Oregon has a love affair with beer that stretches back to 1888, when Portland brewer Henry Weinhard offered to pump beer from his brewery through the pipes of the Skidmore Fountain to celebrate its unveiling.
In the days before Prohibition, every beer was as individual as the brewmaster who made it. Back then, a strong thirst would send a man or woman down to the corner saloon for some cool lager drawn fresh from the tap. Usually the beer was made at a nearby brewery, and it was distinctive - rich in malts, hops and character. Then came Prohibition, wiping out nearly all the Pacific Northwest breweries. A handful carried on, but by the end of World War II, most local beer was poured from just a few regional kettles.
Then, starting in the early 1980s, a group of entrepreneurial beer lovers with a taste for beer and a head for business started individually opening small, commercial beer-making enterprises known as microbreweries.
The microbrewery, today more commonly referred to as the craft brewery, has brought back much of the old-style tradition of beermaking. Beers are once again made with all-natural ingredients: malt, hops and yeast. The beer is produced in small, handcrafted batches according to recipes that are far too costly and time-intensive for huge commercial breweries. But this time, ales, stouts and porters are the beer of choice rather than less-flavorful industrial lagers. Craft brewers didn't want to make the same product as the big brewers. They turned to ales, because the yeast provided more distinctive and varying flavors. Ales were also preferred because they took less equipment and one-third the amount of time to ferment.
The craft brewing movement was slow to start, but once it caught on, it exploded. In 1985, there were 21 craft breweries in America, including microbreweries, contract brewers (beer brewed by an entity that is not owned by the brewing company whose name is on the label) and brewpubs (a restaurant and brewery on the same premise). Today there are more than 3,000.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, there is a concentration of microbreweries unmatched anywhere in the country. Portland itself holds the honor of being America's unofficial brewpub capital, with more microbreweries and brewpubs than any other city in the world.
It was in Portland that Oregon's first microbrewery was opened. Charles "Chuck" and Shirley Coury operated their own winery for fifteen years before turning to beermaking. They founded Cartwright Brewing Company in 1980 at 617 SE Main St. in Portland. They produced and marketed a light ale called Portland Beer, which they sold in area taverns and restaurants. The beer sold for about $1 a bottle.
The Courys began brewing Portland Beer by keeping the beer under pressure through the bottling stage. After running into too many technical and financial difficulties with this method, they emulated other small breweries using traditional methods of natural conditioning in the bottle.
The brewery closed at the end of 1981 - the beer wasn't great, and supposedly the bottling was downright poor. According to beer writer Fred Eckhardt, Coury's last brew was auctioned off at $1 per case to help pay off the county's personal property tax lien.
In 1984, Dick and Nancy Ponzi, a local wine making family, teamed up with brewer Karl Ockert, graduate of the University of California at Davis' Malting and Brewing Sciences program, to establish the 600-barrel Columbia River Brewery. Setting up shop in a three-story, century-old former rope factory (the historic Portland Cordage Company Building), in Portland's industrial Northwest neighborhood, they founded what is better known today as BridgePort Brewing Company.
The Ponzis used word of mouth to invite people in to the pub, since microbrews still were so new to the general consumer. "People were so intrigued with the idea that they overlooked our klutziness!" explained Nancy.
Two brothers, Kurt and Rob Widmer, having trouble finding beer in the U.S. that they like to drink, began making beer for themselves and their friends. Tired of "working for the man," Kurt and Rob decided to turn their hobby into a vocation, quit their jobs and cobbled together a brewery. They scrounged up parts wherever they could, and built Widmer Brothers Brewing Company in an industrial part of NW Portland. The brewery officially opened on April 2, 1984. Brewmaster Kurt Widmer had traveled to Zum Urige, a prestigious brewery in Dusseldorf, German to learn about Altbier (old beer). As a result of his research, the brewery featured an altbier and a weizenbier, their interpretation of a filtered wheat beer.
The idea of microbreweries began to catch on in Oregon, and so did the cooperative spirit. Brewers began working together to change the laws to allow the concept of a brewpub, citing that it was no different from having a tasting room in a winery. Oregon legislature viewed microbrewing as a homegrown industry that needed the help; thus, in 1985, the law changed. That same year, Mike and Brian McMenamin opened Oregon's first pro-prohibition brewpub, the Hillsdale Brewery & Public House in SW Portland. That same year, McMenamins became the first brewery in the USA to legally use fruit in the brewing of ales - raspberries - for Ruby Ale, one of their standard ales.
