Why does Portland have more breweries than any city on the planet?
Why is beer a $1.2 billion industry in Oregon?
Why is there a beer festival every week of the year here?
Many reasons, obviously, but if you had to pick the moment when Portland first attained the status of Beervana, it was probably July 17, 1988.
There was beer here before that, of course. Portland still had the century-old Henry Weinhard's. Across the river in Vancouver, Wash., Lucky Lager operated until 1985. Portland got its first proper craft brewery, Cartwright Brewing Company, in 1980, though it closed in 1981 after a tough year and lots of bad beer. In 1984, the modern brewpub—small breweries selling pints at their own bar—was legalized after lobbying by the Widmers, McMenamins and Ponzi family, who all started breweries. Oregon's fourth brewery, Portland Brewing, followed, opening in 1986, under the ownership of Art Larrance and Fred Bowman.
In July 1987, Larrance and Bowman cut a deal to sell beer at a blues festival on the Waterfront. Sales were quadruple what they expected—the brewery was tapped out. The blues festival wanted to move to a different weekend for 1988, so Larrance and Bowman bought the dated permit, rented tents and called 22 upstart breweries from the region to come pour beer—many familiar names like Anderson Valley, Red Hook and Sierra Nevada. Plastic festival mugs were $1 and $2 to fill.
The second festival was an even bigger success, establishing Portland as beer mecca in the minds of drinkers and brewers.
"Nobody was running around saying 'we're going to set the bar,' but that's what we were doing because we were so early in the process," says Larrance, who today owns Cascade Brewing. "When we started, there were only four breweries in the state [and we wanted to] show people in Portland that we were making pretty damned good beer."
Today, the Oregon Brewers Festival draws 80,000 people and brags of being the "largest outdoor beer festival on the continent," distinguishing it from the oldest and largest beer festival in the country, Denver's Great American Beer Festival. Every time GABF made a move—awarding medals, offering unlimited pours—OBF did the opposite. The OBF way became the Oregon way—today, most local beer festivals follow its formula. The city's beer culture has grown up around it, and its fame has spread around the world.