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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.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Whistle Punked in Spokane

Compared to the Portland beer scene, which is spinning wildly out of control with breweries and pubs opening seemingly every week, the scene in Spokane is relatively calm. Nonetheless, there's a quality craft beer culture on the rise there.

Craig Hanson
Last week's trip to the Inland Empire to visit family included several brewery stops. Each of them was impressive in it's own way, but the one that continues to stand out in my mind is Whistle Punk, located in a unique basement space in downtown Spokane. 

Co-owner Craig Hanson, who doubles as the longtime wrestling coach at East Valley High School, was behind the bar and happily chatted me and others up on the Whistle Punk story. As always seems to be the case, there were some interesting twists and turns involved in getting the place up and running.

"I got involved in brewing when I was a college student in the eighties," Hanson recalled. "It was a cheap way to make beer. Later on, my son [co-owner] Matt got interested. Pretty soon, friends started asking us to supply beer for weddings and other special occasions. We obliged."

They were selling so much beer by 2013 that they figured they ought to get a license. At that point, the original name, Hanson Brothers Brewing, resulted in a trademark dispute with the Hanson Brothers singers. Rather than fight it, the brewing Hansons took the path of least resistance and changed their name to Whistle Punk, an old logging term that refers to the guy who blew the whistle on a steam donkey (look it up).

"The name and branding have been well-received," Matt Hanson said. "We get guys here who've been in the logging industry and they know what a whistle punk is. They like it. And it seems to have wide appeal with a lot of our patrons."

With the name in hand, the Hansons began selling kegs to a few key outlets in 2015. The objective was to collect feedback on the beers and build some name recognition. Mission accomplished. But they knew selling beer out of their own space was the future. That's become the Holy Grail of craft brewers in recent times.

In May 2017, they landed in a charming downtown space which formerly housed the Brooklyn Nights lounge. It's a sunken space bathed in brick and rock walls. As with many pubs and breweries, exposed wooden beams complete the visual picture. Tables and chairs of various heights provide apparently ample seating. Nice digs.

No beer is produced  here. The Hansons brew on a tiny 2-bbl system located in nearby Newman Lake, then transfer the beer to the tasting room. Fresh, small batch beers rotate through on a regular basis. Although they will soon upgrade to a 7-bbl system, their goals aren't changing.

"We really like being taproom-focused," Matt Hanson said. "Moving to a larger system will allow us to do a little outside distribution and participate in some festivals, which is tough now. But we'll continue to make a great product and sell most of it in our taproom. That's our profit center."

As for the beers, everything in my flight was solid. Coast to Coast IPA is a juicy hazy with a bit of bitterness. Good stuff. Another one I liked was the Espresso Milk Stout, which is aged on bourbon-soaked vanilla beans and blended with cold brew. This beer is 7.1% ABV, but drinks a lot softer and lighter than that, thanks to the lactose. There's also Spruce Tip Pilsner, a terrific beer.

The beer scene in Spokane remains well-behind what's happening in Portland and Seattle. That, I believe, is because Millennials have flocked to the larger cities and are driving the craziness there. But Spokane is on the upswing, catching up nicely, doing things right.

Whistle Punk visitors can check the current tap list on their website. It's constantly changing and they update it regularly. I advise verifying their open hours the same way.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

OBF Rolls With the Changes in 2018

Thirty years after it helped launch a revolution, the Oregon Brewers Festival returns to Portland's Waterfront Park next week, opening on Thursday, July 26th. This will be the 31st rendition and organizers are rolling with the punches of an increasingly competitive market.

It's not really a secret that OBF has navigated shark-infested waters of late. With so many competing events jamming the calendar, beer fans have a lot of choices. OBF attendance has suffered a bit in that scenario. As a result, the event will shift from five to four days this year.

"Attendance peaked a few years ago," OBF director, Art Larrance, told me. "So we're going back to four days, which makes economic sense. We expect about 70,000 visitors this year, which is about what we had over five days last year. We'll see how it goes."

One of the perplexing anomalies facing the event is local indifference. Yup. Stats collected last year indicate out-of-towners accounted for nearly half of OBF attendance. That's been an emerging trend in recent years, I think. It may be that out-of-towners see the festival as a destination, while locals see it as one of many competing events.

"We'd certainly like to see better in-town attendance," Larrance said. "But we obviously know there are a number of beer-related events to choose from. There's nothing we can do about that. We just need to do the best we can at competing for the folks who do enjoy these festivals."

To quench the thirst of beer fans this year, they'll feature 80 beers from independent breweries in 10 states, The Netherlands and Mexico. As was the case last year, the Baby Buds (10-Weiser, Gooseweiser, etc) are banned. Don't feel sorry for them...they'll be fine.

The press materials say more than two dozen beer styles will be represented. Right, but a little checking reveals that 24 of the 80 beers (30 percent) will be IPAs. That's not surprising given the ongoing, mainstream demand for those beers. Also, 55 of the 80 (68 percent) are from Oregon and 23 (29 percent) are from Portland. Washington is the closest state representative with 8 entries.

This year's festival theme is, "With Beer Brings Friendship.” The "friends" this year are five breweries from Baja, California, whose beers will be pouring. This represents the rebirth of the practice of bringing in foreign brewers, launched by Larrance several years ago and abandoned last year due to logistical and cost concerns.

"We tasted these beers and met three of the five brewers at a festival in San Diego last October," Larrance said. "These are great beers and I think people will be pleasantly surprised. The guys are really excited to present their beers here."

For the first time ever, they'll be offering wines (four) and ciders (two) at the event. They've had requests for many years, Larrance acknowledged. The difference now, it seems, is organizers are actively courting folks who aren't necessarily beer fans. That's a smart business move, something you should do when attendance starts to lag.