Art Larrance and Fred Bowman opened Oregon's fourth microbrewery, Portland Brewing Company, on March 28, 1986. High school buddies, the two started as homebrewers who decided to go commercial. They signed a consulting agreement with (the now late) Bert Grant and rented a building at 1339 NW Flanders. At first they brewed Grant's Scottish Ale, Grant's Russian Imperial Stout, and Grant's Winter Ale under license from Bert Grant's Yakima Brewery in Washington. Bowman and Larrance then added their own Portland Ale to round out their repertoire.
In 1987, two Hillsboro High alums decided to put on the Papa Aldos Blues Festival. They approached Art and Fred with the idea of selling the beer at a one-day festival at Waterfront Park. Art and Fred agreed and got a permit from the OLCC. The pair thought they'd sell 16 to 20 kegs that day. In the end, they sold 76. Art would load 10 empty kegs in his truck, run up to the brewery, fill them up and run them back. By the time he arrived, the 10 he'd previously brought were already gone. The beer sold $3 for a 12-ounce glass, and that festival sold out the brewery's supply.
The Papa Aldos guys decided they didn't want to do the Blues Festival again in 1988, so they turned it over to the Blues Festival Assn, which made an arrangement with a national beer distributor. However, when the city issued the permit, it was good for two years. The Blues Festival Assn didn't want the date on the existing permit - the third weekend in July; the association wanted the Fourth of July weekend. That left an open date at Waterfront Park with a permit. Portland Brewing bought the permit from the Blues Festival Assn for $500 for July 23 & 24, with the city's permission, had that date assigned to the Oregon Brewers Festival.
It was Art who came up with the inspiration of the Oregon Brewers Festival. "I had traveled to Oktoberfest in Munich and knew what a big beer party was like," explained Art. "I wanted to create that atmosphere and expose the public to the variety of good microbrews."
The Great American Beer Festival started in 1987. According to Art, "They were the first, and it was their show - we didn't want to copy them. So whatever they did, we pretty much went the other way. They did judging, we didn't. They held their festival indoors, so we chose to go outside. They offered 1-oz samples. We decided to limit the beers and not take in all comers."
Art approached Widmer, BridgePort and McMenamins to determine their interest in participating in a festival. McMenamins was busy with its own expansion plans and wanted to participate, but declined being an organizer. The remaining three, represented by Kurt Widmer, Nancy Ponzi and Art, established the Oregon Brewers Association and set off to plan the first festival.
None of the three had ever done a huge event like this before. "We were all flying by the seat of our pants," said Art. "It was a great learning experience."
Added Nancy, "it was great fun sitting down with no real plan or agenda as we each juggled tasks and ideas. It was a total unknown how it would happen."
"We wanted to bring beers from outside this market for Portlanders to drink," recalled Kurt. "We wanted people to be able to compare our beers with other regions so they would see what was happening elsewhere in the nation."
According to Fred Eckhardt, in an article in Celebrator Beer News, "The Oregon Brewers Festival was to be a grand showing of America's finest new-wave "micro-brewed" beers. This was to be an entirely new approach to beer festivals. (T)hese entrepreneurs had invited a whole range of America's smallest and most innovative brewers to bring their best to Portland's beautiful Waterfront Park on the banks of our Willamette River."
The festival offered free admittance to everyone, including children, but required each drinker to buy a plastic mug (plastic, because the Portland Park Bureau didn't want broken glass across its most prestigious downtown park). The mug costs $1 the first year. Scrip was sold for the beer; $2 for a full serving in the mug, or $1 for a half-pint serving.
The festival itself was sponsored by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. "The group has wanted to maintain a high-level kind of festival...an educational event," said Cathi McClain, then domestic marketing specialist for the agriculture department.
The ODA acted in an advisory capacity, offering volunteers to staff the event and help with displays from the Oregon Hop Commission and Oregon Historical Society.
