By Bobby Bush
Each year on the last full weekend in July, the Oregon Brew Crew, a club of homebrewers, beer lovers, beer writer, professional brewers and other interested folks, hosts about 90,000 people at what has become the nation's biggest and, in my opinion, best beer festival. It takes 1200 volunteers to stage the three-day Oregon Brewers Festival, held on the banks of the Columbia River in downtown Portland, OR. This marks the festival's 12th year (and my 10th).
Working with the theme "We've got the brews," the 1999 version varied a little from the last two years, when emphasis was heavy on Northwestern breweries. By invitation only, 72 breweries, each with only one beer to pour, were positioned beneath two spacious tents, fronted by six refrigerated trailers. Beer came from 15 states, from Hawaii to Ohio, in 18 styles with a few odd ones added on. Oregon, with 29 breweries, was best represented. Neighboring California and Washington each had eight. Arizona sent five and Colorado and Montana, four beers each.
Stylistic preferences have changed over the past five years. Fruit beers, once extremely popular in beer happy Oregon summers, were conspicuous in their near absence. Filling that funky beer void were such peculiar offerings as Imperial Pilsner, a new, strong (8.8% abv), over-hopped (78 IBUs) assertive lager from the creative mind of Rogue Brewery's John Maier. Widmer Brothers Brewing, best known for their top-selling Americanized Hefe Weizen, shocked everyone with Killer Bee Mead. Pitched with alt yeast, this fermented raspberry blossom honey, wine-like mead was sticky sweet and overpowering at 11.3% alcohol. From Sprecher Brewing, Wisconsin's original microbrewery, came a light (only 7.5% abv) Barley Wine. Roseburg, Oregon's Umpqua Brewing sent a cask conditioned Chili Brew, with whole steamed chilis in each keg. Bill's Tavern, just a block off the ocean in Cannon Beach, OR, used blackberry honey, nettles and blackberry root in making Garden Party Elixir. And Oregon Trader from Albany, OR pushed a Green Chili Lager on unsuspecting palettes. Local micro Hair of the Dog cut back on their usual high alcohol Belgian brews and introduced JD, a smoky brown ale.
Of the more traditional beer styles, India Pale Ales were the most abundant, with nine, including IPAs from two of the three oldest Portland breweries: Portland Brewing and BridgePort. In conjunction with Widmer, this brewing trio founded the OBF back in 1988. All three breweries are still going strong. Full Sail, another famous Oregon brewery, made a traditional Belgian Special Golden Ale, called The People's Ale, to celebrate their recently completed employee-ownership status.
There were seven Porters, but only one Stout, probably because the weather usually soars into the 90s during OBF. However, Friday's noon to 9:00 session was held beneath sunny skies with temps in the 80s and a kind breeze. Saturday was cloudy, cool with a rainy mist all day long. Warmer weather returned on Sunday.
Three bucks for mug. Another three for an excellent program, filled with information on the beer and breweries. A dollar token secured a six ounce taste. Seven local restaurants, including the new Portland brewpub Raccoon Lodge Restaurant, set up shop between the two long beer tents. A root beer garden was available for children and designated drivers. As always, the bohemian strains of Speakeasy entertained those seated in the dining area. Homebrewers and industry experts manned the educational tent, where everything from microorganisms to hops selection were discussed. Porta-toilets were plentiful. As were thousands of smiling faces. The Oregon Brew Crew has festivals down to an exact science.
All of this excitement for the celebration of beer! Such a simple, yet satisfying fermented beverage deserves no less. The Oregon Brewers Festival was, once again, the highlight of another beery year.
Over 40 breweries are scheduled to appear at The Great Smokies Craft Brewers Invitational. Sponsored by Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria and featuring four bluegrass bands, this fun festival will be held at Asheville, NC's Memorial Stadium, 2:00 til 9:00 pm on Saturday, September 18. Call 828/281-3910 for tickets and information. We'll see ya there!
This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush