Insiders Guide to the Oregon Brew Festival

Jeff Alworth

Tom Potter and Ted Kulongoski have declared July 23-31 "Beer Week" in the Rose City and throughout Oregon.  We are therefore doing our civic duty and offering beer-related content on Blue Oregon.  Cheers!

[Now Updated.  Details at post's end.]

Let's start with the stats: 72 beers, 30 styles, 15 states, 70,000 visitors, 1,200 volunteers, 18 years, and four--four!--days. I'm describing, of course, the Oregon Brewers Festival, that grand, sweaty celebration of malt and hop.  All grown up now (18--able to vote, no doubt a registered Dem), organizers apparently thought the Fest required an extra day to accomodate its newfound gravitas. 

Like last year, I will spend no time promoting the Fest.  You either love or hate it, and ain't nothin I can say will change your mind.  But I can help you navigate it, should you wish to brave the heat and crowds for the perfect (plastic) pint. 

General Orientation
If you wish to dodge the throngs, go early.  As the day wears on, crowds, lines, and temperatures grow.  Another word to the wise: the Fest pre-buys kegs and allocates a certain amount to each day; by early evening, the favorites begin to run dry.  The earlier you go, the more variety you'll find.  Although the weekend looks to be cooler than the last couple days have been, sun and beer make a potent combination, so drink lots of water and make sure you eat before you go.  Tote sunscreen, hats, water bottles, and bus fare as needed. 

If you actually want to appreciate the beers, start with lighter, less-hoppy beers and work toward intensely-flavored, hoppy ones.  Once you've downed a couple Imperial IPAs, your tongue will be coated with a protective layer of hop resin, and dainty blonde lagers might as well be water for all your palate will know.  (Some of you appreciate only hoppy beers.  Ignore previous.) 

Finally, to help you navigate the manifold selection, we have created two printable (.pdf) checklists: one with breweries sorted by style and one sorted by state.

Obf_1With 72 beers on offer, even ambitious drinkers will have to be selective.  Your job is made somewhat easier by breweries like BridgePort and New Belgium who sent their ubiquitous Ropewalk and Fat Tire.  Why on earth breweries don't take advantage of the opportunity to experiment a little is beyond me.  Fortunately some do: Deschutes sent a beer called "Enigma," and Widmer the almost-as-enigmatic "Halo."  You'll find the beers that appeal to you, and I wouldn't presume to steer you away from them.  But mixed in among the 72 are a good dozen beers you should give strong consideration to, and four you shouldn't miss. 

Nuevo Noir Ale - Lagunitas Brewing, Petaluma CA
Three of my big four are Belgian-style ales, which reflects a mini-trend at this year's fest.  First up is a Flanders Brown (aka Oud Bruin) from Lagunitas.  This style of beer is characterized by a classic sour Belgian note, but balanced with an approachable sweetness.  The brewery told me that they've been experimenting with Belgian yeast strains, and this beer has more a figgy, dark-fruit sweetness and less sourness.  Flanders Browns are rare even in Belgium (Liefmans is the most well-known)--for a domestic brewery to make a run at this style is all the rarer still.

Saison de Lily - Magnolia Pub, San Francisco

The Saison style was one of the most endangered until the good beer revolution revived it.  Brewed mainly in small farmhouses, put away for winter cellaring, and drunk during the summer months, saisons (SAY zhan) combine all the attributes that appeal to IPA drinkers--robust alcohol, dry palate, and complex flavor.  Magnolia's version (named for brewer Dave McLean's daughter) is brewed with chamomile, coriander, dandelion leaf and telicherry pepper.  The coriander is responsible for what Dave describes as an orange-like quality.  It will also be slightly sweeter than typical Belgian offerings, but not quite as strong (6.0 abv).

Yuzu's Belgian-Style Golden Ale - Elysian Brewing, Seattle
Black Gold Emperial Stout - Full Sail Brewing, Hood River

The most famous Belgian golden is Duvel ("Devil"), and it characterizes the style: rich, creamy, and seductively drinkable (but very strong).  I couldn't find any info on Yuzu, but I've grown to trust Elysian, which consistently makes authentic--and usually exceptional--versions of classic beer styles.  Imperial stouts were originally created by British brewers for the Russian Czars, and are incredibly dense, rich, and alcoholic.  As with Yuzu, I wasn't able to contact the brewery about Black Gold, but Full Sail has a long track record with porters and stouts.  This ought to be a special beer.

Short List
There are a number of other beers I plan to seek out.  Here's a list with something for every palate. 

