Insiders' Guide to the OBF - 2006 Edition

Jeff Alworth

It’s that season again, the end of July, time for the Oregon Brewers Festival, my annual insiders' guide (the first appearing five days after BlueOregon’s debut), and the requisite complaints from loyal readers who wonder what the hell beer has to do with politics.  (A lot, as it happens: without Boston pubs and the revolutions that fermented therein, the whole thing might have just fizzled.)  However, to appease the whingers this year, how about a paragraph of the political nature of the brewing industry?

Beer contributes $2.25 billion to the Oregon economy.  Oregon breweries--there are sixty independent producers, give or take--brewed the equivalent of 226 million bottles of beer in 2005.  That's up 16% over 2004, and shows that the brewing industry is back to healthy growth.  Portland is the only city to consume more than a million cases of craft beer annually--not surprising for a city with 32 independent breweries.  All of that market heft supports distributors and retailers, not to mention regional hop and barley farmers and yeast producers.  And, because Oregon brewers are on the leading edge of organic brewing, we're also creating a market for local, organically-grown ingredients. 

You see?  Going to the OBF is pretty much your civic duty. 

General Orientation
Last year, fest organizers experimented by adding an extra day; it must have been successful, for the first pours begin today at four.  My guess is that this isn't a bad time to attend--though generally, evenings are when the crowds get thick and the beer selection gets thin.  You might gamble on a first night visit, or you could more reliably show up at noon on Friday: you'll have around three hours of blissful quiet with just a handful of the most avid drinkers.  If you're lucky, you'll be in a merry mood by the time the fest turns frattish and you won't care.

A couple tips: If you actually want to appreciate the beers, start with lighter, less-hoppy varieties and save the intensely-flavored, darker, and hoppy ones for later.  This year's crop is especially rich in high-alcohol, super-hopped beer, and even one of these will ruin subsequent attempts to find subtlety in a modest wheat ale or lager. 

Even though the weathermen have forecast moderate temperatures, it's wise to drink lots of water as you go along.  You'll thank yourself the next morning.  Finally, a belly full of protein (beast or bean) tends to moderate absorption rates, so eat before you go.

To the Beers!
A glance down the list of beers reveals a growing trend: huge is in.  There are a dozen beers with modifiers like "imperial," "double," "strong," "nuclear" (okay, I made that last one up), not to mention another dozen IPAs.  Those are deep waters to swim, so take a life preserver if you go.  For my part, I like the looks of Standing Stone Double IPA and Walking Man Knuckle Dragger.  These are a couple of fantastic draft-only breweries whose beers aren't always easy to track down.  Both are over-the-top hoppy (95 and 100 IBUs respectively), but I trust the breweries to have created balanced, drinkable ales.

Wait, didn't I just say don't start with big beers?  Put those down.  Let me direct your attention instead to a nice starter beer or three.  Perhaps no beer was more suited to a sunny day than a Belgian Wit (white), and there are two at the fest.  The style is crisp, sweetish, and orangey.  Even though one comes from the center of the country, and the other is close enough to hit with a rock thrown from the fest, I'm taking the local: Roots Wit.  A close second in terms of tasty summer styles is kolsch, a dry, tart German ale, and Ballast Point from San Diego has sent a version.  Finally, Lucky Lab brewed a steam beer--a lager fermented like an ale (think Anchor Steam)--which is just deviant enough for them to turn my head.

I will move from there toward one of America's most famous breweries and its unexpected offering: Bell's Hell Hath No Fury (MI), a Belgian dubbel.  Bell's is known for their hearty, NW-style ales, so it will be interesting to see what they make of this abbey-style ale.  From Colorado and one of America's oldest breweries comes Boulder Brewing's Sweaty Betty, a Bavarian hefeweizen.  This style is brewed at high temperatures and has a banana-y, clovey quality that is contrasted with a tart, puckery finish.  It's one of the most under-appreciated styles in the NW.  To sweeten the pot, let me add that brewer David Zuckerman got his start in Portland at BridgePort.

There is a style of beer brewed in the Belgian city of Flanders that is equal parts sweet and sour, and which most people find irresistible.  It's called red, but oftentimes modified Flanders Red to distinguish the style.  The Portland outpost of Rock Bottom has tried a batch, and the style is just tasty enough to induce me to try it.  Oh, that and the name: Ned.  (Get it?) 

My favorite style, and one of the more difficult to brew, is saison.  It is something like a Belgian IPA--generally very dry and hoppy, made interesting by slightly funky yeasts and a cellary, aged quality.  It is an ancient style, and the two breweries that sent versions allude to them in their names: Flying Fish 10th Anniversary Farmhouse Summer Ale (NJ), and Jack Russell Farmhouse Ale (CA). 

Pale Ales are another summer standard, and I recommend three: Boundary Bay Double Dry Hopped Pale, Ninkasi Quantum Pale, and Widmer Hooligan.  The Boundary Bay because dry hopping makes beers wonderfully aromatic; the Ninkasi because it's a Eugene Brewery I've never heard of (new?), and Widmer because the Brothers always use the OBF as an occasion to brew up something special.

