Preston Weesner is the owner of the festival and the face of the event. As much as HAF is a product of Weesner’s personal taste and preferences and tied to his own reputation in the industry, it started out as something far more mundane. Weesner did not found the festival, but purchased it in 2002, at a time when organizers were still struggling to find the event’s footing and voice.
“Back then there were two 10 x 40 tents with a gap in between, so you would run through the rain to get a beer in one tent and run back through the rain to maybe get food or talk,” says Weesner.
“It was kind of a winter takeoff of the OBF, you could say, but, the difference being that there was going to be rain, there was no doubt about it.”
The Winter Ale Festival, as it was originally called, was the brainchild of Gill Campbell of Campbell Productions, who pitched it to Art Larrance of the Oregon Brewers Festival. Larrance teamed with local marketing firm Koopman Ostbo to produce the festival, with Campbell at the helm. The idea was to capitalize on local breweries’ winter releases and featured such winter flagships as Full Sail Wassail, Rogue Yellow Snow, and Golden Valley Tannen Bomb.
After a modestly successful first two years, the owners decided they did not want to continue, but Larrance wanted to retain the Winter Ale Festival name for possible use in the future. Campbell took over and decided to take a year off before returning under the new name Holiday Ale Festival with the biggest tent she could find.
“I think it was a 40′ x 40′, and they had another one next to it,” recalls Weesner who volunteered the first year and came back as the bar manager. At the time, Weesner was not in the beer industry and worked in heavy construction. He found himself regularly lying to his boss so that he could get off and help at beer festivals.
Preston Weesner (left) in 2008. Photo by by Matt Wiater.
“My boss was a very Christian man and didn’t believe in alcoholism,” remembers Weesner. “If I told him I needed time off for a beer fest, he would say I don’t know if I can get behind that. But if I told him I was going elk hunting with all the boys, he was excited to hear that. Maybe we didn’t get an elk, but maybe drank some whisky by the fire and had a great time.”
Weesner would help out “Carpenter Carl,” a guy who builds the sets and constructs much of the infrastructure at OBF and then at HAF. They would come in and set up chairs or build walls, then help the keg crew load trucks or hook up jockey boxes to pour. At the time fest owner Campbell was also running an event at the Portland International Raceway called the Portland Historic Races that was very successful. Eventually, she scored a plum gig running Laguna Seca Raceway in California; this led to her giving up the Holiday Ale Festival, which had accrued some debt.
“I didn’t know you could buy a beer fest,” exclaims Weesner, recalling the day when Campbell asked him if he wanted to purchase the event. “I truly loved the event, it had a feel like no other. You’re underneath a tent drinking beer in Pioneer Courthouse Square, where it’s illegal to drink. So many things about it were so wrong, but it was so right.” So Weesner cashed in some retirement funds, lined up some investors, and raised the capital to buy the fest. He took over in 2002 with Campbell onboard to co-manage. In 2003, Campbell left Weesner to run the fest on his own. “It was like being dropped in the water and not knowing how to swim,” remembers Weesner, who had helped at OBF as a volunteer organizer and bar manager. This would be his first event where he was really in charge. In 2003, the Holiday Ale Festival had an attendance of about 2,800, and the beer list was nowhere near as unique and crazy as it is today.
“If you have been drinking long enough, you know there was a time in the brewery world where they had their core lineup, and they had a spring, a fall, and a winter seasonal, and that was as exciting as it got.” The HAF poured around 21 or 22 beers from about half that many breweries; they were the standard fourth quarter seasonal releases that you could find at the breweries and local bars. “We were still young enough in our understanding of festivals and beers that the true Northwest beer drinker wasn’t there yet; and the people who show up in the rain and the cold and still drink weren’t showing up yet.”
2008 Holiday Ale Festival by Matt Wiater for portlandbeer.org
Eventually breweries started making more specialty beers; they had to have an early summer seasonal and a late summer seasonal, etc. The transition to the big, barrel-aged and spiced beer lineup that the Holiday Ale Festival is known for now actually happened gradually. HAF was one of the first fests to collaborate with brewers on new exclusive beers. It was a natural continuation of Weesner’s friendly relationship with brewers at places like New Old Lompoc and Max’s Fanno Creek. “I had friends who were brewers. We would get together and talk and say ‘hey, what do you wanna make?’ These ideas would just spring forth.” Weesner credits some of the growth in variety to Widmer’s Collaborator project with the Oregon Brew Crew, where they actively sought to brew unrepresented styles that were not readily available. “It really encouraged brewers to step it up a notch,” says Weesner. “It was easy to talk to the brewers and say, ‘hey, is there anything you have always wanted to brew and haven’t?’ They’d say, ‘I’ve always wanted to make a Baltic Porter,’ so they’d make it and we’d release it at the fest.”