Wisconsin's Sprecher Brewing is bringing their seasonal Mai Bock.  Where the Northwest is rich in British-style ales, the Midwest, with its German heritage, boasts a number of top notch lager micros.  Sprecher was one of the first, and this is a classic German style--and a good way to start the fest.  Another beer that won't spoil your palate will be Walking Man's Flip Flop Pilsner.  The brewery consistently wins people's choice awards at area fests, and knows its way around a hop back.  I expect this to be a particularly aggressive version of the old Bohemian classic, but I can't be sure that it refers to Bush's position on firing Karl Rove.   One more beer to try early in the day is French Prairie Blanche, a Belgian wit (white) beer by Golden Valley Brewing.  Named for a hop-producing region south of Champoeg park, it is a tart interpretation of a wit that brewer Mark Vickery originally sampled in Bruges, Belgium.

As you look for more robust beers, you might like Siletz Chocolate Porter, made not with chocolate but oats, which creates a creamy texture out of the chocolatey malt.  Rogue is offering a Schwarzbier, which is the name of the beer and also a famous black lager style from Germany.  Generally light-bodied but rich, this might be the perfect July dark beer. 

For hops, you have many options. Russian River Brewing (Santa Rosa, CA) is bringing an IPA called Pliny the Elder--satisfying even before you learn that Pliny was the Roman who first named the hop plant--lupus salictarius "wolf among scrubs."  From New Hampshire comes Smuttynose IPA, named best American beer at the 2002 Great British Beer Festival.  On my visits to my wife's homeland in Maine, I've enjoyed tippling Smuttynose ales, so I look forward to welcoming them to Oregon.  Among the 14 other IPAs pouring, I recommend Ashland's Standing Stone IPA.  I had this beer a couple years ago when I visited Southern Oregon, and recall it fondly.  Finally, you might also see what the buzz is on Deschutes Enigma, Widmer Halo, and Steelhead Perigrin Took Pale.  Any or all might be classics.

If none of those satisfy--well, you still have 56 more from which to choose.  If, among those 56, you find one I should know about, just look around.  I'm likely to be wandering around somewhere.  Hope to see you there--


Fave beers post-tasting (always more well-informed).  Yuzu's Golden (Elysian) - Dense and rich, the best Belgian-style at the fest.  Mucho complexity, from the layered palate to the vinous, tart yeast.  Yum.  Flip Flop Pilsner (Walking Man) - The only problem with pilsners is that even the really nice ones could use more hops.  Walking Man gives 'em to me.  I could drink it all day long.  Deschutes Enigma - It's rare to find a beer that can achieve complexity to through soft, subtle notes.  Aged in pinot casks, so perhaps that's the thing.  Try to guess the alcohol content: you'll be surprised.  Black Gold (Full Sail) - It was 85 degrees and I thought it was delicious.  What would I think when it was 40 and raining?  Scary.  Pliny the Elder (Russian River) - Since the untimely demise of Sasquatch Strong, the world has seemed a little empty.  Not any more.]

  • (Show?)

    Aaah.... My favorite weekend of the year.

    Thanks for the guide, Jeff. I tried a few (ok, well, seventeen) of the beers. (Not to worry, many were sips shared among friends.)

    The crowd favorite so far appears to be the Lilikoi Wheat from Kona Brewing (Hawaii). The name doesn't give it away, but it's (very lightly) infused with passion fruit. Unlike most fruit beers (Raccoon Lodge's Raspberry Wheat, I'm talking about you) it isn't syrupy or sugary.

    Anderson Valley (home of the brilliant Boont Amber) arrived with something called Summer Solstice Cerveza Crema. Like Boont, it's eminently quaffable.

    More notes tomorrow.

  • devyn (unverified)

    Is it just me, or are the pdf links not working?

  • (Show?)

    Thanks Devyn--issue corrected.

  • (Show?)

    so if you see some guy walking around with four kids, an unusual site in Portland for sure, that's me. see y'all there tonite.

  • (Show?)

    I missed you, Paul! But I think there were more kids there last night than any time in recent memory. A good trend indeed.

  • (Show?)

    Jeff, Actually, we arrived Friday night at 7 pm, waited 15 minutes to even get in, saw the 15 100-deep line to buy mugs, walked around a bit, turned to one another, and said "let's go to the County Cork."

    It looked like a fun affair but way too crowded and the crowd was way too drunk for my taste.

    I guess I hope they'll develop some spinoff affairs in local taverns and restaurants for those of us so boring that we need a more stolid affair.

    That being said, I'm thrilled this is turning into such a huge event for Portland.

    Jeff, let's hook up via email and share a brew soon in celebration at least!

  • (Show?)

    Yeah, Friday night at 7 p.m. is exactly the wrong time to show up. Earlier Friday afternoon, Saturday mid-day, or anytime Sunday is the time to be there.

  • Justin (unverified)

    Aaaah...the Brewer's Festival. I must say, the best Portland event of the year!

    A while back I saw an opinion piece in one of the local paper's lamenting the decline of the Rose Festival as a true Portland tradition, and that it has been declinging. While I can't say if that is true or not, it would almost seem that the Brewer's Festival would make an excellent replacement for the "quintessential Portlandia event."

    Of course, we would also need a beer parade, and that Lovejoy fountain needs to finally be filled with beer...

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