The Session #96: Festivals: Geek Gathering or Beer Dissemination?

The SessionYesterday was the first Friday of February, and among the beer blogging world that means it’s time for another collaborative blogging effort—The Session! Each month a different host suggests a common topic upon which to write, and everyone tackles it from their own point of view. All bloggers are welcome to participate, not just beer bloggers!

This month’s host is Joan Villar-i-Martí of Blog Birraire, and he’s got a question about beer festivals: Geek Gathering or Beer Dissemination?

The discussion at hand is “Festivals: Geek Gathering or Beer Dissemination?”. I guess it is pretty much clear, but apart from exposing whether the answer is A, B or C (the latter being “it depends”) I expect participants to give us some insight into their local beer scene to better understand the importance or irrelevance of Festivals in each area. My guess is that it can be quite different depending on the popularity of beer in different countries and cultures.

Here in Oregon, we have both—plus the “it depends” option which can also apply to either. There are the larger, more general, more populist beer festivals like the Oregon Brewers Festival or (here in my hometown) the Bend Brewfest are certainly less beer geek-oriented and fill more of the dissemination role, bringing together a wide variety of breweries with representative beer, but little in the way of “geek beer” (though in recent years both of these fests have added “X-Tap” specialty pours).

They are parties, not that there’s anything wrong with that; I enjoy attending these types of festivals as there are always new beers I haven’t yet tried. But I like to attend as early as possible, and leave before the crowds and the lines grow too large. There is no doubt that these festivals do a great job of sharing beer and drawing crowds of all types, and boosting the local economy as well—take a look at the OBF’s economic impact on Portland for a sense of just how much a larger festival can generate.

And then there are the “geek gathering” festivals, like Bend’s The Little Woody which focuses exclusively on barrel- and wood-aged beers, many of which are brewed and aged specially just for this event. This is a fest that definitely caters to the beer geeks but, in the same way that the populist beer fests are drawing in the geek crowd (for lack of a better term), fests like the Woody are also reaching into that populist area, with more and more people who aren’t particularly beer geeky attending each year.

An interesting phenomenon here in Oregon, and perhaps elsewhere where there is a strong beer culture, we’re seeing new beer festivals popping up for every conceivable occasion and location. Salem just had their first Winter Ale Festival recently; Portland has a major one for (nearly) every season; this weekend sees the KLCC Microbrew Festival in Eugene supporting Oregon’s NPR radio station; McMenamins has their own lineup of festivals at their different properties; and so on. There are big festivals, like the Oregon Brewfest spanning five days, and little festivals, highly localized one-day affairs in small venues like Bailey’s Taproom‘s Cellarfest. (Digression: do small one-off type “festivals” really count as proper festivals? Or should they be considered something akin to large parties or street fairs or something, especially considering the more traditional definition of “festival“?)

I believe we have a beer festival covering each region of the state (except southeastern Oregon), and covering a wide variety of themes: winter beers, fresh hops, aged beers, barrel beers, stouts and dark beers, lagers, collaborations, fundraising for various causes, dogs, firkins and cask beers, fruit beers, Belgian-style beers, wild and sour beers, chocolate, Fred Eckhardt’s birthday, strong beers, session beers, organic beers, nanobreweries, the Oregon Garden, guys named Ben…

whew. I actually could go on but it’s even wearing me out. About the only beer festival theme I can think of off the top of my head that we don’t have (yet?) is a beer bloggers festival… and who knows, that might be announced on Monday.

Bottom line, we here in Oregon are not lacking for beer festivals and probably have one or more to suit just about anyone’s fancy. Yes, you might have to travel a bit, but you don’t have to work hard to find one.

Personally, for as much a beer person as I am, I only get to a handful of the larger festivals each year, plus a number of the smaller local events (depending on if you want to define them as “festivals” or simply “events”…). It would be easy to point to the number of fests going on each year in Oregon (with new ones added all time time) and call “oversaturation” but at the same time, I do think it’s a sign of a healthy, thriving beer culture, and there’s an undeniable monetary impact that can provide a boost to the local economy.

Plus, they are fun to attend—whether simply disseminating beer or more geek oriented. And ultimately isn’t that what they’re really about?