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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

OBF 26: Final Thoughts

Because the Oregon Brewers Festival is the largest single event on the annual beer calendar here, it tends to attract a lot of attention and coverage. It might even be safe to say we over-cover the event. With that in mind, let me offer some final thoughts on OBF 26.

By the numbers
For the first time in several years, attendance figures have been adjusted upward...to 85,000. This is based on the number of wristbands handed out. Because so many of us visit the festival on more than one day, the total is a bit nebulous. It would probably be more accurate to say 85,000 visits, but it's a good number either way.

I will be interested to see the economic impact numbers, which will appear in a month or so. Jeff Dense, a political science professor at Eastern Oregon University, collects the data and puts that report together. I spoke to him during the festival, while he was busy collecting surveys in return for tokens. It sounds like the means of collecting data was tweaked somewhat from 2012, which is good. I did not embrace last year's finding that 70 percent of festival attendees came from outside Portland metro.

Glass for keeps
The move to an actual glass was such a positive change that many were left wondering why it hadn't occurred earlier. You could see the beer, taste the beer, smell the beer. In defense of the OBF, this change likely would have happened earlier had they realized glass in the park was okay. They mistakenly believed the city had a rule against glass there. Not so.

Beyond the obvious benefits of the glass, a residual benefit is the fact that people took these things home. I had family visiting from the Seattle area and they scooped up their glasses. We've got two of them on the glass shelf here. My wife informed me she wouldn't mind having a few more. So much for recycling. These glasses are keepers.

Taster hater
Of course, I was one of several people who thought the move to a 3 oz taste was a bad idea. I didn't and don't have an issue with the economic reasons for the change. I merely thought the smaller taster would lead to more people getting full beers due to longer lines. And more drunks.

In general, I didn't see that happening. I was there all afternoon Friday into the evening. I really didn't see that many full beers. In fact, the new glass did a nice job of obscuring the smaller taste size. That was either great planning or dumb luck.

Lines Begone
Probably the biggest problem the festival has faced in recent years is lines. Last year, there were dreadful lines Thursday afternoon. Friday afternoon and evening was a joke. Saturday was a mess almost from the start. I thought it might be worse this year. I was wrong.

Some will surely point to the additional day as a partial reason. It surely helped. Wednesday was a mellow day, nothing like Thursday last year. There were plenty of people in the park, yet it was never hard to get a beer. Even Friday afternoon wasn't bad. There were lines for some beers, but you could work your way to the front in short order. Even if Saturday was bad, the line problem was largely minimized this year.

Opening up the area between the tents and the beer on the south side paid off nicely. The open space helped keep people who had just filled up out of the lines, allowing those needing a fill-up to get beer quicker. There may have also been improved tactics built into pouring and serving...I don't know. Big win for the festival.

Looking ahead
As I've said in the past, it's going to be interesting to see what happens to the Oregon Brewers Festival over the course of the next few years. This has been Art Larrance's domain since the beginning. I had a chance to chat with him for 10 minutes or so Friday afternoon. He was relaxed and seemed comfortable with the fact that the event was humming along smoothly around us. I've sometimes seen him racing around like a maniac around that time.

I can't help thinking Larrance, who will turn 70 on his next birthday, is gradually delegating many of the organizational and logistical responsibilities to the folks who have helped make the OBF a huge success over the years. Maybe I'm wrong. Regardless, the future of this event appears to be in good hands and looks bright as far as the eye can see.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Taste of Wednesday at the Oregon Brewers Festival

The Oregon Brewers Festival's first-ever Wednesday opening day is in the books and it went well. It may take casual beer fans a year or two to jump on the Wednesday bandwagon, but there was a pleasant crowd on hand.

John Foyston and Art Larrance
Parade Grand Marshal John Foyston led a large contingent of fans who had brunch at the host brewery, Bridgeport, Wednesday morning. Foyston, who has been writing about beer for the Oregonian for nearly 20 years, opened the festival with a charming story about Chet Atkins' inability to sing. If you're younger than 50, you likely didn't get it...but never mind.

There are some changes this year, some of which I've already mentioned.

Big space between tents and trailers on South side
One of the things you'll notice right away is they've made more room on the South side of the park. The token sales area has been moved back, meaning people lining up for tokens won't block your access to the South trailers. Good call. Tents on that side of the park are smaller than in past years, meaning there is a large open area between the tents and the beer taps. Another good call, and one that may help reduce cluttered lines there during peak times.

