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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Changes Mostly for the Best at OBF

Since my first Oregon Brewers Festival in 1991, I've missed only one...I was out of town visiting my mom in 1992. I worked the event as a volunteer for many of those years, but stopped when I started writing this blog. I've seen a lot of things at OBF, including the recent decline in attendance.

The changes they've implemented this year are by far the most significant I've seen in the 28 years I've been going. My impression is that many of the changes are going over well with festival patrons. Others maybe not so much.

Wednesday > Sunday
Bringing back Wednesday, after dropping it last year, has to be considered a big success. There were a lot of folks in the park today and not just people who work in the industry or the bozos who cover it. It looked to me like there were a lot of mainstream beer fans hanging out, drinking, chatting and staring at their phones. Sunday would have been dead by comparison. Organizers did a good job getting word out.

The Venue
The big change to the venue is, of course, switching the south beer trailers to the river side of the park, opening up the large shaded area for seating. That seemed to work well. Organizers set up a huge number of sitting and standing tables in the shaded area. And patrons were taking full advantage of it.

I have to say it was a little odd seeing the large walking path on the south side in space where there were tents in prior years. They have some small tents protecting the beer taps from direct sun, but they're quite small. They could have put larger tents there, given the tendency of people to cluster close to the taps. I suppose not putting larger tents there provided some incentive for folks to vacate the area and find shade. Hmmm. Good work.

The Music
For the first time ever, apparently, there is no live music at the festival. Instead, DJs and satellite speakers are spread around. The stated reason is that patrons could only enjoy the music if they were in the stage area. True enough. But I never heard people complain about it. You were either into the music of you didn't particularly care.

This switch to DJs makes no sense to me. The music was a mix of styles and the sound was often muddled in the common areas. The former stage area is completely wasted, with a small DJ hut and no shade or seating. WTF? I found the sound particularly annoying under the tent at the north end where it interfered with conversations. I hope they bring back live music next year. My advice for now: Bring headphones (and your own playlist) or bring earplugs.

Fun Times
Making the event more fun and user-friendly was a big part of this year's plan. They added a gaming area at the south end, a Meet the Brewer tent and a Brewer Dunk Tank. I didn't notice at the time because I wasn't really paying attention, but the Dunk Tank and the Meet the Brewer tent are positioned in strategic proximity to one another. "Great to meet you, mister soaked brewer."

The most important addition, to me, is the gaming area. They have more than a few cornhold lanes set up and there were a bunch of people playing. Hey, if Millennials want games, they shall have games. This is the kind of thing that adds a lot to the casual fun of an event. They'll certainly want to bring this back in future years, maybe even expand it.

Odds and Enz
I mentioned the return of the printed program and the end of the mobile app that some of us used last year. There were printed programs all over the place and I saw people looking at them intently. That was fine. I have no idea how many folks used the Untappd app organizers touted as an alternative to the mobile app. There were countless people staring at their phones, but you don't want to pry about what they've looking at. Might be too much info. Not cool.

That tasting glass is the same form factor as last year, The taste line is at 3 oz and pourers were painfully careful not the exceed it. Maybe a sharper outfit would have helped. On returning home, I checked the actual capacity of the glass, billed at 12 ounces by organizers. The glass overflowed at less than 12 ounces of water, which obviously doesn't include any head/foam. A full glass of beer is probably 10-11 ounces, given the foam. That means a full pour for 4 tokens is a slightly worse deal than a taste for 1 token...unless the beer lines get long and you want to save time.

The Beer
As noted in my previous post, I think the shift to Oregon-only beers is a good change...and long overdue. There was a time when they needed out-of-state beers to fill the lineup. That's not been the case for many years and there are now plenty of Oregon breweries that want to be part of this event. And festival patrons want them here.

A possible downside to the change is that some of the breweries at this year's event are new and small, and maybe lack the expertise of established places. One of my geek friends offered up that the beer quality is a little off due to the altered reality. I don't know. I tasted around 30 beers and found more winners than losers. Of course, it was my list.

You might check the New School site for a list of the best beers. Ezra and Michael were determined to sample every beer before the end of the day and their intel should be posted tonight or early tomorrow. I did my own tasting and didn't taste close to all the beers. Plus, I trust these guys...sorta.

Some of my favorites were Upright (Flora Fantasia), Migration (Big Hazy Kane), Ecliptic (Key Lime Gose), Ordnance (Lite-Hearted Lager with Lime) and pFriem (Landbier). The worst beer I tasted, by far, was Full Sail's Malted Milkshake IPA.  Something went wrong there.

