Has Portland’s Beer Festival Scene Been Tapped Out?

“it will be survival of the fittest, and let’s just put that into perspective, I’m not saying the oldest or biggest or rarest, I’m saying that the events will continue to bear out more and more ideas, thoughts and expressions, probably overwhelmingly so, but it will be the natural selection of the consumers that decide what events move forward.” – Preston Weesner, owner of Portland’s Holiday Ale Festival and veteran beer festival organizer.

“We understand the need to adapt to the changing beer culture and number of festivals in the area. The OBF has done what it’s purpose has been for 31 years and that is to introduce craft beers to the public and spawn additional festivals…..all to promote craft beer.” – Art Larrance, founder/owner of the Oregon Brewers Festival and Cascade Brewing.

Portland Craft Beer Festival

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The list of discontinued but once successful Oregon (especially Portland-area) beer festivals is long and growing. Spring Beer and Wine Fest, The Bite of Oregon, Pints in the Pearl, Organic Beer Fest, Brewfest in the Park, Vegan Beer Fest, Gose Fest, and even Vancouver’s Summer and Winter Brew Festivals are among the latest casualties. Many of the long running festivals peaked years ago, while new festival players crop up like weeds every season, with most shriveling up and croaking while a few flourish under the crowded conditions. Even the biggest outdoor beer fest in the country–Portland’s famed Oregon Brewers Festival–peaked in 2014 and has experienced declining attendance (15% drop in 2017) ever since.

Twelve years ago there were just a few large beer festivals and a few smaller niche ones. Beer geeks had at best one beer fest per season to look forward to, and everyone had their favorites. In the spring you had the Spring Beer and Wine Festival and later Cheers To Belgian Beers. The summer brought in heavy hitters like the Oregon Brewers Festival, Portland International Beerfest, and North American Organic Beer Festival. In the winter everyone looked forward to the Holiday Ale Festival and Lucky Lab’s Barleywine Fest after a long drought between summer and winter. All of those festivals except the Holiday Ale Festival have either been discontinued or had huge drops in attendance, which makes HAF organizer Preston Weesner a perfect expert to chime in on this subject.

“There was a time here in beer heaven when a festival was truly a special event.  I mean, you would talk about the next one with such anticipation that it seemed like it was going to take months of drinking for it to arrive,” says Preston Weesner, owner of the Holiday Ale Festival and draft support for Oregon Brewers Guild events.

Spring Beer and Wine Fest at the Oregon Convention Center

The Spring Beer and Wine Festival is the latest big beer festival to bite the dust. After 23 years running, owner Steve Woolard decided to retire the festival after 2017. This once popular attraction held in the Oregon Convention Center was the largest indoor beer fest in town, with live music, crafts, spirits, and, of course, beer and wine. Indoors you could purchase everything from new siding for your house to a gutter guard for leaves. In recent years the breweries participating had morphed from stalwarts like Widmer and Hopworks to nanobreweries and startups like Boring Brewing and Rusty Truck. I could speculate that this fest lost steam because of a lack of focus, although halogen lighting is not conducive to drinking and newer competition made things difficult, too. Spring has become the season for cider fests and farmhouse ales; Cider Rite of Spring is a newer fest around the same time that’s become a major event, while beer geeks often flocked to the Portland Farmhouse & Wild Ale Festival (full disclosure: I am one of the owners of this fest).

vintage photo from the North American Organic Brewers Festival

The Organic Beer Festival (renamed from the North American Organic Beer Festival) poured its last GMO-free beer into a biodegradable mug in 2016. At the time, festival owner Craig Nicholls promised it would return even better in 2018, and according to the fest website (that hasn’t been updated) it would have been held recently in June. Nicholls isn’t new to controversy; past organizers and associated non-profits have complained about his non payment of bills. When Chris Crabb and Teddy Peetz came onboard to help organize the fest, the ship began to get righted, but after a falling out in 2016, Nicholls, Crabb and Peetz went their separate ways, with Crabb and Peetz founding a new replacement fest last year. The replacement was called the Organic BrewFest, but that didn’t sit well with Nicholls, who was no longer involved. The fest was then rebranded as the Brewfest in the Park before it ever began. That fest went head-to-head with the Portland International Beerfest on the same weekend, and based on reports, they both suffered. I predicted this clash wouldn’t go well last year. READ: Portland’s Beer Festival Season gets Contentious.

Chris Crabb and Bolt Minister

Add the one year and done Brewfest in the Park to the list of newcomers that haven’t made it, as the fest did not return this year, and neither did the Organic Beer Fest. The Portland International Beerfest (PIB) which had originally moved from the North Park Blocks in NW Portland in the summer to Holladay Park in NE Portland in June, is rumored to have struggled in the new space and time and this year moved back to the Park Blocks. One wonders if the not-so international beerfest will be around much longer.

