When the Oregon Brewers Festival first started in 1988, the very idea of craft beer was exotic.
Back then, before the Danish brewer collaborations and unpronounceable styles (gueuze, anyone?), craft beer was cool simply because it was new. At the time, Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland was only 10 years old, and Oregon’s Brewpub Bill — the landmark legislation that let the state’s handful of craft brewers sell their suds on-site — was just three years old.
That July, Art Larrance, co-founder of Portland Brewing Company, found himself with a city permit for a to-be-determined two-day event. Larrance thought he’d invite a few friends in the brewing biz to join him at Waterfront Park. He called up the Ponzis at BridgePort Brewing (now closed), the Widmer brothers and the McMenamins. They enlisted some 18 other western brewers, and the first annual Oregon Brewers Festival (OBF) was born.
“When we started, we weren’t talking about citrus hops or specialty malts,” says Larrance. “We just wanted to highlight the little brewers.”
The festival was destined for bigger things. That first year, OBF ran out of beer as some 15,000 festival-goers packed the park. Three decades later, the Oregon Brewers Festival still takes over the downtown riverside each July, thrilling beer lovers with all that’s new in craft brew. And the breweries that participate are still little (Budweiser and Coors need not apply).
What has changed, however, is the world outside the festival’s white tents. Today, thriving craft beer scenes drive economies from Bend, Oregon to Baja California, Mexico. Increasingly, the world wants more Upright Brewing and less InBev (a brewing giant that owns more than 2,000 beer brands). To slake that thirst, OBF has grown from 22 participating breweries to more than 80, and from 15,000 attendees to nearly 70,000 from all corners of the world.
The festival never set out to be as big as, say, Munich’s sprawling Oktoberfest, a centuries-old Märzen-and-Bock bonanza that manages to satisfy some 100,000 fans annually. And yet, attend Oktoberfest now and you’ll likely spot OBF shirts in the crowd — a testament to the fest’s own now-international stature.
Can (or should) OBF continue to grow as smaller beer events — many of them inspired by OBF — increasingly take over Beervana? Larrance wonders if the festival hasn’t fallen victim to its own success. In 2017, for the first time ever, OBF’s attendance dipped slightly.
“I look into my crystal beer glass and it won’t tell me what’s next,” Larrance says with a sly grin. “All it tells me is, ‘I’m empty.’”
How Oregon Brewers Festival works
Each winter, craft breweries (as defined by the Brewers Association) apply to serve one — and only one — beer at the festival. It used to be that makers would submit their flagship ale, but nowadays, Larrance says, attendees are too discerning for that. “They’re looking for what’s new, what’s not in the store.”
The festival committee aims to represent a range of beer styles and regions. At festival time, massive refrigeration trailers roll in, along with a veritable army of staff and volunteers coordinating the sale of beer mugs and $1 tokens (redeemed for tasters inside the festival). Also in the mix are live music performances, food vendors and security. Sure, Larrance says, the beer lines can be pretty long; but that’s part of the game — strategizing your tasting play, and hopefully making new friends along the way. “There are connoisseurs and common-seurs,” he jokes.
The mission of Oregon Brewers Festival
Sure, OBF slings a lot of kegs. But the festival’s mission, Larrance says, is really to connect the public with the breweries themselves, and the breweries with each other. (“It’s not a beer fest, it’s a brewers fest,” he says.) That means a lot of behind-the-scenes meetings; business is happening all around the beer tents.
Thanks to OBF networking, Larrance says, Portland breweries like Lompoc have secured distribution deals in Europe, while others have collaborated on special releases with far-flung new friends. The event has an estimated annual economic impact of nearly $24 million benefiting some dozen industries across the city.
Y a tu salud, Oregon Brewers Festival!