To Go
I suppose you can always find something to bitch about with an event like this. Maybe it's the glass or the venue or the program or the beer. Fine. But I think the changes they've made this year are mostly for the better. Give it a shot.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

OBF Shifts Gears, Hopes to Regain Momentum

The Oregon Brewers Festival celebrates 31 years and 32 actual events this year. For most of its history, the festival was highly regarded and something people planned for. If you were headed out of town in July, you'd make sure your dates didn't conflict with OBF.

That logic has become somewhat threadbare in recent times. There are a lot of reasons. One is the success of the festival, which led to overcrowding and disenchanted attendees. Declining interest is also the result of an exploding festival scene, which occurred in good part because OBF provided the blueprint for how such an event should work.

Because attendance has been declining for several years, organizers have been trying to figure out how to regain some of the lost luster. They've tried bringing in foreign brewers and beers. They added a limited wine selection to the menu. Last year, they dropped Wednesday, reducing the festival to four days. It had been five for many years. The ideas mostly hit with a collective thud.

They're back in action this week, making some fairly substantial changes in an effort to rebuild credibility and excitement for the event.

The Beers
For the first time in history, they will pour only Oregon beers at the festival. You won't be seeing beers from San Diego, Florida or Colorado. I honestly thought the early renditions of OBF featured only Oregon beers. Not so. Take a closer look at the 1988 poster. They served beers from around the Northwest, California and beyond that first year.

The move to Oregon-only is predictable. People who frequent festivals expect it. They also expect to see new breweries and beers not seen in stores or pubs. That expectation has been programmed by smaller festivals that do just that. The beer changes needed to happen. This is the Oregon Brewers Festival, so showcasing unique Oregon beers ought to be the montra  A quick look at the list suggests they've done a pretty decent job of mixing new beers and breweries.

The Program
Some will recall that the printed program was dropped last year. They were evidently not being picked up by patrons (who don't read, anyway) and thousands wound up being recycled or trashed. Organizers launched a smartphone app and encouraged people to use it. They've flip flopped this year. A printed program will be available for free. The app is history.

I'm disappointed to see the app go away, but there are reasons. It turns out that people who had a good experience with the app were iPhone users who downloaded it prior to arriving at the festival (my scenario). The Android version of the app was apparently not finished by the developer. People who tried to download the app at Waterfront Park had problems because bandwidth there is limited due to everyone being on their damn phone. Go figure.

Those who want to see what others are saying about the beers will have an option in the form of a Verified Venue on Untappd. That seems like a reasonable alternative, though I think Untappd is largely a tool for geeks. If you intend to use Untappd and you don't already have it on your phone, best get it before you arrive at the park. Otherwise, your experience is likely to be poor.

The Brunch
The popular Brewers Brunch that kicks off the festival moves to Ecliptic Brewing this year. Brunches have historically been held reasonably close to Waterfront Park. But Ecliptic is a good distance away. That becomes an issue for the Oregon Brewers Parade, which departs Ecliptic following the brunch at 11 a.m. and hoofs it to the Waterfront. Anyone can walk in the parade, by the way. That will be interesting. Pack your walking shoes if you're parading.

As noted above, they reduced the event to four days by dropping Wednesday last year. That was kind of goofy and not very well-received. Sunday has had abysmal attendance for years. If you're going to drop a day, that's the one that made sense. Like magic, Sunday is gone this year. The festival runs Wednesday through Saturday. Smart move.

Odds and Ends
A creeping challenge for OBF has been to provide an experience comparable to what smaller events do. It's tough for a large event to do that. Indeed, changing the ambiance at OBF is a bit like turning an aircraft carrier around...slow and awkward. But they're attempting to enhance this year's experience in a variety of ways, some of which may pan out.

It looks like the weather will cooperate, with temperatures in the 80s. Shade will be at a premium, as it is most years. The best spot in the park on hot days has always been the shaded area at the south end, an area typically occupied by beer trailers. Not this year. The trailers will move toward the river, leaving the shade for mingling and drinking. See the festival map for a visual.

Stuff they're doing to bump up the fun-factor includes a Meet the Brewer Tent, a Brewer Dunk Tank and games...Millennials love games. Live music, a staple of the event since the start, is gone, surprisingly. The gripe was that the music could only be enjoyed in the stage area. To address that, they'll have a DJ with satellite speakers, meaning music will be playing around the grounds. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. I suppose it depends on the music and the volume.