“2017 saw the most Beer events and festivals this city has ever had,” opines Chris Rhodes, who co-ownes the Portland Craft Beer Festival and has been an integral part of nearly every large Portland beer festival from OBF to PIB. “Every weekend there was anywhere from 3-10 events featuring beer. The “deaths” of several of those came that summer. Organic, The Bite, Spring Beer and Wine. All failed for their own reasons that lead back to one common theme, mismanagement. Organic changed owners, the Bite changed venues, and Spring let Groupon take their profits. This is from my point of view.”

Likely the largest beer festival to launch in the last few years is the Portland Craft Beer Festival. After the PIB cleared an opening in the busy summer season of Oregon Craft Beer Month in July, it provided an opening for the PCBF to launch. Among its owners and staff were former veterans of PIB. PCBF which was a surprising big hit in its first year (2015) and is now hitting 10K attendees over the Fourth of July weekend. Interestingly, this festival has some similarities to the Spring Beer and Wine Fest in that it doesn’t limit itself to beer ,but also has cold brew coffee, wine, cider and all sorts of other side activities and vendors, all in a centrally located grassy and very bright park like the old Organic Beer Fest. Organizers have definitely hit on something here by capturing the tourists coming to town in July and a great built-in Pearl District audience that surrounds the park with lots of foot and street traffic. I suspect a lot of the loss in attendance of other July events like OBF and PIB has been siphoned off to Portland Craft Beer Festival. This festival also proves that that it is still possible for new festivals to succeed in the crowded marketplace and reach a broad audience.

Portland Craft Beer Festival organizers Chris Rhodes, Joseph Sundberg and Rodney Woodley

“Our demographic is over 55% from out of town. Portland is a beer destination and we thrive on using the city as a backbone to our fest,” says PCBF co-organizer Chris Rhodes, who adds “When the foundation of a festival is supported by so many entities within one city, it’s hard to mess up. We knew coming into it that the Blues Fest was always going to reign supreme in numbers, but their system changed (charging of single shows and no free entry anymore) and it benefited us.”

Super niche and eccentric beer festivals have been on the rise, but their sustainability and capacity to draw large crowds is in question. Some of the more successful but niche beer festivals that have come online in the last few years include the NW Coffee Beer Invitational and the Collabo Fest. Meanwhile, old niche festivals like Lucky Lab’s Barleywine Fest have been on the decline. Many are not even around anymore: Rest in Peace: Saraveza IIPA Fest, Alameda Single Hop Fest, Hop & Vine’s Fire & Brimstone fest, Cascade’s Saison Fest, and Hopworks BikeToBeerFest. Even the seemingly successful new fests like Pints in the Pearl and Gose Fest are not returning for 2018.

“Most festivals are a niche, radler fest, coffee beer and donuts, sours….etc. I believe this puts you “landlocked” in variety,” says Rhodes.

“I think all fests start with an idea and a dream to accomplish something new and they do, but then maybe the forget to listen to the people that support it and evolve to meet the growing and or changing demand of the consumer,” says Weesner, noting that his opinion may change from one pint to the next “…..I mean at its core it is about customer service.”

While some think the super niche and therefore more focused beer festivals and smaller events are the wave of the future, there is debate on their sustainability.

On the more pessimistic end of the spectrum, Rhodes believes that “the “niche” festivals are stuck with only those consumers and cannot grow. PCBF can have 10 plus Hazy IPAs and be alright. Do the entire fest hazy and we are only as good as the trend sticks around.”

I would perhaps argue that a niche-themed beer festival may never reach a six figure attendance (or even a five figure), but it might be what consumers want in smaller doses, and with so many events they collectively chip away from the larger beer festivals’ attendance, similar to craft beer’s relationship to the “big beer” macro breweries. The trick is making small events profitable and not basing that profit on thousands of attendees. Another possible reason for the decline of big beer festivals is craft beer’s broader availability; why wait in lines and be crammed with the unwashed masses when good beer is at our fingertips everywhere?

Holiday Ale Festival in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square

“I think beer can be the centerpiece or focus, but you have to bring more to the table to get people excited now. We are awash in good beer, so I think a lot of fans are saying what else is there going on there?” says Weesner, on the evolving beer festival/event concept. “Education, meet the brewer, food pairing, etc.  I think we have done a good job of getting the word out and now the fans are wanting to know whats next?”

Weesner in many ways pioneered the niche beer festival here in Oregon with the Holiday Ale Festival centered around big, barrel-aged, and often spiced winter warmers that are not for everyone. That festival has been a continued success for going on 23 years. Still, it seems unlikely that these days you could grow a niche beer fest into a festival that greeted tens of thousands like HAF and PCBF. To put things into perspective – hot new beer festivals that are growing like Coffee Beer and Doughnuts are still mostly under 1K in attendance, a pittance compared to even a mid-sized event like PCBF’s 10K.