"We have always been supportive of wine tastings and the fledgling wine industry," McClain is quoted in an Oregonian article from July 19, 1988. "But when I'd mention microbrewing to people they thought I was talking about some sort of biology study."
Larrance, Bowman, the Ponzis and the Widmers enlisted the help of everyone they knew to pull off the event. Family members and friends pitched in wherever they could to make the event work. The Oregon Brew Crew, an independent group of homebrewers, took on the responsibility of volunteers.
"Everyone knew how important this event was for the state and for the industry," explained Kurt. "It was a community effort that made it all come together."
The first OBF took place on a Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, between the Hawthorne and Morrison bridges. Oregon's then governor, Neil Goldschmidt, had declared July as "Oregon Microbrewery Month."
There were 22 breweries from six different states participating that first year: Bayern Brewing, BridgePort, Deschutes, Full Sail, Widmer, Portland, McMenamins, Alaskan, Redhook, Sierra Nevada, Hales Ales, Anderson valley, Oregon Trail, Grant's, James Page, Hart Brewing, Kessler Brewing, Thomas Kemper, Buffalo Bill's, Hibernia Brewing, Saxton Brewing Co, & Triple Rock.
According to Stuart Ramsay, then in charge of sales and marketing for BridgePort, in an Oregonian article from July 19, 1988, "This is a purist festival. No bottled beer or extract beers will be available," he said. "(T)his unique event will feature only fresh, draft beers."
The anticipated attendance at that first event was 5,000. However, when the weekend was over, more than 15,000 had poured through the gates. The festival was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. It was hot, there were limited coolers, and the coolers that were there kept breaking down. The beer was foamy and the festival ran out of it. Local participants kept running back to their breweries to keep beer in stock.
The organizers learned that people were tolerant, well-mannered and enjoyed the festival atmosphere. Despite the glitches, the event came off amazingly well for a first-year event. "The immediate feeling afterward was that we were ready to do it again," said Nancy. "We were delighted with the response and thrilled that we were able to pull it off!"
The first festival was billed as an opportunity for sampling. The original idea was to bring in microbrews from outside of the region so people could sample what wasn't readily available to them. By exposing the public to microbrews, it gave legitimacy to the product.
"Brewers wanted to come to this festival for a variety of reasons," explained Kurt. "We were the first non-judging beer event. And we were brewers ourselves, not outside promoters. The brewers supported us because the event was incidental to what we were all doing."
In 1993, the City of Portland asked the festival to move its date from the 3rd weekend in July to the last full weekend in order to give the park's grass time to recover from the Blues Festival, which was on the 4th of July. Back then, the Blues Fest was held at the same location as the OBF.
Other changes have taken place over the years. The festival expanded to three days in 1990, and went to four days in 2005. "We weren't sure anyone would come, but we were wiling to try. It turned out to be a huge success," said Larrance. So much so that in 2013, the event expanded to a five-day festival; festival purists now swear that Wednesday is the best day to attend.
The festival added its second big tent in 1994, to increase circulation and allow for a more comfortable tasting ambience. More beer trailers were brought in the last few years to spread out the number of taps and alleviate the lines.
In 2013, in an effort to improve the tasting experience for the guest and to be more environmentally responsible, the festival switched to a tasting glass instead of the traditional plastic mug. It was well received by the attendees; however, the Portland Police Bureau saw safety issues and as a result, required the festival to return to plastic in 2015. The festival switched to a high-quality polycarbonate glass that allowed for the color and clarity of the beer to shine through. In 2016, it retained the polycarbonate material but switched back to a mug.
Other than that, except in terms of attendance and number of breweries, most of the festival has stayed the same. The festival is still very much a grassroots effort, despite being an event that annually draws 80,000 and brings in an estimated $33 Million to the Multnomah County economy.
When asked if he could have ever imagined the success of the festival, Larrance replied,"Yes and no. Having gone to Munich with its 200-year tradition, I could see where a lot of people liked to congregate around beer. But I never anticipated the OBF would grow to the magnitude of popularity and international recognition that it currently experiences."
Thanks to the foresight of Art Larrance, Dick and Nancy Ponzi and Kurt and Rob Widmer, the Oregon Brewers Festival is a true craft brewing success story, one that all beer lovers hope will continue for many years to come.