My view is that the Oregon Brewers Festival is a pretty good value. They've done a decent job of holding the line on cost, despite rising prices for everything. It costs nothing to enter the venue. If you want to drink beer, you buy a mug and tokens. Although they are promoting a $20 package that includes a mug and 10 tokens, they aren't requiring attendees to purchase that package. You're free to buy a mug and however many tokens you wish. Mugs and tokens are also available in advance at various locations.

As with all recent OBFs, a 3 oz taste of beer sets you back a token. A full glass, reportedly 12 ounces, is four tokens. In the past, a taste was typically a slightly better deal than a full glass, encouraging tastes. But the cost structure this year suggests a full pour is an equal deal. The impact of this change will likely be more full mugs floating around because the incentive to get tastes is gone. I doubt that was the intent, but it appears to be the reality.

To Go or Not to Go
I have friends who proudly announce that they've never been to OBF and have no plans to attend. A good number of these folks are migrants who moved to Portland from other parts of the country in recent years. These same folks dependably attend some of the smaller festivals happening around town on any given weekend. They devalue OBF largely on account of its size and age.

My problem, I guess, is I remember when OBF was the only show in town. I know the impact the event has had in terms of supporting the growth of craft beer. I know it isn't as relevant as it once was. But it's still the granddaddy of them all and I will be there.

Visit the event website for a rundown of festival dates, times, etc.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Not Everything is About the Beer

You take your chances and you take your lumps. It's an old adage and one that has nothing to do with beer or alcohol, except maybe as it applies to overconsumption. In my context, it applies to making certain choices that have now more or less caught up with me.

Younger knees (with Burleson)
I'll have my left knee replaced before the end of the year. Because choices do have consequences. I'll probably get a partial replacement. They'll insert implants on the medial (inside) of my knee. The rest of the knee is apparently okay, meaning I'm not in line for the somewhat more invasive full knee replacement. Small favors.

How did I get here? This isn't the result of a specific injury or accident. I got here because I consciously chose to abuse my body over the course of some 40 years, give or take. Beer was only indirectly involved, icing on the cake.

I started down the road of abuse while in high school, where I chose to play football for four years. We didn't have many big kids in Clarkston, but I was certainly undersized. I never suffered a serious injury and had only a few concussions. That I know of.

Like most kids, I didn't know what I was doing in high school. Besides football, I was involved in a lot of recreational sports...basketball, baseball, golf, snow and water skiing. But I didn't know what it meant to be physically active as a high school graduate. No clue, really.

At some point during my first year of college, I got hooked on tennis. Blame Jimmy Connors, if you want. I had played in junior high, got bored, didn't try very hard, quit. The American tennis boom of early 1970s got me interested again and I got serious about playing regularly.

Honestly, I wasn't very good during those years. I could win intramural matches, but wasn't nearly good enough to be part of the team at Washington State. I kept working at it. Not long after I graduated, I was competing and occasionally winning in tournaments.

After several years of playing tennis and working in the record biz, I entered graduate school. At that point, I was good enough to beat some players on the WSU team. Not that it mattered; I had no eligibility and wasn't in school for tennis. I was getting trained so I could one day write about beer.

Looking back, I doubt tennis caused significant damage to my knees. Young knees, which mine were at the time, are well lubricated. Normal wear and tear, nothing more. But tennis was hard on my shoulder and shoulder problems caused me to consider other options.

I eventually switched to racquetball. It seemed reasonable. Less shoulder stress. Plus, Pullman's climate isn't friendly to outdoor tennis for much of the year and the indoor facilities were lousy at the time. Racquetball was popular enough that it was easy to find a decent game. Courts were always available.

The transition to racquetball was not smooth. I had the basic skills needed, but my swing was all wrong (too stiff) and my footwork (from tennis) was a mess. I also didn't understand the game. It took several years to learn the nuances across a wide spectrum of situations.

Early serving form (not good)

When I left Pullman for Portland in 1989, I wasn't a very good player. But I kept at it, finding a club where I could get regular games. I made a lot of friends. Pretty soon I was good enough to compete at the A+ level and win more than I lost. I played tournaments in Oregon for 20 years.

Most of that probably wasn't a terrible idea. There are definite health benefits to playing a game that causes you to exert and sweat. But it's easy to fool yourself into thinking the benefits outweigh the risks. Ego enters the picture and cons you into thinking you're not at risk. You are.

Racquetball is hard on knees. I had meniscus tears in both knees repaired via arthroscopic surgeries in 2006. Maybe I should have quit playing then. Old knees are not well-lubricated and can't take the pounding dished out by games like racquetball. My surgeon said playing was fine, but advised me to go easy. Which I did, partially by playing fewer tournaments.

