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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

In Shark Infested Waters, the Holiday Ale Fest Thrives

The 23rd Annual Holiday Ale Festival opened for business today in Pioneer Courthouse Square and runs through Sunday. Hardcore fans. as well as clueless newbies, will flock to the festival in droves. At a time when many large beer events are floundering, the HAF is thriving.

There are reasons for everything, of course. In one sense, you could argue that the Holiday Fest got lucky, that it has benefitted by way of timing, location and the evolving and fenetic interest in rare, experimental beers. You could argue that.

But it's a lot tougher to get lucky than it once was. Craft beer events used to draw crowds no matter how poorly they were run, how lousy their location or how mediocre their tap lists. Those days over. The competition for festival patrons is fierce and you have to offer value to reel them in.

What would become the Holiday Ale Festival began as the Winter Ale Festival, an offshoot of the Oregon Brewers Festival. Organizers, including OBF director, Art Larrance, discontinued the event after two years. After a year off, it returned as the Holiday Ale Festival. The historical arc of the event is nicely outlined in a recent post on the New School blog. Highly worthwhile read.

I first attended the event when it was known as the Winter Ale Festival. As noted in Ezra's article, the set up was quaint compared to today. The tents were small and, although it isn't mentioned in the article, made of fabric. As such, you couldn't view the surrounding sights while sipping beer, as is the case today. The beer list was small.

The most significant changes, it seems to me, have occurred since Preston Weesner took over in 2002. I know Weesner from my time working as a volunteer at OBF dating to the 90s. He became a common fixture in the beer fest culture here, involved in a number of area festivals. Those experiences, I suspect, helped shape his vision of the Holiday Fest, which he owns and directs.

Of the decision's Weesner has made (or not made), probably the most important one was staying the course in Pioneer Courthouse Square. He could have moved the event to a larger and less costly venue at any time. He refused to take the bait. Whether by luck, good sense or osmosis, he realized a large part of the event's appeal is its location.

I don't know when the clear plastic tents were introduced, but that was a game-changer. In the early days, it was a little claustrophobic and musty under the tents. The clear tents opened up the world outside the festival, including stunning views of the holiday tree and the surrounding city skyline. The change in ambiance was significant.

The downside of keeping the event downtown was and is the cost. It's an extremely expensive place to host a beer festival due to the setup required for the unwieldy shape of the venue, challenges connected with unloading kegs and other essentials, as well as costs involved in arranging security and adhering to city and OLCC regulations.

With event costs high, ticket prices have escalated almost yearly. The base price this year is $40. Weesner has attempted to deflect gripes about rising prices by curating a list of extremely rare, typically experimental beers. For the most part, you won't find these beers outside this event, which seems to provide value for geeks and novices alike.

One of Weesner's revelations was that the HAF had become so popular that it did not need significant promotion. With that in mind, he stopped offering event passes to bloggers and other beer-centric media several years ago. That community was stunned and has mostly maintained radio silence since. But it hasn't mattered. The event hasn't missed a beat, just as Weesner suspected.

The result of the various moves (and non-moves) is a festival that keeps churning along smoothly, while others struggle in an increasingly competitive market. My guess is the HAF appeals to a wide swath of patrons interested in a boutique beer event in a picturesque setting during what is arguably our most festive time of year. This event pummels each of those targets.

Still, I'm not suggesting you shell out $40 for what I consider to be a stingy drinking package. I haven't attended for several years and have no plans to attend this year. Despite its attributes, I think the HAF stopped being a good value a while ago. The ambiance is terrific, but the beers tend to be more miss than hit for the price, which continues to spike upward.

Don't let my opinion stop you from attending if you are so inclined. I'm admittedly out of step with many of my peers, most of whom look forward to the Holiday Festival every year. That's fine. It wouldn't be any fun if we all had the same views on these things.

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