This weekend looks to test the Portland market for beer festival oversaturation as the old guard beer fest Portland International Beerfest goes up against the newly reimagined Organic fest now called BrewFest in the Park. Portland International Beerfest is also being forced to change venues while the Brewfest in the Park is a spinoff replacement of the Organic Beer Fest. The fests have a contentious history that comes to a head this weekend where both fight for an audience with the smaller Kriekfest, Oregon Cider Week and Culmination Brewing’s 2nd Anniversary party.
Portland International Beerfest is one of the longest running and major beer festivals in the state. In 2012 Seattle-based owners Rick Carpenter and Tanya Weitz moved the fest from it’s longtime home in the North Park Blocks to Holladay Park across from Lloyd Center. It was a big gamble, not just because of the change of location but that they moved dates to coincide with the same weekend as the North American Organic Brewers Festival. Advising NAOBF owner Craig Nicholls that he would be better off moving his fest to PIB’s old dates in July in the middle of Oregon Craft Beer Month. Not surprisingly this did not sit well with NAOBF organizers and perhaps not with the Oregon Brewers Guild either as Rick Carpenter claimed in my 2014 interview with him. Instead, Craig Nicholls pushed the renamed Organic Beer Fest back into August for the last few years.
In present day, the PIB has decided to move back to their old stomping grounds in the North Park Blocks this year. When reached for comment Rick Carpenter said about the move, “We loved Holladay Park. It was a huge risky undertaking to move there in the first place. We thought Portland was ready for it but sadly they are not.” Personally I endorsed the move to Holladay Park, it made for a ton of space for beer and extra activities, it made it never seem crowded, it was easy to get to on the MAX and there was lots of shade. But Rick says the costs were up and attendance was flat.
“People said it was a great move, but then didn’t come. I grew up in Parkrose and know all too well about the lower NE side stigma of the Lloyd Center area. But Portlanders are wrong. That park is awesome. Really bummed it didn’t work out.” – Rick Carpenter.
In Carpenter’s view, he was forced into moving the dates into a conflict with the Organic because the Washington version of the fest – Seattle International Beerfest is always two weeks after the Portland fest. Since moving to a new venue in 2012, Seattle International Beerfest can no longer be held on the July 4th weekend because the Governor’s July 4th Naturalization Ceremony. As long as they stick to keeping the fests two weeks apart and the Naturalization Ceremony keeps in the same location, then SIB and thus PIB will stay at their current dates.
vintage photo from the North American Organic Brewers Festival
Knowing that he had to move his PIB dates for 2012, Carpenter says he reached out to Craig Nicholl’s – “In 2011 as a courtesy, nearly 2 years before we started our current pattern, I wrote Craig (and Jill) giving them heads-up and asking if they wanted to discuss what might work best for everyone. No answer until 14 months later when I got the crazy email from Craig.”
PIB’s move out of July and Oregon Craft Beer Month also opened the window for the Portland Craft Beer Festival to take it’s place, a festival started in part by two associates of Carpenter and PIB staff. With neither PIB or NAOBF in prime July fest-going season and Portland Beer Week kicking off said fest season in mid-June it provided a nice whole in the schedule to plug and another westside fest since PIB and NAOBF were now eastside of the city.
No major Portland beer fest has ceased being held as far as I know of. Unless you can now count the North American Organic Brewers Fest, or Organic Brewfest as it was renamed. The fest was founded in 2003 at now defunct Port Halling Brewing in Gresham, Oregon by Craig Nicholls. Two years later Craig was running the successful but now also defunct Roots Organic Brewing and brought the fest back in 2006 at the World Forestry Center. Organic beer was starting to become a big thing and so the fest grew and moved to Overlook Park in 2007 as a large festival under the watchful eye of then beer writer Abram Goldman-Armstrong. A few years later though, Craig Nicholl’s and the festival came under fire for misappropriation of funds including not paying staff and non-profits it was supposed to benefit. Not long after Roots Organic Brewing closed after similar issues.
I wrote about that controversy here with an interview with Abram Goldman-Armstrong that lead to a response from Craig Nicholl’s through intermediary Chris Crabb. I am happy to say that the public eye lead to Abram being paid and perhaps some of the charities as well. Nicholl’s brought on Chris Crab and Teddy Peets, both veterans of other fests like the big Oregon Brewers Festival, to run NAOBF after Abe left. Crabb and Peets added some much needed credibility and reliability to the fest that has served it well.
