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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

OBF to Feature Specialty Tent, Larger Sample Pour

The Oregon Brewers Festival, our longest running and biggest beer party, returns to Tom McCall Waterfront Park next week. Roughly 80,000 expected attendees will be treated to some new and old wrinkles at the 30th annual event, which runs July 26-30.

They'll pour beer from 91 independent craft breweries this year. That's up from 88 in 2016. Progress, I suppose. Yeah, the focus on "independent" means the baby Buds are locked out, so you won't see anything from 10 Barrel, Elysian, Goose Island, etc. Poor pumpkins.

Styles are all over the place. The media materials claim more than two dozen styles will be represented at the event. I can't vouch for the accuracy of that claim. But we aren't talking about an IPA-dominated fest this year. There are plenty of choices. The main festival list is here.

 A new twist this year is the so-called Specialty Tent, where they will feature more than 90 rare and experimental beers. This used to be called the Buzz Tent. Beers are going to cost more here, double or triple tokens, and quality is going to be hit and miss. Trust me on that point.

The Specialty Tent is replacing the International Tent, which organizers launched three years ago. I spent time in that tent in each of the last three years, with mixed results. The cost of bringing the beers and brewers in for the event apparently got to be too much.

"We'll bring the international beers back when we can figure out how to get them here fresher and more economically," Art Larrance told me. "The combined cost of the beer and shipping was difficult to recoup through sales. The cost became unmanageable."

Another change this year is the mug. No, they aren't going back to glass. This year's plastic mug (I haven't seen the real thing or a photo) apparently holds 14 ounces. Recent mugs evidently held 12 ounces. The larger size means a full mug of beer will set you back five tokens this year. It had been four tokens for quite a while.

"Due to the larger mug and increased keg prices, we feel justified in the first price increase in many, many years," Larrance said. "There's still no cost to attend the festival and no minimum purchase package, such as we see with many events."

There's a bigger surprise lurking.

Several years ago, the OBF went to a 3 oz sample. Yeah, that mark on your glass or mug has been 3 ounces since 2013, in case you didn't know. Larrance tells me this year's sample size is 4 ounces. What? And it will still cost a single token! Huh? If you think that's a surprise, you aren't alone.


Forget the mug price. Full pours aren't that common at this event. Samples are the rage. But every time they pour a sample this year, it'll be an ounce more than it's been in recent years. And they're worried about increasing keg prices? Strange, eh?

One thing the 4 ounce sample will do, assuming it's legit, is encourage attendees to get that size. It's too good a deal to pass up. Well, too good until the evening brofest lines reach the point where a full beer is required. Then you're going to suck it up and plop down five tokens. Admit it.

If you're wondering where OBF pours have been over the years, I did some research using my mug collection back in 2013, when they first went to the 3 oz sample. If you're so inclined, the link to that story is here.

It's almost hard to fathom, but the OBF isn't just about beer. The event also features live music, food vendors, craft booths, homebrew demonstrations and souvenir sales. It has evolved into a sort of mini-trade show surrounded by beer. Not a horrible idea.

When the first Oregon Brewers Festival materialized in 1988, there was nothing like it in the country. Organizers wanted a way to showcase Oregon craft beer, which was in its infancy, in a pleasant, outdoor setting. The idea caught on and evolved into something really no one anticipated.

Looking ahead to next week, I see a calendar full of smaller beer events around town. These events ride the wave of craft beer's popularity, a wave the OBF was instrumental in creating. They now compete with the OBF for patrons. If you don't see the irony, it might be time to stop drinking.

There's a ton of information on the event site here. Definitely give it a look before you head to the park. It looks like the weather is going to cooperate nicely. I'll return to this space next Thursday or Friday with a report on the actual event. Happy festing! 🍻

Note: This post has been edited to reflect what Chris says in the comments below. The smallest pour the OBF has offered is 3 ounces, which has been the case since 2013. I incorrectly said it was a 2 oz pour in recent years. I trusted my memory when I should have looked at my own research. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Challenge of Writing About Bad Beer

Is it the job of beer writers to expose bad beer? That question was posed the other day on the Beervana blog. It's a fair question. Because many who write about beer are hesitant to report on what's bad or not very good. Is that okay?

It's not hard to understand why many writers don't like to criticize. We tend to become immersed in the industry. In many cases, we know the brewers, the owners, the marketing folks. It's tougher to beat up a beer when you know and like the people who made it. Simple human nature.

There's more. A lot of writers are reluctant to report on bad beer because they fear doing so will cut their access to the few perks we get for this work...occasional beer mail and complementary event access. It's unfortunate, but positive coverage is generally expected. Or you may wind up blacklisted.

Don't believe it? Please. Several years ago I made negative comments about a beer on social media. Almost immediately I was harangued for those comments by a brewery rep, even though what I said was common knowledge in the beer media community. My mistake? Mentioning it publicly.