The cutbacks and cancellations are not limited to Portland, either; the growing craft beer scene in Vancouver is losing the Vancouver Summer Brewfest, Vancouver Winter Brewfest, and the Fresh Hop Fest as well. Part of the problem is that everyone wants to organize a beer fest and some seem to think it’s like printing money. Realistically, it’s incredibly expensive to run a beer festival and easy for costs to get out of control. You would probably be surprised by how many beer fests barely break even. Some of the ongoing ones don’t even make that much money but can work as a promotional event for their hosts, like Saraveza’s now defunct IIPA Fest. The hoops that the city of Portland will make you jump through for clearing a public street or park are difficult and expensive. It is necessary to get a city hall endorsement, a permit from the fire marshal, and an OLCC permit for the event itself. Then let’s talk about insurance, renting barricades if you are closing a street, notifying neighbors by writing in advance that streets or parking may be occupied, noise ordnance, private security, jockey boxes, draft trailers, and ice, just to name a few logistical items. You can easily be paying thousands for just a tent and 1K or more for ice (depending on the size of your festival), and then where are you going to store all those kegs before and after the fest?

Portland Craft Beer Festival

If you are going to launch a new beer festival, Chris Rhodes urges you to do some research and build you relationships. The keys are “suupport and timing! Not from brewers but the city, parks dept., and neighborhood association.” Rhodes also is big on community. “Don’t lay an egg on top of another! Do the research. Beer geeks have a following and they tend to lead the pack of consumers on what’s “cool” and what is not. PCBF is the largest contributor to the Oregon Brew Crew. You know, the friend you have that brews at home and you ask what’s the latest trends and must see events. The same group that has supported OBF all these years and suddenly gets nothing for it now! Coincidence that OBF takes a day away this year? Losing local support!”

Chris Crabb, who has and does still work on many of Oregon’s largest beer festivals, from the OBF to Holiday Ale Festival, and last year co-founded the defunct Brewfest in the Park, is still optimistic.“I think there are a lot of beer festivals in this town, and that may lead to a decline in attendance as there is more of the pie to share. But I think it’s fantastic that we have so many different festivals that hone in on specific styles of beer.”

She is right, the city of Portland has been growing by leaps and bound – more than 40 thousand new residents per year in 2015 and 2016 and over 30 thousand in 2017. Portland is known for its beer, so many of them likely moved here in part due to our beer culture, or are quite likely to discover and fall in love with it. Now we have Hazy Days and the Brewstillery Fest, Beer and Doughnuts and the NW Coffee Beer Invitational, just to scratch the surface. The sky is not falling yet for beer organizers, but staying relevant against increasing competition that doesn’t look to let up soon is key.

“For festivals that are over ten years old, it is a hard pill to swallow that they are no longer a trend setter and have to change some staples that made them who they are” says Rhodes, never one to mince words. “Old owners are rarely seen at other events, therefore, see little in what works and what doesn’t. Even rarer is one who works multiple festivals to take bits and pieces from them and conquer.”

Why once successful, long-lasting events fail is a question that the best event organizers will keep asking themselves. “Aome fail to evolve, others do not change to meet the customers needs, I mean you can certainly pick a few that almost seem formulaic in nature and when you think about it, what makes it special anymore?  It has to be more than about the beer to quote a friend of mine……” says Weesner.

Art Larrance, founder of the Oregon Brewers Festival which is the grandaddy and still largest of them all is fiercely positive on his own event.

“The Oktoberfest has been around for over 200 years in Munich as well as many of Germany beer festivals in other cities have thrived for years” says Art, seeing no end in sight. “We see the OBF as a showcase for craft beer for beer from all over the world. It gives Oregon an opportunity to boast about our beer culture of 35 years. I can’t wait to attend the 50th OBF in 19 years….I’ll be 93 then.”

For now it seems like the beer festival business will remain busy and become a survival of the fittest.

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

Discussion

  • Mark Stephens
    Mark Stephens
    Wed Jul 25, 2018 5:25 PM

    We have some of the same issues down here in San Diego. When there are multiple beer festivals held every weekend, and communities that are more well known for their elderly population and see a money-making opportunity (Rancho BEERnardo?) it diminishes my enthusiasm for such events. I’ve spent lots of time in your area and have an affinity for the gatherings that establishments like Saraveza hold, and of course, if you have the time and money to attend an event like the ones that Firestone Walker and Mikkeller have each year, that’s a great experience, but I’ll take quality over quantity 100% of the time.

    • Dave
      Dave
      Fri Jul 27, 2018 7:53 PM

      Minor point but GMO free and organic are not synonymous.

      • Samurai Artist
        Samurai Artist
        Fri Jul 27, 2018 11:50 PM

        no they are not, didnt say they were