The sun beat down on Tom McCall Waterfront Park as a gaggle of fraternity brothers tried to get a cheer going from the line for Rusty Truck's Licensed to Kill IPA. At that point, the IPAs were the only beers that had significant lines. For some reason, there wasn't a line for the the Birra Pazza al Pesto from Zoiglhaus that I was sipping on. Probably because it tasted like an actual glass of pesto sauce.
The annual Oregon Brewers Festival has an indecent amount of beer. From run of-the-mill IPAs to Mexican cake-flavored beers, there's something for everybody. It draws a slightly different crowd than most of the city's beer festivals. Here, the stereotypicals schlubby, bearded beer geek is joined by women in sundresses and ripped twentysomethings wearing matching Star Wars-themed tuxedo t-shirts. Also, there are lots of people wearing kilts for some reason.
It's hot. It's packed. And OBF 2016 became a frantic race to drink all 112 beers before it devolved into the world's largest outdoor frat party. From Oregon to Minnesota to Beijing, I traveled all across the waterfront park to collect them all in my quest to become a true Beer Master.
But slow down there, Smokey, you're not ready to drink 'em all yet! As every successful beer trainer knows, you have to follow the three P's if you want to win any beer festival:
Planning: You need to know when, where and what beers are available at all times. You'll never drink them all if you're asleep at the switch when they tap the smallest of small batch beers. While the beers in the north and south tents at OBF are relatively static, the international beer garden featured a series of rotating Japanese and Chinese taps, like my personal favorite from OBF this year, 9 Market's Yellow Sky Pale Ale. Your best bet is to schmooze with the brewers hanging out at that very garden to get an idea of the order in which the beers are being tapped.
Pacing: Just because the server poured well over the taster line—which they always do—doesn't mean you have to drink it all. See Willamette Week's Facebook Live video of yours truly prancing around the beer tent last Wednesday for further information about the importance of pacing.
Putting on the Right Clothes: At a huge beer festival, you're going to be there a long time and you need to dress comfortably. That means linen instead of denim—ideally, you'll throw your denim in the incinerator where it's always belonged. Per the many gentlemen in camo kilts at OBF 2016, I gather that those breathe fairly well.
Like most Portlanders, OBF 2016 wasn't my first rodeo with the second-largest beer festival in the country. It was my second. As a young, foolhardy alcohol enthusiast, I once decided to venture out to the Oregon Brewers Festival alone on Saturday afternoon. I didn't drink 'em all that day. I didn't even get drunk. Between the forty-minute wait in line for beer and incessant hooting and hollering whenever a mug was raised somewhere in the park, I swore I'd never return to OBF.
Never to return, that is, until Willamette Week paid me to go and also bought me 112 tokens.
Wednesday: Rookie Mistakes
It was a perfectly pleasant sunny afternoon at the waterfront. Most of the job-havers were still at work, leaving the Oregon Brewers Festival to the serious beer drinkers like yours truly. The lines weren't only short, you actually had to actively seek them out.
With the temperature just rising over 80 degrees, I opted to make my first beer of OBF a nice, light summery one: the Pacific Porter from Japan's Baird Brewing. I drank it all. Shonan Beer's IPA Mosaic followed. I drank it all. The Lemurian Lager from Mt Shasta Brewing went after that. I drank it all. The photo of the next beer is a little blurry but it appears to have been Lang Bräu's Schwarz & Weiss that made it out here from Germany. I drank it all.
Now I know what you're thinking. "What about the second P, dingus?" Well, 112 beers sounds like quite a bit, but it doesn't seem so bad when you're staring at a 3 oz taster. One's mind doesn't really do the math; three hundred and thirty six ounces of beer is an abstract number. Like Icarus, my hubris and giddiness overcame me and I forgot that 336 ounces of beer is a hell of a lot of beer for one day.
