If you have taken part in the pacific northwest craft beer scene in the last 30+ years you are probably familiar with the legacy of Art Larrance. In 1986 Larrance (along with Fred Bowman) opened Portland Brewing, two years later he started the Oregon Brewers Festival (OBF), and in 1998 he opened Cascade Brewing. But in the recent weeks a sale of Cascade Brewing was completed, and this years OBF was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
For the latest in The New School’s Fireside Chats video series we sat down with Larrance in his backyard while enjoying a hoagie and a pitcher of Cascade Portland Ale. We talked for hours about everything from the early days of craft beer to traveling in Europe, school and hobbies. This is a condensed version of the conversation.
As Larrance tells it, when he and Fred Bowman joined Widmer, McMenamins and Bridgeport in opening craft breweries, it wasn’t with any aspirations to compete with the big guys. Larrance wanted to carve out a small piece at the bottom. But it turned out, the piece they carved out for themselves would come out of the top, and be bigger than they ever imagined.
“We could not have written a better script for ourselves,” said Larrance.
Though Portland Brewing was a pioneer, outside interests other than Larrance’s prevailed when he was essentially fired from the company by stock holders in 1994. With real estate to his name and the already hugely successful Oregon Brewers Festival up and running, Larrance wasn’t initially sure that he wanted to open another brewery. But he did know that if he did, it would have to be without stockholders and major investors to be beholden to. After dragging his feet for a few months, Larrance was able to purchase the property to open Raccoon Lodge/Cascade Brewing for $185K in 1995. It took him nearly 4 years of burning money before it was able to open in 1998 and another 8 years to achieve notoriety and find identity as an early pioneer of northwest sour ales. Yet again, Larrance was ahead of his time. But his time has now came to move on from the brewing company.
“I was looking for a buyer, I had been thinking about it for awhile,” says Larrance of selling Cascade. “Not because of the virus. It was just a coincidence that that came along, and I am so thankful that they maintained their interest in it.”
Ramie Mount, the lead investor on the purchase of Cascade Brewing had been a longtime customer at the lodge and friend of the brewery. In a casual conversation in January, Larrance asked Mount if he would be interested in purchasing Cascade.
“I said ‘Hey Ramie, why don’t you buy me,’ ‘what, you want to sell? well I think I would be interested!'” recalls Larrance, it didn’t take long for Mount to put together a new ownership group that took posession of Cascade Brewing as of April 1st. Larrance retains the majority of the stock in the company, but will sell it over a 5 year and 4 phase agreement. And he still owns the property.
“I’m 76, it’s time to go smell some roses,” says Larrance from his quiet backyard in southwest Portland not far from Cascade Brewing’s The Lodge location.
Visiting southeast Oregon, staying at his second home in Manzanita and trips to Portugal and Scotland are the things Larrance wants to do now. But, he hasn’t forgotten about OBF, which is still arguably the most famous beer festival in America alongside the Great American Beer Festival.
In a statement released on Monday, Larrance wrote We are devastated to share that we have made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 Oregon Brewers Festival…the health and safety of our guests, vendors, staff and volunteers is our top priority, and we have decided the risk of holding the festival is too great. The letter goes on to explain that the festival does not take this step lightly, but for Larrance it was not that difficult.
“It was not a hard decision to say ‘no, we’re not gonna do it this year'” says Larrance, seeming at ease with the situation. “I just don’t think people are ready to congregate.”
OBF likely wouldn’t be possible to hold in it’s current form anyway, as Oregon Governor Kate Brown has banned large gatherings until atleast September.
But Larrance does not plan to walk away from OBF, it’s still a passion project for him, even though he has flirted with selling the fest.
“I think my daughter and granddaughter want to keep doing it, and Teddy Peets and I,” says Larrance, who wants the festival to perpetuate itself with an organic growth and change that continues to advance the craft beer culture. “I thought about other owners, but I’m not ready to do anything at this time.”
What does the future of craft beer hold? Larrance doesn’t know, but the plan is for OBF to return to Portland’s waterfront park next July 28-31st 2021. As for the future of the festival and the shape of the industry after the pandemic, Larrance has opinions but offers no prognostications.
“My crystal ball has a crack in it, I can’t really read it that well anymore,” he says.
Art Larrance knows the industry has changed and the future is uncertain, but he seems at ease with that, like a man who has accomplished all he wants in life.
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.