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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.


  1. Great job of encompassing all of the changes and a look back at how things had previously been done. Don't think I'll make it this year, but that's more about my schedule than a lack of wanting to go. I'll be interested to hear how the changes shake out.

    1. Sorry to hear you won't make it. It's always fun to hang out share thoughts on beers.


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