Shortly thereafter, lines of communication with that brewery, as well as sporadic beer mail, stopped. And that's how things have remained in the years since. When they hold an event, the only way I get invited is if an unknowing PR person floats me an invitation. That has actually happened once or twice...comical.

Another reason some are reluctant to expose bad beer is they double as promoters or hope to work in the industry. They don't want to rock the boat. Then there are the writers who provide apparently objective coverage of breweries, beers and events they have a financial interest in. Have they crossed an ethical line? I think so. Opinions differ.

The reality is, there are hoards of industry shills who specialize in providing glowing coverage of beers, breweries, events, etc. Some do it for money, some do it for pleasure. For the most part, I know who these people are and I know what to expect from them. But the average consumer mostly doesn't know, which is a problem.

My view is that beer writers have a responsibility to provide objective coverage of the good, the bad and the ugly. That means occasionally exposing beers that are obviously flawed or poorly executed. Believe me, there's plenty of bad beer out there. I've had beer bar buyers quietly tell me how much sketchy beer they taste on the road to selecting what to buy and pour.

Is objectivity tougher in our current climate? I think it is, in part due to the breakdown of style guidelines. It's easy enough to identify a flawed pilsner or pale ale. It gets tougher when you're evaluating a beer that's a mix of styles and flavors. That's where personal preference tends to enter the fray and objective coverage shouldn't be driven by that.

Beer writers who aren't willing to report on the good, the bad and the not very good aren't very objective. That can mean a lot of things. But it almost certainly suggests a connection (or desired connection) to the industry that is a bit too cozy. 🍻

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Alice Waters' Link to Independent Craft Brewers

It's been interesting to see and hear the chatter surrounding the Independent Craft Brewer Seal the Brewers Association recently released. Naturally, the best response of all came from Anheuser-Busch and its butt-hurt High End. Bunch of crybabies.

These charlatans want fans to believe AB and the High End are no threat to independent brewers, that they're basically operating the same way. The shoddy video they put together had High End brewers looking like robots reading from a hastily prepared, poorly imagined script.

The goal of that subterfuge is to confuse what craft beer is and where it came from. AB would like that history rewritten or simply forgotten. In fact, a great many modern craft beer fans have no idea how the movement came to be. Which makes Anheuser Busch's job a whole lot easier.

I was forced to consider that question when I was wrapping up Portland Beer in 2013.  You're stuck making an effort to track the roots of what happened here if you're writing that history. I absorbed a lot of opinions, written and verbal, while formulating conclusions.

It's a complex story with many threads. For me, the most persuasive one is that craft beer is a descendant of a paradigm shift in tastes that emerged as part of the 1960's counterculture. A small group of Americans rejected over-commercialized, tasteless food and instead sought locally produced foods with flavor and character. The movement would eventually spread from food to wine, beer, coffee and more. And it is still evolving.

As I say in the book, a strong argument can be made that the center of that movement was the San Francisco Bay Area. Besides being a hotbed of activism during the Sixties era, the Bay Area is also geographically situated in the middle of rich agriculture. The shift in tastes and demands helped convert some of that agriculture from large commercial farms to smaller artisan producers.

One of the key visionaries in the movement was (and is) Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971. Her original idea was that the restaurant would serve as a place where she could entertain friends with similar values. The Chez Panisse mantra was to offer high quality, locally sourced ingredients on its menu. Waters and her team developed a network of local farmers and artisans from which to acquire those ingredients for the restaurant.


At the center of Waters' value set was a complete rejection of large scale, commercialized food production. She had come to realize, at least partially while studying in France, that freshly prepared local ingredients were far richer in character and flavor than most of what she had known in the United States. It was that concept she brought to Chez Panisse and her future efforts promoting organic food production.

The outlines of the movement Waters was instrumental in starting were embraced on the west coast. Seattle and Portland eventually became bastions of a culinary renaissance, which has spread widely in more recent times. As noted above, the movement includes food, wine, coffee and, yes, beer. Homebrewing, from which many early commercial craft brewers came, was an offshoot of what Waters and others started.

When you think back to the people who launched the craft beer movement, most had two guiding principles: First, they rejected the tasteless, mass produced swill that was being sloughed off on consumers by big beer; second, they intended to use quality ingredients and artisan techniques to create beers with flavor and character. Those basic values have been carried forward.

So it's amusing to hear the High End brewers yabber on about quality and how they're doing exactly the same thing independent craft brewers are doing. Not so. They're now part of an organization whose values are completely at odds with those of independent brewers. Big beer bought these breweries to leverage the brands, not because they believe in the underlying values.

Alice Waters, Chez Panisse and independent craft brewers have it right. Big beer and the High End have it oh-so wrong. Don't listen to the crybabies.