I sit in my trailer and listen to the waves of rain wash over it, just another day living near the Oregon coast, a few miles from the mouth of the Columbia. This little finger of land sits in the direct path of the river itself, but has been turned over the decades into more substantial ground thanks to the miles-long jetty constructed to tame the flow of the massive river as it dumps into the Pacific. It is mid-February, and it rains every day here, but still I gear up for a brewfest. I’m volunteer pouring at Festival of the Dark Arts 2020 (#FODA2020), and I’m excited.
Fort George Brewing is well known for its array of beer, many of them dark and luscious and barrel-aged for longer than I care to think about, and they run a decent little operation in downtown Astoria that takes up most of a block. A while back they decided to host a beer festival celebrating the roasty, boozy, high-gravity delicacies they curate in barrels across their facility, and it’s become one of the top beer fests in the US, if not the world. This year, 2020, they sold out of 2,500 tickets in just over a half an hour – Astoria being a town of just over 10,000, ~100 miles due northwest from Portland. It is a touristy town, fortunately, because even with hundreds of rooms, they all book out.
The ones who get it done
This is where my story diverges from those several thousand ticket holders who got up early on Black Friday and prayed for a stable internet connection as they loaded the checkout page. I’ve been volunteering for brew fests for more than 15 years, all over the country, and I haven’t paid for entry into one for many of those years. Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me personally, this is the best way to get close to the beers I love without spending small fortunes every weekend to do so. If you’re interested, read on…
This weekend is a bit different than most festivals I pour at because it requires that I have an Oregon Liqour server’s certificate (about $40 in fees and some basic online tests); most others – in Oregon at least – don’t require any training at all to be a volunteer. We’ll get to that, but this is one of the things that makes FODA such a high-water mark for beer festivals. The fact that you can’t just show up and pour ultra-rare aged beers without any experience makes for a better overall day for everyone involved (I assume, I will know for sure within the next 12 hours).
It shouldn’t really be a secret that the big fests require hundreds or thousands of bodies to pour the beer and serve the thirsty folks who line up with tiny sample glasses on the fun side of the table. OBF (Oregon Brewer’s Festival) in downtown Portland, for instance, used to be a 5-day affair (now much-shortened), needing 100+ pourers for 4-hour shifts each and every day, as well as people to mind refuse stations and even the people exchanging dollars for tokens. You can essentially sign up to volunteer for multiple shifts a day, or several times throughout the week, amassing free tokens, t-shirts and glasses in the process – as long as you aren’t drinking beforehand. Every shift you’re given another sample glass and a stack (~20) of tokens.
As a veteran of these events, I’ve moved up the ladder a bit – I’ve got the experience and connections to be a ‘supervisor’. At OBF, the beer is poured straight from a refrigerated trailer, and there’s one or two supervisors per trailer to keep an eye on things, in addition to the alcohol monitors and some event staff that watch over everything, literally. As I mentioned before there is NO EXPERIENCE REQUIRED to volunteer for many of these events in the Portland area, so it’s important to have some folks with the right knowledge to encourage the noobs and train them on a proper pour. It’s not easy, since nobody is really paid, and some volunteers don’t take it seriously enough to take criticism or correct some very sloppy behavior.
This is where FODA stands apart (I hope). I’ve heard every complaint ever uttered about short pours, or extra head, or how the last guy filled the sample cup for an extra token, on and on and on it goes. Most of those kinds of people won’t take the time to read something like this, but for those who do, just casually watch the action at the taps and you’re bound to spot this kind of behavior. Coupled with the actual lack of experience or knowledge, this is the kind of shit that can easily get carried away and cause problems for everyone else when a small handful of servers aren’t being responsible. Customers who get away with it once are going to try it again, and it’s more than an annoyance when every other person in line tries the same thing, trying to get free beer. You’re not being clever, you’re not even being unique, and adults should behave better. It is 100% up to the person pouring the samples to uphold standards, to be sure, and the wide range of experience and personalities who show up to volunteer at most events leaves a lot of opportunity for the casual swindler.
I’ve had people walk away with my bucket of tokens (they were caught and thrown out of the fest within mere steps of my counter, we have some aggressive security folks sometimes). There’s always someone who ‘forgets’ to hand over their token before trying to walk away, and of course there are scammers with fake tokens and all sorts of other stuff just outside the larger events (specifically OBF suffers from this every year – do not buy tokens from randos on the street). People will complain endlessly about the beer (“I don’t like it I want my token back”) or the amount of head, not realizing that the person who took their token has literally nothing to do with the beer, or how it pours from the trailer, and probably doesn’t really care about how badly they’re pouring.
I use this as an opportunity to teach people around me, when I can. It’s important that the servers recognize the impact they might have on a brewery’s reputation if they’re stingy (a difficult thing to criticize someone for, since technically there ARE rules) or can’t manage a 3oz pour without blasting the head to 11. I may take it more seriously than most fest goers, but I understand what’s at stake – Tens of thousands of people attend OBF over the course of multiple days, and if the server is pouring hot or stale beer (from a pitcher) or everyone is walking away with 4oz of head, that brewery isn’t getting proper representation. All those people sampling that beer will walk away with a less than stellar impression, most of them (again) unaware that the server and people at the festival aren’t invested in any way in making sure that beer gets the pour it needs to stand out against a hundred others. I’d like to say other ‘SupBEERvisors’ recognize and respect these issues, but most can’t be bothered. I’ve met several people at the supervisor level who gave away their tokens and never came to the fest to try the beer – if you can figure out what motivates them, I’ll happily fill your sample glass.