Okay, now we're ready to revisit the big boys--I have three more and then I'll desist.  Full Sail, apparently also availing themselves of the chance to brew something special, is sending Vesuvius, a Belgian golden.  If it is akin to the landmark version, Duvel, we're in for a treat.  (In this case, golden is not a euphemism for "weak"--Vesuvius is 8.5% abv.)  The McMenamin Brothers rarely catch my eye with their beer.  Their architecture, definitely--not their beer.  But White Lightning Imperial Whisky Stout?  I'm paying very close attention. (

Years ago, Eugene's now-defunct Wild Duck Brewery made a strong ale called Sasquatch.  It was perhaps my favorite big beer, a fantastic way to end a brewfest once my tongue could no longer distinguish subtle flavors.  Each year, at the end of the OBF, I greatly missed its passing (as well as the man who brewed it, Glen Falconer, who died in 2002).  While I will always miss Glen, I finally found a beer to rival Sasquatch: Pliny the Elder from Russian River.  Named for the Roman who gave the name to hops ("lupus Salictarius," or "wolf among scrubs"), he was also ironically killed in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius--a fact about which Full Sail may or may not care. It fills a long-vacant need.  Whatever you do, save a token for Pliny.  You might even offer a toast for the Sasquatch of your choice.

That's sixteen beers, which ought to at least get you started.  Report back and let us know what you found.  Cheers!

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    Enjoy, you bastards. :)

    I'm still bitter that I had to give up Oregonian and PNW brew for moving to Florida.

    So while my brothers and sisters in progress (along with the concern trolls, nutters, and other Republicans that read BlueOregon - trust me, they're worse here. I should get hazard pay from ODP.) peruse Jeff's excellent guide, you may also read my tale of woe, to wit:

    Publix, the largest supermarket chain in FL, offers domestic imports, at a price commensurate with getting the individual bottles carried by Sherpas on foot from their original breweries. Once in the year I've lived here, they had Widmer Hefeweizen. Another time, they had Red Hook. A third time, Pyramid Hef.

    The only other time I've found Widmer Hefeweizen was when my wife got it for me on my birthday. She found it at the Winn-Dixie (and it's always "the" Winn-Dixie, similar to "the" Ohio State University), at a store in our neighborhood that is scheduled to close permanently.

    I've found one local beer in Florida, despite the fact that what Pac NWers call "artesian wells" (or maybe not anymore) abound in Florida. The purest fresh water flows in underground aquifers underneath roads, bowling alleys, and high schools. Yet only Hurricane Reef is brewed locally, and it features, and I quote, "PACIFIC NORTHWEST HOPS."

    Drop Top is but a distant memory to me, as is Fat Tire, Terminator Stout, Portland Honey Beer, Lucky Lab, Bridgeport Blue Heron, any of the Rogue Ales, and even the Rock Bottom Brew Pub. Around here, the "fancy" beer is Amber Bock, by... Michelob. Pardon me while I choke back some bile.

    So enjoy the one purest event to be held by the banks of the Willamette, you bastards. To celebrate my own minor brewfest, I'll be cracking open one of my last bottles of Widmer Hef, which I hoard in my fridge like Gollum guarding his precious.

    And know that for every drop you throw away, there are Blue Floridians who'd wrassle you for it. Forget children starving in Cambodia. This is serious. Don't waste a drop.


  • E'an Todd (unverified)

    I'm seriously going to have to resist getting a full pour and then letting it spill out onto the grassy mud just to be able to strain my ears and listen for your inhuman scream echoing across amber waves of grain and purple mountains majesty.

    I'm hoping Dixie Brewing has something....miss 'em.

    Abita Springs however I can do without....still can't believe New Orleans has more breweries operating even post-wind-trouble than Florida...

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    Wow, John, that is a sad tale of woe. I'll raise my mug to all the lost souls banished from the land of good beer...

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    I don't have Jeff's tale of woe, but I do miss the beerfest, which by happy coincidence usually matches up with the weekend closest to my birthday.

    I'll have to heft an imperial pint of local ale in the UK in honour of the Brewfest. Enjoy.

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    Yeah, thanks, Jeff and E'an.

    If you can edit that post, Jeff,

    At least I can go to the NCAA Tourn...

    oh, never mind.

    The worst part? Most people around here think that this state of affairs is OKAY. The most bitching I hear (outside of, well, me and one other Oregonian) is a dull, passive longing for Rolling Rock. 99 out of 100 Floridians would tell you that the "Brothers" refer to JEB and George, not Rob and Kurt.

    To hell with this: next year I'm burning vacation days, buying a plane ticket and flying to OBF. YOU PEOPLE just don't appreciate...

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    Oops - if you can edit that post, Jeff, doesn't the Fest have its own site? Link?

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