This last April, Chris Crabb announced a newly reimaged “Organic Craft BrewFest” would take the place of the Organic Beer Fest in Overlook Park and would be moving back to their original dates. That put’s the refreshed beerfest head-to-head on the same weekend as Portland International Beerfest. Both fests have a lot to lose and are on perhaps shakier ground than ever. Organic Craft BrewFest was founded without Craig Nicholls and by his former staff members Chris Crabb and Teddy Peets. If the split was amicable it seems unlikely. According to Crabb, “Craig informed Teddy in early March of this year that he was going to take a year off. Teddy didn’t feel it was in the festival’s best interest to lose momentum. And there were a lot of breweries, vendors and fans who said they didn’t want it to go away.”
While the Organic CraftBrewFest is a new festival, you have to wonder whether the similarities in name and at the same location were purposefully confusing and lead organizers to back-track and rename the fest BrewFest in the Park.
Organizers also opted to move back to the fests original dates of this weekend. Chris Crabb said about the move, “Three years ago, Rick Carpenter told us he was going to move PIB to our weekend, and we could either go up against him or change dates. We opted to move, fearful there wouldn’t be enough volunteers to cover both events. However, the August date was never successful for the event. So it was going to return to its original weekend this year, going up against PIB.”
Rick Carpenter of PIB reiterates “PIB is not going up against anyone.” In Rick’s view “It’s more like they’re “going up against us”, not the other way around. And it’s not a smart move. Really, truly, it’s a dick move. The smart move, as I told them in 2012 & again in 2013, was to take our vacated sweet mid-July dates (which I would love to have back). I have no idea why they went into August. Terrible play on their part. What were they thinking? Wish we could have talked about that but I never got the chance cuz they blew me off.”
As to whether Craig Nicholl’s and his Organic Brewfest will be back next year, his website says they will and Chris Crabb does not seem to know for sure either, saying: “You would have to ask Craig if he will be back. He has indicated he will, but we are moving forward with this festival.”
It would seem unlikely or atleast unwise for Nicholl’s to return with the Organic Brewfest, unless BrewFest in the Park is a bust, there is more competition than ever on this weekend. July 4th weekend is now taken by Portland Craft Beer Festival, the August dates did not pan out and it remains to be seen how much the public really cares about organic beer anymore.
On the pro side of the equation, PIB returns to it’s comfortable old home this year and with an additional street closure that provides an additional 8,000 sq. ft. of usable space. Carpenter urges us, “before you pass judgment on our move back to the Pearl, consider this: Unlike some other festivals we constantly put our money where our mouth is, year after year, investing in things that make our event better for everyone. The time, money, and effort we put into the Holladay Park move is a good case in point. Have faith that we’ll do it right this time too. Technically our Pearl set-up will be more expensive (per sf.) but we think it’s worth it and the quality will be there.”
Meanwhile Chris Crabb and Teddy Peets are marketing a new unproven festival brand but built on the successes of the Organic Brewfest. Featuring semi-Organic beers (70% of the beers ingredients should be organic), a great sunny location of the MAX line and cheap pours. Crabb and Peets are also a proven great team and a fresh new start ma not be a bad idea. On the negative, the festival has already had to change it’s name before year one is even in the books and recently announced they were lowering the entrance price from $25 to $20 after negative feedback. All stuff that new beer festivals have to contend with though as any festival organizer will tell you.
Is there room for more beer festivals or is this the beginning of a bubble bursting. At this point we have Cheers to Belgian Beers in late May with the new Pints in the Pearl Fest the same weekend, Portland Beer Week starts the following week which is capped with Cider Summit. One week later PIB and Brewfest in the Park go head-to-head and just one weekend after that the Portland Craft Beer Festival vies for your dollars. That’s all leading up to the big one, the Oregon Brewers Festival held the last full weekend of July. As a festival organizer myself I have seen first-hand how some events can go by the wayside but on the other side see many events coincide peacefully over the same timeframe. The problem is both of the fests this weekend seek to draw in the number of five figures attendance and likely draw from the same crowd. If both do well than it’s a great sign for the industry, on the other hand they both may be dealing each other serious blows with tons of new festivals swooping in to pick up the attendees.
Whatever the outcome the beer festival season is getting contentious and with a split in attendance, staff and volunteers this weekend, few people would disagree with Carpenter when he says “I don’t think any good will come of it.”
BREWFEST IN THE PARK
Overlook Park, 1599 N Fremont St, Portland, OR 97227
June 23-25, 2017
Friday & Saturday 12pm – 9pm, Sunday 12pm – 5pm
PORTLAND INTERNATIONAL BEERFEST (17th Annual)
Pearl District North Park Blocks @ NW 6th & Davis
June 23-25, 2017
Fri 6/23: 4p-10p
Sat 6/24: 12p-10p
Sun 6/25: 12p-7p