Five years ago, I felt nagging pain in my left knee. I initially thought it was tendinitis, but it refused to heal. I saw an orthopedist at Rebound. X-rays revealed deterioration of the articular cartilage on the medial side in both knees. It would get worse, he told me. I'd eventually need to have the left knee replaced. And maybe the right.

If beer played a role in that diagnosis, it was in the 15 or so pounds I gained after I started writing about it in 2011. Every pound adds stress to the knees and my knees were already significantly damaged. But beer was late to the project of wrecking my knees and deserves little credit.

Racquetball jumping too high

American healthcare is a mess, of course, The 2006 scope surgeries were fairly straightforward and cost me almost nothing. The system has since gotten better at delaying, denying and charging more for care. I'm jumping through multiple hoops to get this surgery and it will cost thousands of dollars, at least, in the end. Hopefully, I'll regain full use of that knee.

This story almost makes me wonder if the choices I made were wise. My worn out knees are the result of regular activity that put a lot of pressure on them. If I hadn't played those games, my knees might feel better. But I suspect some other body part or parts would have malfunctioned by now if I hadn't played.

I guess I'll have another beer and reconsider past choices. I don't regret the years I spent playing sports that were risky. Doing so kept me generally healthier than most of my contemporaries. But getting old isn't a spectator sport, no matter how you cut it.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Notes from the Portland Craft Beer Festival

As with almost everything else connected to beer, we continue to see an evolution in beer festival format. Organizers are working to satisfy shifts in preferences that have as much to do with event amenities as with beer. Craft beer's growing mainstream status is part of that.

The Portland Craft Beer Festival is a good example, I think, of what's happening. I'd heard good things about it, but had no personal point of reference because I'd never attended. That changed last week.

This is the fifth year of the festival, which is held at comfy Fields Park in Northwest Portland. The Park is a significant selling point. It's of modest size, but located in a populated area that has great transit access. Getting there is easy and The Fields actually feels like a park, with thick green grass, great views.

Organizers are creative with the layout and it works well. The taps are positioned in the middle of the park under a tent. There are taps along the length of the tent on each side, allowing patrons to approach from both sides. It's an efficient use of the space consumed.

With the beer in the middle, there's ample room for tables with and without umbrellas a short distance from the beer tent. A variety of vendors and marketing demos are set up around the fringes of the park. Perhaps best of all, the layout allows for a large gaming area, which was set up for multiple lanes of corn hole. The venue didn't feel packed, despite a pretty good crowd.

This isn't an overly expensive event. For $30 (a little less online), you got a glass and 10 tickets. Each ticket yielded a 4 oz taste, unless you splurged on a full glass for tour tickets. Those first 10 beers might not be a great deal; but the next ones are because additional tickets are a buck, which translates to a $4 pint (four tastes). That's virtually unheard of at contemporary beer festivals.

They were pouring more than 100 beers, ciders and wines during this event. The beers were a mix of standards and one-offs. I was sharing tastes and sampled around 25 of them. There were far more misses than hits and most of the best beers were standards from known breweries. Several beers I tasted had obvious and significant defects. Not good.

I'm not sure beer quality is all that big a deal at an event like this. In some ways, it reminded me of what festivals were like 15-20 years ago, when patrons were more interested in drinking interesting beers in a unique setting than they were in obsessing over those beers. At some point, we crossed a bridge into bizarro geekdom. This, to me, seemed like a step back in the direction of sanity.

One thing I never thought I'd see at a beer festival is a gaming area. But the young crowd wants that and festivals are responding. This wasn't the first time I'd seen a corn hole being played at a beer event, but this was certainly the largest use of space. I was tempted to regard this as a generational shift in preferences, but it isn't that. When I was younger, we always played games in bars and taverns. Gaming at beer fests simply means craft beer is attracting the mainstream audience that wants that experience while drinking a few beers.

There was no live music. Instead, they provided some sort of piped in music playing on not huge speakers near the gaming area. I'm a fan of live music at these events, but the reason fests are moving away from it is that patrons don't pay attention. A little buzz in the background is all they want. You'll see a similar approach at the Oregon Brewers Festival in a few weeks.

What organizers have done is put together an event with wide appeal. They chose a relatively intimate venue in an easily accessible location. They designed a layout that provides easy access to beer and space for seating and gaming. And by not catering to the geek crowd that chases rare and expensive beers, they've made the festival attractive to a mainstream audience that just wants to have a few beers while enjoying the scene.

There are some things that need to be fixed. The lack of readily available drinking water is at the top of my list. Beer consistency could definitely be better. But all-in-all, the Portland Craft Beer Festival is a nice example of what a modern beer festival should be.