if this is all a lot of work for a septuagenarian to undertake each year, and he laughed. “We have a good, organized team. Last year, we had one planning meeting. People are always amazed when I tell them that.”
And apparently, Art is not thinking of retirement. “I’m doing what I want to do, so why should I quit?”
In fact, Art’s plans for the future might be called the opposite of retirement.
This fall, Art’s well-oiled festival machine is taking the show on the road. He’s invited 35 brewers from Oregon to join with another 15 or 20 from Nevada to take part in a beer and music festival tentatively named The Boulevard Beer & Music Festival. The festival takes place Sept. 26-27 in a 13-acre location in Las Vegas. “There are lots of different beer festivals there, but we want to have the best one,” Art said.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.