The transition to big, dark and barrel-aged wasn’t really a conscious one, and even now, Weesner feels people ignore that there are other styles and lower ABVs represented in their lineup. He’s even found he’s had to push against brewers going too far toward the bigger darker beers. “We have actually tried to talk breweries down on the ABV sometimes,” reveals Weesner.
The festival now sends out about 275 applications to breweries and creates a specific amount of open slots in the beer categories or styles they would like to see. “We used to take anything and everything, which was fantastic,” says Weesner on his efforts to keep the lineup diverse. But, as brewers trended down a path of making bigger, darker, and stronger beers, he has encouraged them to try different things and be creative as well as thinking about what the fans want to see. “A lot of times blogs skip over the other beers on the list. We haven’t had a pumpkin beer in a while (Weesner knocks on the table), but there was a time where that was a thing.”
HAF organizers allow for a certain number of beers in slots for categories like barrel-aged Imperial Stout, Barleywine etc.. The earlier the application comes in, the better chance the brewery has for that slot.
“One year I was calling people and being like ‘we have 17 barrel-aged stouts, is there any way you would like to make an IPA?'”
“…and they’d say ‘yeah, we totally would make an IPA, but we thought you wanted Imperial Stout.’ …I’d say buck the trend, make a sour beer, make an IPA, make a dark IPA with juniper berries, just have fun with it.”
Before 2009, you could still legally smoke in bars, restaurants, and public spaces in Oregon. The Holiday Ale Festival had by this time grown large enough to have a tent out of the Square on SW 6th Avenue. This was before Tri-Met built a MAX stop there and before the smoking ban went into effect, so it opened talks of expanding the fest outside of the limited square grounds.
“There was a time when the board looked at that to move to a place where we could get more people,” says Weesner. They were heavily courted by the newly expanded (at the time) Oregon Convention Center, to the City suggesting the new Director Park a block away from Pioneer Courthouse Square. They even talked about putting a scaffolding over Broadway to maybe branch the two spaces, but that idea was laughed out of City Hall. The platform did end up extending to the upper levels of the Square by covering it with stages, and the fest footprint now taking up about as much space as it possibly can.
Then the question became where to move the event; it certainly would be a lot easier to run and less costly at a park. Ultimately, Weesner felt “bigger isn’t necessarily going to make it better,” and that is likely why the fest will never relocate. “I feel that 23 years in, Holiday Ale is what it is and if we move it and turn it into some Woodstock event out in Gresham, I don’t know that it would be the same.” In a time where many festivals are shrinking or even ending, HAF remains a rock, even with the surging ticket prices. “We were becoming more niche,” says Weesner.
Along the way to being extremely successful, the Holiday Ale Festival has had its controversies, both minor and large. Because Pioneer Courthouse Square is a brick courtyard, the fest has never welcomed glass and always used some sort of plastic drinking vessel, but beer geeks would pack their own beer glassware and pour from the cup into the glass. “I thought that was fine,” says Weesner on Glass-gate. “I would prefer to have glass, we just could not sell glass. But that’s changed, and now we can’t have any glass at the event, period.” In 2013, the Oregon Brewers Festival had switched from its classic plastic mugs (the same type that Holiday Ale Festival used) to actual glass, but after two years of accidents and shattered glass, the Portland Parks Bureau banned it outright from all city parks (which includes the Square) in 2015.
As minor as the glassware ban is, can you imagine the signature 75-foot Christmas tree in the center of Pioneer Courthouse Square falling over?
“There was a windstorm and the wind almost blew the tree over,” recalls Weesner.
“The people who run Pioneer Courthouse Square called me and said if the tree deflects more than 1.5 degrees then you need an evacuation plan in case the tree falls over.”
That great plan was to have the draft tech guys put a keg and a jockey box on a hand truck by the exit to 6th Avenue. Weesner told the draft guys that “If the city or the police call and say the tree is going to fall then “you are going to run out there and turn the beer faucet on and I was going to get on the microphone and say ‘hey ladies and gentlemen, we have free beer on 6th Avenue right now!’ and watch everyone go out and get beers. That was the evacuation policy back then.”
Who could forget when in 2010, a Corvallis man tried to blow up Pioneer Courthouse Square just days before the Holiday Ale Festival. The plot by the Somali-born immigrant was to pack a van with explosives and blow it up outside the Square during the annual tree lighting ceremony. The plot was thwarted by the FBI, which provided the man a fake bomb and arrested him minutes before the tree lighting ceremony.