Drinking full tasters also presented a timing issue. A day at OBF runs from noonish to 9 pm. Even if you're chugging every one of these tasters, walking to, waiting in line for and drinking 112 different beers is a tall order. Especially if you factor in all the time you'll waste vomiting.
Day one was a learning experience. I had confirmed my suspicions that I could drink a fair amount of beer, but I was still far from a Beer Master. I was only a quarter of the way to drinking 'em all.
Armed with the experience and hangover from the first failed attempt to take the OBF Gym, I returned the next day in linen pants and a Hawaiian shirt. A heat wave was underway. But no beer trainer worth his suds would let something like 90+ degrees get in the way.
The crowd was much as it was the day before, albeit the ratio of dumpy beer dudes to Greek-types was slightly different. Minimal time spent in line combined with pouring out the majority of tasters after a sip allowed for a machine-like efficiency. I ended up burning through all of the southern domestic tents and much of the northern tents over the course of the day.
Powering through more than 60 beers in a day is an odd experience. You don't get a chance to savor or really explore the flavors of each beer; instead, they blend together. A seemingly endless series of beer-flavored beer interrupted by the occasional sour or pesto beer.
It's the Berliner weisses that stand out most. They're this crisp, light, fruity reprieve from the blistering heat. You don't fully know how refreshing Oakshire's Sun Made Cucumber Berliner Weisse is until you've tasted it on 94-degree afternoon. My biggest takeaway from the week at OBF is that I now think this style is actually good and not bad.
Alas, the clock struck 9 before I had collected them all. It would take one more day at least to finish off the 12 left in my OBF beerdex.
Friday: A Beer Master Is Born
What was planned as a victory lap turned instead into an anxious campout at the International Beer Garden. The domestic taps never changed, but the Japanese and Chinese taps did. Friday was hot as the day before. I bought a new, loose and billowy linen shirt for the occasion—you'd be amazed what drinking a ton of beer over three-consecutive does not help your silhouette, it turns out.
The crowd was different than before. It's one of those transitions that you don't really notice until you spend several consecutive days at OBF. The beer geeks were all but gone. Willamette Week banned the use of the word "bro" years ago, which makes the crowd somewhat difficult to describe. There are more specific words—like "chode" or "douchenozzle"—but those are all too pejorative and cruel labels for this innocuous crowd. This sea of fit, attractive twentysomethings felt more like one of those lame frat parties in college or that time I foolishly signed up for a PR lecture or those halcyon dollar beer nights at Taylor's.
(This crowd also lined up at every IPA tap and ordered full pours because I don't think they understood what beer festivals are all about.)
I chatted up brewers in the international tent while waiting for the specific beers to pour, ducking out to spend my own personal tokens on fruity beers like Oakshire or Sasquatch's Nancy Cherrygan. That's when I found out the bad news: Shiga Kogen was out of Isseki Sancho, one of the final beers on my list.
Remember when I said planning was important? It's what separates the beer masters from the mere beer trainers. Shiga Kogen's brewers told me that they'd run out of their strong ale the day before.
But just when all hope seemed lost, I had managed to have a Shiga Kogen Pale Ale that doesn't appear in OBF's official beerdex. A rare beer cancels out an uncommon beer in this soon-to-be-Beer Master's in-no-way arbitrary thinking.
My final beer was the Nebula from Brouwerij Frontaal. In the grand scheme of things, a smoked porter is a lousy summer beer. The heavy body and smoky flavor are the last thing you want in your mouth when you're hot, sweaty and somewhat dehydrated. It wasn't bad for the style, It just wasn't right.
But it did cement my status as Portland's resident Beer Master. I'd tasted 112 different beers over three sun-drenched days. In a way, my entire time as a professional opinion haver for Willamette Week had all been preparing me for this day or something. In a more accurate takeway, I'm never going to drink every beer at a gigantic beer festival ever again. At least not until some foolhardy young beer enthusiast tries to unseat me at OBF next year.