It’s a hot, wet night both outside and from the palpable perspiration and intoxication inside the theater. I trade in my rain jacket for a dress shirt and tie, trying to keep it loose so you can’t see how much I am sweating. It’s late February 2016 and I am about to go onstage at the Oregon Beer Awards ceremony at Revolution Hall. As I leave the green room, I pass by a control room filled with a team of techs controlling the stage lighting and video projection, live-streaming red carpet hosts and sound for the band. I take a sip of award-winning IPA from the year before, attempting to calm my nerves while also keeping my energy level up with espresso shots. I try to compose myself before walking out to bright lights which mercifully blind me from the thousand-or-so industry professionals in the two-floor audience — they’re already amped and buzzed. My goal is to leave the stage quickly, accompanied by applause and cheers rather than jeers and spilled beers.
Before walking onstage, I briefly wonder how I ended up presenting honors at what’s arguably the biggest night for the local craft industry. The Oregon Beer Awards is a one-of-a-kind event, a ceremony unlike any other. It evaluated 1,090 Oregon beers in 2019, submitted from 133 breweries across 40 cities.
The Oregon Beer Awards was founded in 2015 by former Willamette Week (WW) arts and culture editor Martin Cizmar, accomplished brewer Ben Edmunds and me, Ezra Johnson-Greenough, a beer writer and events organizer. Though recollections differ, I first recall coming up with the idea for the OBAs in 2014 while discussing Cizmar’s top 10 beers of the year, announced annually in Willamette Week’s Oregon Beer Guide.
“I always liked to have some sort of little event,” says Cizmar, on announcing his top 10 beers of the year. “I started by inviting everyone in the top 10 and some other cool people from the beer scene to the Green Dragon on the night the beer guide was released. I stood on a chair and shouted out the top 10 in a countdown. It was super casual and super fun.”
As for me, I’d always wanted to hold a local beer awards program, voted by industry members instead of the public — not a fan-favorite competition but one chosen by peers. I imagined it similar to the way the Academy Awards does it. I had already thought about the categories, choosing areas the general public would understand and awards in broader styles like “IPA” rather than the hundred-or-so styles and sub-styles handed out at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver.
I sold Cizmar on my idea and we brought it to Breakside Brewery head brewer Ben Edmunds for his help and feedback.
“I convinced the brass at WW to give it a shot, just as I had with the Pro-Am and the beer guide itself. And they went for it,” recalls Cizmar.
“That first ‘unofficial’ OBA happened in early 2015, and the nominees/winners were selected by a blue ribbon panel. There was no blind tasting back then,” says Edmunds.
Actually it, about 30 brewers, beer writers, distributors and beer buyers gathered into Willamette Week’s offices to argue and debate who should win each category.
Steph Barnhart, then Willamette Weeks events manager, came on to help manage the project and bring it to fruition. The 2015 Oregon Beer Awards were held in the basement of the Doug Fir Lounge, and while it was a bit chaotic. Barnhart says: “It was well-attended and well-received by the community — so much so that we decided it was really time to grow it up and go big. That next year we moved it to Revolution Hall.” Revolution Hall — a former-Southeast-Portland-school-building-turned-premiere-venue — has played host to the awards ever since. “Out of the concert hall basement and into a major auditorium: pre-show, live-feed, red-carpet style!” says Barnhart.
“After that first year, you [Ezra Johnson-Greenough] and I approached Martin and proposed a way to create a legitimate competition and improve the ceremony,” recalls Edmunds. “And from there, the OBAs in their current incarnation were born.”
Barnhart continues, “Ben Edmunds and I started to draft plans for how to manage a beer judging event, from A to Z. I had never even attended, let alone produced a beer-tasting competition before and had to learn very quickly.”
Edmunds, who had gained knowledge judging at GABF and other small competitions, explains further: “We added real categories, style guidelines, solicited top beer professionals from around the state and created a really strong competition,” says Edmunds. “The ceremony has also improved a lot: it’s a gala event kind of like the Oscars of Oregon beer. We added the hall of fame, which is a great way to honor someone in the industry.”
Behind-the-scenes, Edmunds and I gather each year to establish categories and style guidelines for the coming competition. Rather than rely on classic style guides, we argue and debate about what makes current styles unique and ways to simplify the categories down to a reasonable 25-or-so options. Once agreed upon, Edmunds writes the style guide for the year.
Brewers have their choice to enter one beer into each category, but each beer may be entered into only one category. Once they register their entries, organizers from the team — which include all-star volunteers like Jeremie Landers and Jenn McPoland — attach a random four-digit identification number to each entry.
“The beers are sorted into first-round flights of seven to 12 beers total, depending on the size of the category,” describes Edmunds. “Each flight goes in front of a team of four to five judges who then taste, evaluate and discuss the beers.”
The OBAs is a double blind competition — neither the judges nor the serving stewards know what beers are being served and tasted. Only pouring stewards, who are busy sorting the entries in the back room, know what the beers are. Servers and judges are not allowed to enter that room, hence two levels removed — or double blind.
After each flight, the judges have to agree on the top three beers on the table. Next, those beers advance to a semifinal round where they are re-evaluated against other top-three beers from separate flights in the same category. This process is repeated until the final medal round is reached. There, judges award the final gold, silver and bronze awards. It takes around 85 judges to properly evaluate the 1,000-plus plus entries each year.
“By the time a beer makes it to a medal round or wins a medal at OBAs,” notes Edmunds. “It will have been vetted by at least nine judges, and oftentimes it is more than that.”
OBA program director Rachel Coddington says, “The amount of data that’s handled is immense. I manage the back-end logistics of everything, and having Ben and the stewards alongside me makes all the difference.”
Everyone agrees the event requires considerable effort. “Oregon Beer Awards is amazing and a massive endeavor,” says Jane Smith, member of the executive committee of the Oregon Beer Awards and associate publisher at Willamette Week. “Craft beer is such a beast in Oregon, the best beer deserves to be recognized. Our team works really hard to make sure the judging competition is blind and the awards ceremony is fun as hell.”
In addition to the 25 judged beer categories at the 2019 Oregon Beer Awards, another seven awards are voted upon by an academy of peers. Nearly 300 vetted industry professionals will vote in a nomination and final round including categories like best beer festival, best bottle shop, best new brewery and others. Each award is presented by category sponsors and ceremony hosts Ben Love and Joe Sanders, our 2019 emcees.
Revolution Hall sells 834 tickets to the ceremony — this year, another 150 tickets were available for a new lounge space where the awards will be live streamed (also available online). With three satellite bars, the permanent lounge and Martha’s lounge bars, over 1,000 people will attend, enjoying a selection of nearly 20 past OBA-winning beers. A red carpet greets attendees before the show, where hosts interview brewers and guests ahead of the big event, just like you might see for the Oscars pre-show. This lends the Oregon Beer Awards a festive pageantry the industry deserves and can found nowhere else. It’s a tremendous show, celebrating exceptional Oregon brews! •