The national news story had ramifications for the Holiday Ale Festival. “That was a banner year for us,” exclaims Weesner. “We had media here from all over the world. I had to bring someone in to do my job because I was doing so many interviews.” At the time the festival was renting a white van for deliveries that looked just like the one the plotter used; they had to return it and rent a yellow one. Weesner took the whole thing in stride, despite the national media attention and security. There were black Homeland Security SUVs parked on every corner and dozens of undercover agents walking around talking into their cuffs; if someone set down a backpack, it was a whole ordeal. “Everyone had the same question: ‘How are you ramping up security?’ I was like, ‘I’m not, they caught the guy, it’s done, it’s over,'” says Weesner. “The scope we are under at the Holiday Ale Festival is much higher because we are in Portland’s Living Room.”
With all the struggles, the festival has stopped growing by leaps and bounds, and that’s just the way Weesner likes it. He recalls a time when the festival was cash only and the volunteers worked for tips. The $1 taster was so popular that it required too many staff members just to iron out the $1 bills for re-circulation, and it’s what necessitated the switch to paper tickets.
“It was like New Jack City, I had like seven people in the trailer one year trying to iron out the wrinkled bills and I was like ‘this is insane,’ it was like I was a drug lord counting cash,” laughs Weesner.
Holiday Ale Festival photo by Matt Wiater for PortlandBeer.org
While HAF is undoubtedly profitable, the fest is a bargain considering the overhead and what it delivers. While some may be up in arms about the price increases, it’s a reality that it’s just the cost of doing business in Portland’s Living Room. Pioneer Courthouse Square is an uncovered, multi-tiered, brick laden space surrounded by four busy streets. Just to pull up a truck for deliveries requires a cop to direct traffic. Setup for the five-day festival takes four days and is broken down within 24 hours. To run the event, they have to rent the square for more than twice as long.
“We are building a city where there was none,” says Weesner. “[It’s] unlike a beer festival in a grassy field, where you need 200 ft. of fence, a couple of shade tents, some waters, and a jockey box.” The Holiday Ale Festival has to bring nearly everything into the Square, from the tents, staging, floors and heaters, to even piping in water around the square for rinse stations. There isn’t even much electricity; according to Weesner, the Square has a 300-amp circuit dedicated to the Christmas tree and 800 amps for them to use that is easily overloaded. To get around this they have to be careful where they plug in what, and so they bring in heaters that run on propane. The heating is a huge concern, because if it rains, they have to worry about the bricks getting icy, which is far more dangerous than a festival on grass, gravel or dirt. The price to do business here goes up every year, including trucking, shipping, electricity, and, of course, the beer.
It’s actually amazing when you think of it that the HAF still gets away with mostly one ticket sample beers. With a lineup full of huge ales and lager, many barrel-aged or at least spiced or fruited extreme ales, the $40 entry fee balances that low cost. This is a world where $7 for a glass of 8oz of barrel-aged beer is not uncommon. Those one-ticket beers may soon even be a thing of the past, according to Weesner.
Speaking on the markup, wholesale beer distributors add to the price of kegs, Weesner says. “Distribution used to be 18-22%, now it’s a 30% margin no matter what. Other festivals are seeing it’s really tough to get a $1 beer at a reasonable taste beyond 1oz.” Weesner predicts, “I think very soon you will see it go away from the $1 taster, maybe it’s a $2 taster, I don’t know.” In many ways, some consumers don’t realize what a good deal they are getting right now.
2009 Holiday Ale Festival photo by Matt Wiater for portlandbeer.org
For good and bad, the Holiday Ale Festival helped start the exclusive, rare beer, one-off, etc. special festival/event beer release which is now so ubiquitous that it’s beginning to lose value. Even Weesner admits it. “We started something, and it got out of hand. The first time you do something, it’s ingénue, and then everybody takes it on to make it their own.” Weesner’s pivot towards specialty, exclusive beers changed the game, but now that nearly every beer is special, is anything special anymore?
“Has it gotten out of hand? I don’t know where we can go from here, from hyper alertness.”
“Do we crash to the bottom where we just want a Pilsner and a Porter? I don’t know, I love local styles. I don’t believe any festival is bulletproof.”
The Holiday Ale Festival is not immune to the oversaturation of beer festivals, a more competitive field, and more millennials staying home rather than going out. “The festival has stopped growing by leaps and bounds, it’s a comfortable number,” says Weesner, who acknowledges the need for any beer fest to stay relevant. Ultimately, the HAF is an extension of Weesner and what he wants to see at a beer festival, but he believes that it’s truly a customer service question and that the consumer will dictate the future. A great beer festival is a team event, a communal and inherently social gathering that brings people together but may cost a few more ducats than drinking by yourself in front of a screen, but it’s probably worth it.
The 23rd Annual Holiday Ale Festival will be held Nov. 28th – Dec. 2nd, 2018 at Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Holiday Ale Festival aerial shot