A Shakeup at the Organic Brewers Festival: An interview with Abe Goldman-Armstrong

The North American Organic Brewers Fest, founded by Roots Organic Brewing owner Craig Nicholls, is happening this weekend in Portland, and I know very little about it. Why? Well, for the last 3 years I have counted myself among the staff/organizers and part of the elite "Keg Assassins" crew that keeps the beers flowing. But not this year. What is different? In previous years the festival organization has been headed up by Abraham Goldman-Armstrong, a well-respected writer, brewer, sustainability and organic expert, BJCP Judge (by the age of 21), and all-around brewery handyman in construction and deconstruction. If you have been to a festival in Oregon, you very likely have seen Abe running around behind the scenes and keeping things running smoothly.

Without Abe's leadership on this year's fest, the entire staff has been shaken up, with few to none returning. Though it is in competent hands with Chris Crabb, I still wanted to get a chance to speak with Abe about what is different this year and why he is not involved in a festival that has consumed most of his time over the last few years. The answers may surprise you...

Q: You're not involved in the NAOBF this year. Who is running it?

A: Craig Nicholls has hired Chris Crabb and Teddy Peets of the Oregon Brewers Festival to run the event for him.

Q: Why are you not heading it up this year after so many successful years?

A: I was very concerned with the way Craig Nicholls handled the finances last year and the way he treated myself and the others on the team that put on the event. He had still not paid the charities and one of the breweries from the 2009 event in January, and I told him I would not be working with him on the event unless the brewery in question and the purported beneficiaries (Leukemia Lymphoma Society, Oregon Tilth, and the Willamette Riverkeeper) were paid by February. He did not pay the charities until after I apprised Chris Crabb of the situation, and had still not paid the brewery in question in April when I spoke with them, after passing them two bad checks. Craig Nicholls took a two-week family vacation to Disneyland directly following the 2009 NAOBF and did not pay the crew who put in countless hours to make the event such a smashing success until one month after the event. He paid everyone else the same as they had been paid the previous year, after promising to double their pay during the event, and paid me less than 1/3 of what I was paid in 2008, assuring me that I would be paid in full in by the end of August. I have yet to see a penny of that money, and Craig Nicholls has repeatedly ignored my attempts to contact him in person, via phone and email.
I love organic beer, and I loved putting on the NAOBF. I helped put it on since day one, and am sad not to be involved, but I could not continue to work with someone who has clearly lost touch with the ideals that the event stood for. I worked to grow the event from a one day affair in Gresham in 2003 to the successful 3 day festival of sustainability and beer it was in 2009. Unfortunately, I did not feel that the finances were handled in a sustainable manner. This has been a problem for several years, when the seed money set aside for the next year's event always seemed to get funneled into Nicholls' brewery, Roots. I felt that further association with Mr. Nicholls would have been detrimental to my professional reputation and good name in the industry. I feel I gave him every opportunity to do the right and legal thing and pay the brewery in question and the non-profits, but he did not seem to feel that was a priority. I felt stupid having to ask someone to do what was not only the responsible thing, but what by law he was required to do, and getting the response of "oh yeah, that'll happen" but continually refusing to set out a timeline.

(Abe speaking at a previous year of the NAOBF, photo from The Oregonian)

Q: I also noticed many of the partners and breweries are not there this year...

A: That's really a question for Chris Crabb. I was not involved in the selection of breweries for the event this year. I heard from one very upset importer that the NAOBF chose not to do the bottle garden this year as a cost-saving measure.
I know several breweries were not involved due to ethical concerns about the event. (I worked very hard to bring in special beers from out of state, which is a lot of paperwork and headache, but when one of these breweries has still not gotten paid from the previous year's event, you can see where the reluctance to send beer might originate). As for the beneficiaries, I'm not certain, I know Willamette Riverkeeper was very concerned about not getting paid in a timely manner last year.

Q: What do you think is the future of the NAOBF?

A: As someone who has been locked-out of any organizing of the event this year, that is hard to say. Chris Crabb and Teddy Peets run a tight ship at the Oregon Brewers Festival, and they will no doubt handle the NAOBF in a similar manner. There are a lot of rumors flying about what will happen with the proceeds, but I am too far removed from the event to speculate about what that portends for future years. I would hope that Craig Nicholls has a change of heart and remembers why he wanted to convince other Oregon brewers to make organic beer. The symposium that he organized in 2002 at the Lucky Lab was truly a watershed for organic beer, and the first organic beer festival in North America in 2003 was definitely a major step forward for organic beer.

Q: Are you thinking of starting any new projects?

A: Yes, I'm flying to New York in August to try to get an organic beer festival going there. I've also been talking to a couple of local brewery owners about putting on another festival locally. I took the spring off from festivals this year, as in recent years I spent about 20 hours a week working on the NAOBF from March through May, and 40 or more hours a week in June. I've gone back to work doing deconstruction full time. I love saving lumber, trim, and fixtures from old houses and keeping them out of the landfill. I'll still be helping out with other beer events around the state as well.

Keep up with Abe and his doings at his site Brewsville.

The 6th annual North American Organic Brewers Festival is this weekend
June 25 - 27, 2010 in Overlook Park in Portland, Oregon.
Noon to 9 p.m. Fri & Sat
Noon to 5 p.m. Sun

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  1. Very enlightening interview. I now have no desire to go to the festival anymore.