Of course, if you're paying attention, you know about the 3 oz pour and the new glass. First, the glass. It's great. You can actually see, smell and taste the beer. The conical shape also minimizes the effect of the 3 oz pour. Because the glass is narrow at the bottom, the smaller pour size appears to be similar to recent years. I thought I would see a lot of people opting for full beers, but that wasn't the case. We'll see what happens when things get nuts on Friday.

Drinking again...from a real glass
I had a list of about 20 beers I hoped to taste on Wednesday. It seems like a lot, but it really isn't when you consider pour size. I have to say my batting average was pretty shitty early on. I typically like fruit beer variations of many beers, but I was disappointed with most of the beers I tasted in that style. Oh well. I moved on to more standard approaches and found some winners.

Collaborator Smoked Helles is terrific. It's mildly smokey and nicely balanced. As you may know, the Collaborator program is sponsored by Widmer Brothers Brewing and the Oregon Brew Crew. This beer won a competition and was then brewed by Widmer. I understand why.

Fewer of these than I expected
The are a grand total of nine IPAs on this year's bill. It was not my goal to seek these beers out. Many, like Ballast Point Brewing's excellent Sculpin IPA, I've already had. But I advise hopheads to make a beeline to Heathen Brewing's tap on the North side. Transgression IPA is a fantastic blend of several hops over the top of a near-perfect backbone. Really fantastic and highly recommended. I was fortunate to spend some time talking to the Heathen brewers.

Almost any beer from Boneyard Beer in Bend is a good bet. That's exactly the case with Bone-A-Fide Pale Ale. If you're interested in a light version of the wildly popular RPM IPA, this is your beer. Boneyard brewers have hit a home run with this very drinkable beer that exudes hop aroma and flavor.

It's that time of year...
Without going into any detail, I also liked Bayern's Kaiser Pils, Occidental's Dortmunder, Upright's Offen Kolsch and Silver Moon's Bone Crusher Imperial Red. Obviously, Rome wasn't built in a day and you can't taste all the beers you want to taste in a day, either. I'll be back Friday for some more tasting and festing. Or is it feasting? Hmmm.

Enjoy the festival...and the great weather.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

What's Up with OBF Pour Sizes, Anyway?

There's a good flap building over the Oregon Brewers Festival going to a 3 oz pour this year. Niki Ganong, aka Suds Sister, wrote about it here. Jeff Alworth wrote about it here. The point is a sample pour will be 3 ounces this year. It had been 4 ounces in recent years.

Almost like high school chemistry
If you think back, beer samples at the OBF have always cost a buck. That was the price at my first festival in 1991 and it's the price this year. Obviously, today's dollar isn't what it was in 1991 or 2001. In the early years, you could get a full beer for two tokens. Later it went to three. More recently, four. But a taste has always been $1. That you could depend on.

You might think sample size has, like cost, been consistent over the years. That's where you would be wrong. Sample size has not been consistent. My collection of old OBF mugs helped me to do a little experiment with taste sizes going back to 1991. The old mugs, a sink and a Pyrex measuring cup were my research tools. No beer was harmed during this project.

In case you're wondering, there was no fudging. Mugs were filled to the sample line and the liquid was poured into the Pyrex cup and measured. Numbers are approximate. I'm not a chemist and I don't have a digital beaker with super accurate tick marks. Here's a list of select taster sizes over the years:
1991...6 oz
1994...6 oz
1996...5 oz
1997...6 oz
2001...5 oz
2002...4 oz
2003...6 oz
2005...4 oz
2007...4 oz
2010...4 oz
2012...4 oz
What you see is what you might expect. Sample size has decreased with the value of the dollar. It stabilized at 4 ounces over the last 10 years or so.  I have no idea what happened in 2003. I suspect the tasting mark on that mug may have been a mistake. By the way, one mug (on the right below), year unknown but likely from the 90s, held 7 ounces at the taste mark! A serious outlyer. Keep in mind the old plastic mugs held 14 ounces when full.

Taste lines have not been created equal
OBF organizers have held the line on sample size since 2005. Yet they see their costs rising every year. Beer that once cost $125 a keg now costs $165, Art Larrance told me. Park rental cost him $5 his first official year in 1988. He just wrote a check for nearly $39,000. He also has to pay for security, insurance, turf replacement, police, portable toilets and more. The festival depends on a couple thousand volunteers every year. These folks may volunteer, but they are compensated for their time with tokens, glasses and shirts...paid for by the festival.

Look, I don't like to the switch to a 3 oz taste any more than the next person. But I give Larrance and company credit holding the line as long as they did. I think they had to do something to address the fact that costs of everything are going up. They chose to reduce the sample size while sticking to the same old price.

There's always a temptation to assume this is all just a big money grab. Larrance and others have done well over the years. So what? Why shouldn't they make some money on this event? Even with the 2013 changes, the OBF is still one of the better festival deals around. Look around. There are plenty of bad deals out there, including the Portland International Beer Festival.

Nonetheless, I believe the move to a 3 oz taste is a mistake. In his piece over on Beervana, Jeff Alworth suggests the 3 oz sample size is a bad idea because it will result in longer lines. Most everyone knows long lines are one of the event's more serious challenges. Jeff argues the 3 oz taste will put people back in line faster, making lines even worse. He may be right.

I actually think the combination of the smaller 12.8 oz glass and the 3 oz taste will lead to more people getting full glasses of beer and potentially shorter lines. Think about it. Full glasses weren't such a hot deal when it was four tokens for a what amounted to 13 or so ounces (in a 14 oz mug). The 4 oz taste was the better deal. The 3 oz taster makes a full glass (12 or so ounces now) for four tokens a good deal. People with full beers won't need to stand in line constantly. The obvious downside is more drunks faster, always a concern.

What would I have done? It's always nice to second-guess someone else's decision. I think they should have moved away from the single token taste. It no longer makes sense. Go back to 1991 levels and sell a 6 oz sample, but for two tokens. A taste of that size is big enough to keep people occupied and out of line for a few minutes.

Given the larger taste, you can go to a smaller glass and eliminate the problematic full glass pour. Some festivals already use the smaller glass, single taste formula. Why not the OBF?

If the one token taste is somehow sacred, simply increase the token price to $2. People might bitch at first, but they'll come around once they realize they're getting a reasonable sample pour. One token for standard beers, two tokens for rare, hard-to-find beers. Makes sense to me, though I know opinions will differ.                                              

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

OBF Adds Wednesday, Loses Mug and Buzz Tent

Portland's longest running and most important beer festival of the year is coming to Waterfront Park next week. You've may have heard of it: the Oregon Brewers Festival. There are a few changes for this year, which I'll get to shortly. It's sure to be another good year.

Three early mugs...plastic is out this year
If you take issue with the notion of the OBF being the most important beer event of the year, you need to understand the history. The original Oregon Brewers Festival in 1988 was the first event of its kind here. It provided craft brewers with an opportunity to show off their beers to a mainstream audience (all ages have always been welcome) in a terrific setting. Countless smaller events now dot the annual calendar, but the OBF is the one that started it all.

Them Changes
Maybe the biggest change for 2013 is the extra day they've added. Yep. Things get underway on Wednesday this year. This change is the result of growing popularity and limited space in the park. If you can't increase the size of your space, you increase the amount of time you're open. Simple stuff. My guess is Wednesday will be a great day to sample beer. It will take a year or two for the masses to catch on. Well, that's what you hope.

No Buzz this year
Another significant change is the shift away from the traditional plastic mug to a glass. I've talked about this before and it's a big deal. The plastic mug was a fixture at the OBF for 25 years. I know. I have a box of them in my basement. Why the change after so many years? Partly it's the festival's desire to be more environmentally friendly. A lot of people will keep the logo glass. For those who don't, glass is more easily recycled than plastic. The other reason is taste. Beer tastes better from a real glass. Plastic can interfere with that process. No more.

The final major change (in my estimation) involves the Buzz Tent, which is out this year. This reality is buried in the press materials and some people will be confused when they arrive at the festival and start looking around. If you don't know, the Buzz Tent is where you typically find special one-off beers. Tastes are more expensive in the Buzz Tent, but the upside is shorter lines and great beers. It was a refuge for me last year when the lines under the tents got crazy. They are apparently working out some logistical issues and hope to bring back the Buzz next year.

The Basics
They expect in the neighborhood of 80,000 attendees from around the world this year. This is the number they've been quoting for several years and it's based on the number of wristbands put on wrists. Of course, some people (like me) claim several wristbands during the event. Yet it seems to attract more and more people every year. I'm mystified that the attendance number hasn't officially gone up. Maybe this is the year.
There are 82 participating breweries pouring 84 beers this year. That's obviously a long way from the first year, when 22 breweries were involved. While this is the Oregon Brewers Festival, breweries from 12 states are involved: California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

They say 30 beer styles are represented and that fruit beer is the most common with 15 taps. This runs counter to tradition, in which IPA has been by far the most common style. Hopheads need not despair. By my reckoning, 16 beers are either straight-up IPAs or some variation thereof. For example, Base Camp's In-Tents IPL and Dunedin's Subtropical IPA are variations on IPA, but neither are accounted for in the IPA category. It's all good.