Not all fests are the same
I’ve been at this for a few years and lived around the country, so I’ve seen some weird shit go down, but been privy to some great swag and of course all the free beer I could get my hands on. Sometimes, a dedicated, persistent and capable person can walk-on and find themselves in the thick of it without much effort; In Albuquerque I got involved in a fest in 2010 and simply became the right-hand man in the week leading up to the event. I showed up early with my Leatherman and some zip-ties and helped set up the area, hanging banners and brewery logos and hauling ice and just doing what needed to get done. I was rewarded with several cases of leftover event glassware, whatever banners I could cut down, and several cases of beer brought by breweries in case they blew kegs. It was worth the effort I’d put in.
Things have changed around the country since then, with festies being a staple of local and regional brewery scenes now that the industry has exploded, but on a state-by-state basis the rules may still be different. That fest in ABQ required that out-of-state breweries (Colorado, AZ and CA) be ‘sponsored’ by a permit holder/brewery in-state, AND that the area with OOS breweries be separated by a physical barrier from the area where in-state samples were. No beer was allowed to cross this line in either direction, and there was a checkpoint to ensure that your Colorado-brewed beer, served in Albuquerque, didn’t find it’s way into the section where someone else was enjoying some ABQ brew. It was indeed bonkers, but that was the law as written. I can only assume those laws were adjusted, as the brewing scene in New Mexico has grown considerably in the last 10 years.
In most cases in most states, the people pouring beer were/are in fact employees of the brewery (a fact that helps me understand the reactions of people at OBF, for instance, when they ask questions about a beer and get “IDK” for an answer). Especially in areas where it’s still a growing industry and the greater population doesn’t understand what craft beer is really about, the brewery wants to represent itself and answer questions. Sometimes the brewers even show up to soak up the admiration and attention (they spend hours and hours alone in the brewhouse, it’s often the only socialization they get). Some fests are really just corporate events put on by the big regional distributor (your favorite pushers of domestic adjunct lagers) or even a tourism board or city agency that turns to the local chamber of commerce or whatever for sponsors. I’ve avoided these kinds of events so I won’t get into detail, but they feature a lot of young pretty people pushing whatever the next big thing is from Bud/Miller/Corona whomever. I see a few advertised in the midwest from time to time, usually centered around some sporting event that also serves to market various beverages. I am not their target consumer, and I wager most who read this aren’t either…but at least they’re out there.
YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY
Keep in mind that all of this is just my observation, collated and summarized for your edification. Others don’t often see the same things I see, the way I see them, and so I feel it’s important to get some of it out to the masses. Later today I’ll be standing outside, hopefully under a canopy, before a thick-as-oil monster on tap, clocking in about 10% ABV, talking to people for the 30-odd seconds it’ll take to pour a 3oz sample and collect tokens. If I’m at a busy tap I’ll be doing this until the end of my shift at 7pm, but quite possibly I’ll be done sooner since there’s a limited amount of these beers and once they’re gone…they’re gone. If my keg blows they’ll find me another spot or cut me lose to sample the beers from the other side.
Most of my ‘customers’ won’t be from Astoria, in fact many will have traveled hundreds of miles to get here in the middle of winter, for the sole purpose of sampling these rare beers. In most cases, a person would have to travel thousands of miles total to get anywhere near the beers all collected at this one location, TODAY ONLY! – these beers are usually only found on-tap at the brewery that made it. I have to say that my own personal expectations are quite high (if you couldn’t tell already). There is music, fire performers, lots of food and art, and hopefully the sort of comradery that develops among people who’ve willingly accepted the rain and wind and cold for that shared purpose. You’d think we’re the oddballs…but then again, if you dig a little, we’re not so strange. Nor alone.
There are other brew fests going on this weekend all over the country. Back in Iowa they celebrate BrrrFest, a winter gathering of the same sort as FODA, in late January, and of course you’ve got Valentine’s day as a catalyst for ‘chocolate beer’ mini-fests all over the country this year. Portland breweries host Zwicklemania this weekend (where customers visit participating breweries for in-depth tours and samples on the same day all over town). There’s a coffee and donut and beer event, and as we get closer towards spring you’ve got beerfests crowding out calendars every weekend through October, when the fresh-hop fests give way to Halloween events (Octoberfest, being in September, often overlaps with the fresh hops events).
The best thing about all of this activity is that there are so many ways to get involved, even if you don’t have the cash to spend $25-$30 on an afternoon of beer tasting. My personal skill sets have given me access, literally printed me passes to get close to the action, without having to be a brewer or work at a brewery (presently). I’ve ‘worked’ alongside master brewers and total, complete NOOBS at festivals of every size and type and met thousands of people along the way – even if just for a few moments. These are the kinds of moments that make the brewing community what it is, how it gets strength and builds a future where your neighborhood brewery is a central component of your social life. We’ll need these foundations to be stronger than ever as our world changes, as politics and events beyond our control shape how we engage with the people around us.