  2. Abe looks pissed in that last picture

  3. As someone who has enjoyed the festival and frequents Roots Brewery a lot, I would really like to hear Craig's response on these issues.

  4. I have heard similar stories around town from other vendors about Roots as well so this is not surprising. Very sad but not surprising. Oh well my money will be spent elsewhere this weekend.

  5. Mr.Goldman-Armstrong was very respectful during this interview. This festival is ridden with moral, and ethical issues. This is one beer-fest I will not be attending.

  6. I've been hearing rumbling about this for over a year now and I'm glad the truth finally came out. I won't be attending, or working for, the event for the foreseeable future; definitely not as long as Abe has nothing to do with it. Sadly, the NAOBF has been tainted by Mr. Nichol's seemingly financial digressions. I look forward to what Abe has up his sleeve.

    Thank you Abe for bringing this to light. I know it wasn't easy or desired, but Craig clearly asked for it.

  7. Yeah, would also like to hear Mr. Nicholl's thoughts on this...maybe you could interview him?

  8. Surprising how many folks become anonymous once the subject becomes controversial...

    It's a shame that financial mis-dealings have to taint what is arguably one of the best fests of the year. I know Chris and Teddy do an amazing job of keeping the OBF humming along, so I have faith that at least the event this weekend will flow smoothly. Whether or not people get paid afterward is another story...

  9. To everyone, please know there are two sides to every story. Craig would like nothing better than to be interviewed by Ezra in the same manner as Abe was to address these issues. Ezra has not yet reached out to Craig to do so, but we welcome it. We'd also like everyone to know that all breweries from last year have been paid and all charities have been paid. Cheers!

  10. I spoke to the brewery in question yesterday. They said they got a money order a week and half ago. That's 50 weeks from when the OLCC requires payment for beer deliveries. (In Oregon licensees must pay upon delivery of beer).

  11. I will happily interview Craig in the same manner. I have been unable to get ahold of him in the past but I will send some questions over.

  12. @ Chris Crabb

    I'd have loved to see both sides presented as well, but that's something an actual journalist would have done in the first place, isn't it? Maybe too much to ask from someone who throws the term "hack journalism" around pretty easily.

    I stopped going to Roots a while back because, to my taste, their beers really went downhill--so I'm no major fan of the business. However, this interview seems more like a poorly-timed, sub-high school newspaper gossip piece than anything actually useful to the beer community---unless the intentions were to keep people from the festival. If that's indeed the case, that's pretty fucking juvenile and petty.

  13. Jason,
    I did not realize you were a journalism expert. What exactly do you see wrong with me conducting an interview with Abe, him answering the questions and me posting them unedited??
    Maybe you didnt notice the title of the post An Interview with Abe Goldman-Armstrong not an interview with Craig Nicholl's. I also didnt realize that Abe who is a professional journalist and well-respected part of the beer community is just gossip' ing, you would think he would know what is up considering he is running the fest.
    To top it off you accuse me of throwing around the term "hack journalism" that is the most hilarious part of your comment because I am pretty sure I have never once uttered or written that phrase until now! Huh, I wonder what a journalism expert would say about you making up quotes and attributing them to me?

    On the claim of this being poorly timed. Huh? What I should have posted it in the winter? That just doesnt even make sense.

    And lastly, you just are way out of your depth, I know Craig Nicholl's well, would even say he is a friend as is most of the staff of NAOBF and Roots, I dont wish them any ill will at all. You dont know what your talking about.

    FYI, Craig has been asked these questions many times and has not answered, if he does I will put up a piece just like this one with his interview unedited.

  14. I think Abe's perspective is tantamount to a fired waiter's review of their ex-employer on Yelp. All I hear is bitterness which makes it hard to take at face value.

  15. Cooking Asshole,
    Anytime you write or say something negative about somewhere you used to work it can be written off as a disgruntled employee.
    But then should you not speak out? I think your are misreading it, for one thing Abe bowed out not the other way around and he even compliments Craig, the fest and the new organizers. Plus knowing him myself I think he is more saddened by the whole thing then angry.

  16. Well I know I'm late to the story but I still want to comment on this. I worked at Roots in the brewery and left about two years before they went out of business. Based on my experience at Roots and working with Abe for two NAOBF's I second everything Abe said. Here's a few things I dealt with while at Roots. I had three different paychecks bounce, was lucky to be paid on time usually 2-3 days late, I was present when Craig was served papers because Roots was being sued and he told me he didn't even know what it was for, I was told not to answer the phone when the music licensing agencies would call, Craig rarely if ever took phone calls he was always "out of the office" even though he was there, kegs were sold to various bars and the money went to Craig and I was told not to tell the book keeper, Craig never returned calls to The Fairy Festival organizers when they repeatedly called about not receiving payment, our water was shut off a couple of times so I couldn't brew, grain deliveries were halted for non-payment, CO2 deliveries were also halted for non-payment, he laid of one cook to hire the partner of a employee and did this under the table, we had some electrical work done totaling $3,000 if I remember correctly and the company was very upset when the check did not clear. Craig is a nice guy and I hope these things were not done with ill intent rather inexperience with running a business. I think Craig should stick to brewing which he is very talented at (I learned a lot from him regarding brewing) and leave the running of a business to someone else.

  17. Ironic the one you interviewed in this piece seemed to be enjoying the beerfest this evening.


Try not to be a dick.