For what it's worth, I'll post a short list of my own tasting targets next week. I'll follow that up with some notes on what I actually find at the festival. For now, all you need to know is the event runs Wednesday through Sunday in Waterfront Park. There's a lot more info on the event website here, including the hours, beer list, music lineup, food list, etc.

One of the great things about the OBF is that you aren't forced to buy an exorbitantly expensive tasting package to enter the grounds. Entry is free. If you want to drink, you purchase a glass for $7 and tokens for $1 each. Pretty cool. There are a few places around town selling glasses and tokens in advance if you want to save some time (advance prices are the same). Those businesses are listed on the event website.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pdxbeergeeks Celebration will Benefit Local Social Agency

Portland's summer beer calendar is literally packed with events. There's something to do, somewhere to go every day. But not all events are created equal. Many are nothing more than moneymaking ventures, which is fine. Once in a while you can attend something that is more or less altruistic. Look it up.

This Sunday, July 14th, the pdxbeergeeks celebrate two years with a showing of Star Wars Uncut at the Hollywood Theater. Prior to the 3:30 showing of the film, Star Wars characters in authentic garb will mingle with the crowd.

Following the movie, the party moves next door to Atomic Pizza, where beer and food will be available. I'm told kegs from Natian Brewery, Lompoc Brewing, Fort George Brewing, 10 Barrel Brewing and Sasquatch Brewing were handpicked by pdxbeergeeks founder Mike Umphress for the occasion.

I can't really comment the film. The original Star Wars movies were great and Star Wars Uncut is apparently a mash-up of those films. Developer Casey Pugh put a lot of effort into creating this and it sounds a little goofy...but fun. Seeing Chewbacca, Hans Solo, R2D2, Luke Skywalker, etc., in action and out of order has some appeal. Admit it.

The geeks have partnered with the Hollywood Theater, Atomic Pizza and the breweries so that a portion of the event proceeds with be donated to the local social service agency, Outside In. The agency's mission is to help homeless youth and other disaffected folks move toward improved health and self-sufficiency. That's a worthwhile program.

In fact, all of the beer for this event was donated by the sponsor breweries, so a special thanks to them for supporting this event. This means ALL proceeds from beer sales will benefit Outside In. Mike says there will be some great beers available, so get down there and support a good cause.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Buffalo Wild Wings Has High Hopes for Game Changer

Buffalo Wild Wings isn't on my personal list of favorite beer stops. The places have a frenetic character I find mildly distracting. This is largely a generational issue, I think. Many of my younger friends are big fans of these places...more than 900 of them across the country. Shazam!

The Minneapolis-based company recently announced a deal whereby Redhook Brewery (part of the Portland-based Craft Brew Alliance, if you aren't aware) will produce a beer specifically designed for the BWW experience. The beer, which will be officially rolled out next week and is already on tap at some locations, is called Game Changer.

To understand the beer, you must first understand Buffalo Wild Wings. They bill themselves as being about beer, sports and wings. The order depends on the time of day, week and year, I suspect. They nearly always have sports on multiple big screens at BWW. These places are gathering points for sports fans who like to enjoy a beer and some food while viewing a game or games.

Lloyd District BWW
Game Changer is designed to maximize that experience by allowing patrons to drink several pints without losing touch with their faculties. The beer clocks in at 4.6% ABV and is said to be light amber in color. I suspect it doesn't have an elaborate flavor profile, but I'm sure it is an improvement on standard macro sludge. I'll check it out soon and update this post.

By the way, Game Changer is the kind of beer the late Don Younger would love. Don was not a fan of big beers because he wanted patrons to be able to drink more than one pint in his pubs. His Lompoc partner, Jerry Fechter, delights in telling the beer media that Don would hate a particular beer due to its high ABV. I always get a kick out of Jerry's recollections and stories. I digress.

More than 30 tap handles
I can't say what Don Younger thought of Buffalo Wild Wings. He surely appreciated the fact that they offer a decent selection of craft beers. The Lloyd District BWW has more than 30 tap handles and the majority are dedicated to craft brands. These are mostly mainstream beers from established breweries, as opposed to the more eccentric brews you'll find at places that specialize in new-fangled beers.

Buffalo Wild Wings has made a commitment to improving its craft beer selection by increasing the number of taps at most locations. It makes sense given the growth of craft beer. They will put a substantial effort into promoting Game Changer, hoping to up-sell customers who drink light beer. In other words, they are targeting folks who are typically content to sip on Coors Light or Bud Light while they watch games. Not a bad strategy if they can pull it off.