Glass and mug styles have jumped around in recent years. This year, they're returning to the mug style they used in 2016. As always, a current year mug is required to drink. That'll cost you $7. Tokens are $1. You'll pay four tokens for a full mug (12 ounces), one token for a 3 oz taste of beer or cider. Wine will be five tokens for a 5 oz pour and tasters won't be available.

2016 mug
A twist for 2018 involves the program, which they've been printing and handing out for years. (I have a morgue at home to prove it.) Not this year. Patrons will be able to pick up a sheet that lists the beers and which trailers they're on. But the printed program is being discontinued and effectively replaced by a mobile app, which can be downloaded via the App Store or Google Play.

"We think a lot of people will like the app," said Larrance. "Regardless, we've been dumping thousands of printed programs every year for the last few years...it just didn't make sense. We hope the printed list will satisfy those who don't want to bother with the app, and there's a sortable, printable list posted on the OBF website for hardcore fans."

Last year's Specialty Tent, which replaced the International Tent, which had replaced the Buzz Tent, is going away this year. The area that tent occupied is shaded and ideal for chill seating. Given the issues they're having with attendance, it apparently seemed wise to fill that area up with tables and chairs for patron seating.

Organizers are advising festival attendees to walk, bike or take public transit to the event. That's sound advice considering possible bridge closures, parking issues and impaired driving concerns. Regardless of how you get to the park, the Safe Ride Home program is once again in play. It offers reduced-cost rides with the goal of getting people home safely.

Go to the OBF website for information on event hours, Safe Ride Home, what you can and can't bring into the park and a whole lot more. This event may have lost a bit of momentum in recent years, but it remains the granddaddy of beer festivals in Oregon.

See you Thursday.

Monday, July 9, 2018

For Better or Worse: Craft Beer's McDonald's

Ray Kroc made his first visit to McDonald's in 1954. He was a milkshake mixer salesman at the time and brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald had purchased eight mixers for their San Bernardino restaurant.

Kroc was impressed with what he saw. Having visited a lot of restaurant kitchens in the years following World War II, he came to believe the McDonald brothers had the most efficient operation he had seen. The place was professional, clean, somewhat automated. To Kroc, it looked like a concept that could be expanded nationally.

There was no such thing as fast food at the time. Kroc surmised that most roadside hamburger joints were grubby havens that mostly featured inconsistent food, pay phones, jukeboxes and smoking rooms. His vision was of a chain that would appeal to the emerging suburban culture with a consistent menu, uniformed attendants and squeaky clean spaces.

Most of the rest of the story is well-known. Kroc opened the first franchised McDonald's in Illinois in 1955. He would go on to establish a fast-food empire that today spans the globe. In fact, it isn't a stretch to suggest that Kroc and McDonald's launched a worldwide fast food revolution...for better or for worse, depending on your point of view.

Watching craft beer gain a foothold national and internationally, I've occasionally wondered if there could be a craft beer version of McDonald's. Such a chain would feature consistent branding, similar building designs, common beers and food, etc. There are some pretty good reasons why this will probably never happen. Still, I wonder.

One thing we have seen and are continuing to see is craft beer chains (multiple locations) that function well locally and regionally. McMenamins is a good example here. The brothers started out in the Portland area and have expanded in Oregon and Washington. I'm not sure how far the quirky McMenamins brand can go. My guess is the regional I-5 corridor is its sweet spot.

Some brief, forgotten history. The founders of Portland Brewing (in 1986) envisioned a string of brewpubs up and down the I-5 corridor from Washington to California. It never happened, Art Larrance told me, because the company's board of directors wouldn't agree to it. Given the trajectory of Portland Brewing, that was fortuitous.

Of course, there are successful local craft beer chains beyond McMenamins. Hopworks, Laurelwood, Lompoc and Lucky Labrador have operated multiple locations for years. More recent entrants include Breakside, Migration, Von Ebert (soon) and Sasquatch. There are will be others.

It's difficult to see any of those entities being gobbled up by an investor capable of taking it national. The notable exception to that rule is 10 Barrel, which is owned by Anheuser-Busch and already has brewpubs outside Oregon (San Diego, Boise, Denver). The 10 Barrel concept was designed such that it could take up residence almost anywhere.

In fact, if there's anyone out there with the will and the means to establish a national brewpub chain, it's probably Anheuser-Busch. Of the acquired AB craft brands, 10 Barrel likely makes the most sense. Golden Road, also a generic brand without a plausible connection to place, is another possible candidate.

There's an interesting dichotomy at work here. While 10 Barrel and Golden Road have potential as national brands due to their lack of connection to place, Goose Island is thought to be a poor choice because of its strong connection to place (Chicago). And Kona, which will very likely end up the AB family of brands in the near future, is considered an excellent choice for a national pub brand because of its strong connection to place. Ironic, eh?

Anyway, the case against a national brewpub brand is strong and rests mainly on the fact that craft beer is hyper-local. Consumers around the county are seeking out unique beers made by local breweries, and there are plenty of local breweries out there. The idea of a national brewpub chain succeeding in that scenario seems sketchy, though you never know.

Maybe the closest thing we have to a national pub is exemplified by Buffalo Wild Wings, a craft beer taproom chain with pub-ish food. Buffalo Wild, established in 1982, currently has more than 1,200 locations in the U.S. They don't brew, but they do offer local beers alongside an expansive selection of national macro and craft brands.

For anyone wondering why the Brewers Association would make Buffalo Wild one of two major sponsors for this year's GABF, the answer is clear enough: Buffalo Wild is arguably the closest thing we have to a national craft beer pub chain. For better or for worse.