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Saturday, July 28, 2018

After the Thrill is Gone: OBF 2018

Once upon a time, the Oregon Brewers Festival got top billing on my annual calendar. I tracked the dates carefully and would enter them way in advance to make sure nothing got in the way. My first OBF was in 1991 and I've missed only one since, in 1992.

The excitement has admittedly worn off a bit in recent years, for me and others. I think there are a number of reasons for that, and I'll get to some of them here. Anyway, I attended this year's event Thursday afternoon, with a somewhat ambivalent attitude.

I arrived fashionably late. There was no wingperson to meet or group to hang out with this year. So no rush. Arriving a little late allowed me to miss the hullabaloo that accompanies the parade and awkward opening ceremonies, both of which I've experienced more often than I care to think about.

Between the lines
Getting into the park was quick and easy. One of the advantages of declining attendance is the long lines of past years are largely gone. It may also be that organizers have streamlined the entry process. Security staff check your ID and give you a wristband. Done.

The switch to a four-day event left me wondering what kind of crowd to expect. It was fairly light, even by late afternoon, when it would have been wildly crowded in past years. A few of the most popular beers had lines, but there was no line or only a short line for many.

One of the things I always look for is a long beer line caused by ineffective trailer management. You know how it works. You see one person serving a long line while nearby pourers stand idly next to swill that isn't moving. Mesmerizing. I saw it in action on Thursday for one of the popular beers. Thankfully, there were two people pouring by the time I reached the front of the line.

I didn't hear any complaining, but I'm sure some people bemoaned the absent Specialty Tent, a fixture for a number of years under different names. True to what Art Larrance told me two weeks ago, the area that would have been occupied by the Specialty Tent was filled with tables. It's a nicely shaded area where people can enjoy beer and conversation. Good call.

Heat was certainly an issue. As is generally the case, it was less comfortable under the tents than in areas shaded by trees. Watching the fest pass by at one point on the south side, I couldn't help but notice a dust plume hovering over the lingering crowd. There's not much grass in the park this year, which means the festival is built on dry sand. That isn't unusual, but it's not the best.

One thing I don't understand is how this event gets away with not making water readily available. Sure, there are mug rinsing stations scattered around. That water is drinkable, I guess. You can bring water in, which I did. Otherwise, you're stuck buying bottled water at $2 a pop (that's the price I saw). It seems to me they ought to do a better job with water.

The App
As mentioned in my preview piece, there was no printed program this year. Knowing that, I installed the OBF app on my phone several days ahead of the event. I played around with it a bit to make sure I vaguely knew how it worked. Check.

Once on festival grounds, I opened the app. I had marked a list of beers I intended to try. When I selected a beer, I found information about it and could see which trailer it was on. After I tasted the beer, I could make some notes in the app. Another benefit was alerts on beers that were tapped out and special activities.

I saw some grumbling about the app on social media and within the app. It isn't perfect. But it provided exactly what I hoped: info about the beers, their location and a way to easily enter notes without a program and pen. No, my phone battery (not a new phone) didn't go dead. This was a first-gen app that will surely get better. Good first stab, I think.

The Beers
During the run-up to the event, one of the organizers said they were showcasing "the beers of the world," or some such gibberish. Stylistically, maybe, because a lot of styles are represented. But these are almost exclusively local or Northwest interpretations. More than 60 of the 80 beers poured this year came from Oregon and Washington. Check the list.

With so many beers pouring, there were certainly some good ones to go with the fluff. My favorite may have been Old Town's Green Tea Lemonade, which incorporates a blend of green tea and lemon. It was a perfect fit for the hot day, though I have to say beers blended with tea are typically not my cup of tea (hehe).

Upright's Berliner Weisse was brilliant, naturally. I also liked pFriem's Mango Milkshake IPA, a hazy hop bomb, and Fort George's It Takes Two to Mango, another hazy hop bomb reminiscent of the current 3-Way IPA. There were lines for these and other hazies on Thursday. The pFriem blew Thursday through Sunday, a clear crowd favorite, apparently.

Listing beers that didn't impress is always a tricky. Everyone has an opinion. One of the beers a lot of people liked was Belching Beaver's Orange Vanilla Milkshake IPA. I thought it was sweet, cloying and tasted of a popsicle stick. Easily the worst beer I tasted was Widmer's Lemonic Possession. It had an unpleasant aroma and the flavor was no better. Something went very wrong, clearly.

What Now?
We obviously don't yet know what total OBF attendance will be this year. Those numbers will be announced in coming weeks. Based on what I saw Thursday, what I've heard from friends and what the heat did to weekend numbers, I won't be surprised to learn that overall attendance declined again this year. They were hoping for 70,000. Did they get 60,000?

During the 28 years I've been attending the Oregon Brewers Festival, it never occurred to me that the event might at some point become obsolete. This is, after all, an event that helped push the evolution of craft beer in Oregon and provided a loose template for the countless festivals that currently crowd the annual calendar.

But the landscape has changed dramatically. The OBF approach, which appealed to older fans who don't get out as much as they once did, doesn't seem to resonate with the younger crowd that currently drives the craft beer culture in this city. As I've said here before, one might easily argue that the Oregon Brewers Festival is a victim of its own success.

The OBF's open-ended mission has always been to promote craft beer in Portland and Oregon. That mission has been largely accomplished. Finding great craft beer in this city and state is easier than ever. In fact, there's so much good beer around that giant events like OBF have become less important to those who seek those beers and experiences.

Is there a viable path forward? My guess is this event needs to be significantly reimagined. It may need to get smaller, become more intimate and specialized, the opposite of the Oktoberfest-style event it has always been. Current organizers have been making relatively small changes in an effort to stay relevant. I fear they will have to do much more. Stay tuned.

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