Word is that Game Changer will not be exclusive to Buffalo Wild Wings. It may also find its way into Redhook's other sales channels. Redhook's connection to the Anheuser-Busch distribution network means Game Changer might wind up on store shelves around the country someday. That likely hinges on how successful the beer is with BWW patrons.

Of course, the Anheuser-Busch connection creates a bit of irony. Because AB owns a 32 percent stake in the Craft Brew Alliance (Redhook's parent), the Brewers Association says Redhook is not a craft brewery...which means Game Changer isn't technically a craft beer. This is largely semantics, but still ironic given BWW's effort to expand its craft beer presence.

Game Changer is just what they say it is. I stopped by for a pint the other evening and found it to be a pleasant beer. It's reminiscent of Widmer's Columbia Common ale, which was a seasonal over the winter, though Game Changer definitely has a lower hop profile. This is a great beer for sports fans who want to enjoy a few beers with some flavor while they watch their favorite event at Buffalo Wild Wings. Also a great lunch beer when you need to return to the office intact.

Game Changer in the flesh (glass)
All that said, Game Changer definitely isn't going to satisfy the pallets of folks who are looking for a feisty IPA or meaty red. This is an easy drinking beer you can drink a few of and not have to worry about getting home. It functions well in that role. Redhook did a nice job with this beer. However, discriminating beer fans may want more.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Oregon Craft Beer Month: Cheers to Don Younger

July is Oregon Craft Beer month. There's plenty going on every month of the year in Oregon, but July is special. We use it to salute our thriving beer culture. It's perfectly fitting that Don Younger's birthday is in July. Don, who passed away in late 2011, would have been 72 on July 11. His legacy lives on in a big way in these parts.

I've mentioned that I never formally met Don. I saw him in action many times and just never got acquainted. But I've heard a ton or stories in connection with the book on Portland's beer history I'm finishing up. Fun stuff.

Most everyone remembers Younger when they think of the Horse Brass Pub. Don bought the place during a day (and night) of heavy drinking in 1976. He and his brother, Bill, ran it as an authentic British-style pub. The theme stuck.

The Horse Brass eventually became a haven for craft brewers and beer long before either had any standing in this town. Just ask around. Ask Kurt and Rob Widmer. Ask Karl Ockert or Dick or Nancy Ponzi. Ask Brian or Mike McMenamin. Ask Art Larrance or Fred Bowman. Don was an early craft beer convert. Brewers would meet at the Horse Brass to conduct tastings and share ideas. It was a big deal.

A lot of people probably have no idea where the idea for Oregon Craft Beer Month came from. Don Younger played a leading role. The idea was born years ago when he was talking to Lisa Morrison and others about Oregon breweries who were left out of the Oregon Brewers Festival. They came up with the idea of a Fringe Fest featuring those breweries. That became Oregon Beer Week the following year and eventually Oregon Craft Beer Month, now run by the Oregon Brewers Guild.

"Don went viral before anyone knew what it meant," says John Foyston, longtime Oregonian beer guru.  "He started Fringe Fest, Oregon Beer Week and Oregon Craft Beer Month. People somehow assume these ideas have always been out there...like craft beer. But that's not the case. Someone had to think these things up and Don was the guy who played a huge role in that."

"Don was an early supporter of craft brewers and good beer in general," recalls Alan Sprints, founder of Hair of the Dog Brewing. "Don gave me a permanent handle at his pub to pour my beer when no one else would."

In 1999, Younger partnered with Jerry Fechter of Lompoc Brewing, an arrangement that lasted until Younger's death. "I didn't know how influential Don was until I started talking to him," Fechter recalls. "He knew everyone and had been involved from the start. He liked everybody. If he didn't like you, he wouldn't tell you or let you know it."

Don's influence transcended Portland and Oregon. He became well-known around the country. There are some great stories of his exploits while on the road. But he remained down to earth. He hired people who were down on their luck and they stayed loyal for years. He loaned money to people who wanted to start a business, telling them to pay him back when they could.

It's hard to say what Portland's beer landscape would look like today without Younger's influence. We would certainly have a lot of good beer. Would we have what we have? Almost certainly not.

So mark July 11 on you calendar...and raise a toast to Don Younger. And if you happen to miss the 11th, almost any day or days in July will do. Because Oregon Craft Beer Month is a big part of Don Younger's legacy.

Cheers, Don. We wish you were here.