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Sunday, July 21, 2013

What's Up with OBF Pour Sizes, Anyway?

There's a good flap building over the Oregon Brewers Festival going to a 3 oz pour this year. Niki Ganong, aka Suds Sister, wrote about it here. Jeff Alworth wrote about it here. The point is a sample pour will be 3 ounces this year. It had been 4 ounces in recent years.

Almost like high school chemistry
If you think back, beer samples at the OBF have always cost a buck. That was the price at my first festival in 1991 and it's the price this year. Obviously, today's dollar isn't what it was in 1991 or 2001. In the early years, you could get a full beer for two tokens. Later it went to three. More recently, four. But a taste has always been $1. That you could depend on.

You might think sample size has, like cost, been consistent over the years. That's where you would be wrong. Sample size has not been consistent. My collection of old OBF mugs helped me to do a little experiment with taste sizes going back to 1991. The old mugs, a sink and a Pyrex measuring cup were my research tools. No beer was harmed during this project.

In case you're wondering, there was no fudging. Mugs were filled to the sample line and the liquid was poured into the Pyrex cup and measured. Numbers are approximate. I'm not a chemist and I don't have a digital beaker with super accurate tick marks. Here's a list of select taster sizes over the years:
1991...6 oz
1994...6 oz
1996...5 oz
1997...6 oz
2001...5 oz
2002...4 oz
2003...6 oz
2005...4 oz
2007...4 oz
2010...4 oz
2012...4 oz
What you see is what you might expect. Sample size has decreased with the value of the dollar. It stabilized at 4 ounces over the last 10 years or so.  I have no idea what happened in 2003. I suspect the tasting mark on that mug may have been a mistake. By the way, one mug (on the right below), year unknown but likely from the 90s, held 7 ounces at the taste mark! A serious outlyer. Keep in mind the old plastic mugs held 14 ounces when full.

Taste lines have not been created equal
OBF organizers have held the line on sample size since 2005. Yet they see their costs rising every year. Beer that once cost $125 a keg now costs $165, Art Larrance told me. Park rental cost him $5 his first official year in 1988. He just wrote a check for nearly $39,000. He also has to pay for security, insurance, turf replacement, police, portable toilets and more. The festival depends on a couple thousand volunteers every year. These folks may volunteer, but they are compensated for their time with tokens, glasses and shirts...paid for by the festival.

Look, I don't like to the switch to a 3 oz taste any more than the next person. But I give Larrance and company credit holding the line as long as they did. I think they had to do something to address the fact that costs of everything are going up. They chose to reduce the sample size while sticking to the same old price.

There's always a temptation to assume this is all just a big money grab. Larrance and others have done well over the years. So what? Why shouldn't they make some money on this event? Even with the 2013 changes, the OBF is still one of the better festival deals around. Look around. There are plenty of bad deals out there, including the Portland International Beer Festival.

Nonetheless, I believe the move to a 3 oz taste is a mistake. In his piece over on Beervana, Jeff Alworth suggests the 3 oz sample size is a bad idea because it will result in longer lines. Most everyone knows long lines are one of the event's more serious challenges. Jeff argues the 3 oz taste will put people back in line faster, making lines even worse. He may be right.

I actually think the combination of the smaller 12.8 oz glass and the 3 oz taste will lead to more people getting full glasses of beer and potentially shorter lines. Think about it. Full glasses weren't such a hot deal when it was four tokens for a what amounted to 13 or so ounces (in a 14 oz mug). The 4 oz taste was the better deal. The 3 oz taster makes a full glass (12 or so ounces now) for four tokens a good deal. People with full beers won't need to stand in line constantly. The obvious downside is more drunks faster, always a concern.

What would I have done? It's always nice to second-guess someone else's decision. I think they should have moved away from the single token taste. It no longer makes sense. Go back to 1991 levels and sell a 6 oz sample, but for two tokens. A taste of that size is big enough to keep people occupied and out of line for a few minutes.

Given the larger taste, you can go to a smaller glass and eliminate the problematic full glass pour. Some festivals already use the smaller glass, single taste formula. Why not the OBF?

If the one token taste is somehow sacred, simply increase the token price to $2. People might bitch at first, but they'll come around once they realize they're getting a reasonable sample pour. One token for standard beers, two tokens for rare, hard-to-find beers. Makes sense to me, though I know opinions will differ.                                              


  1. Anybody who's been hoarding those (reusable) tokens would love to see them earn 100% interest.

  2. Great post. This reminds me that long ago (probably about a decade, based on your cup measurements) my friends and I had the sense that the pours were getting smaller. We dismissed it as good-ole-days reasoning, but now I see we were onto something.

    On the line length thing. I thing you're right that people will go to full pours sooner. That always happens once the lines get too long; now it may happen by mid-afternoon. As an old man who likes to sample broadly, I'm not pleased by the prospect.

  3. Great work, Pete!

    I like your idea of raising prices and sample size. Also charging admission (I think Jeff proposed this) might help with the cost equation, and hopefully reduce the crowds a bit, making a more enjoyable festival.

  4. Hey Pete, FYI, the year with the 7 oz sample size was the one year we offered a full glass for 4 tokens or a half-glass for 2 tokens. There was no $1 taster that year. It bombed and we went back to the old way!

  5. As someone who is still "new" (3 years in) to Portland, every festival and every token is a bit of an irritation. In most of the upper Midwest when you go to a beer festival you pay one price. That's it but then you drink as much as you want. Yes, you'll usually pay $35+ but most, if not all, limit attendance. Most samples poured are approximately 2 oz. The really popular beers/breweries have long lines, others less so.


Keep it civil, please.