Doing Time at The Oregon Brewers Festival

Volunteering at The Oregon Brewers Fest
Volunteering at The Oregon Brewers Fest

I’ve lived in Portland now for sixteen years and almost every summer I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Oregon Brewers Festival at Waterfront Park.   After enjoying one of the nation’s premiere beer festivals for so many years I decided this year it was time to give back to it and spend a shift volunteering.

Several months ago I submitted an application through the Brewers Fest web site and indicated I wanted one of the first shifts of the festival.  After a few months of waiting I finally got a little green card in the mail confirming my shift.

When I showed up the morning of the first day of the Brew Festival I was struck by just how many people had turned out to volunteer. I didn’t really realize just how much manpower it takes to fuel the event until I looked out over the sea of volunteers patiently waiting for their shift to start.

After signing in I was asked which tap I wanted to be at. I realized then that I had neglected to look over the complete list the night before. I sat thumbing through the possible assignments and decided to pick Stone Brewing Company. The beer at that tap was an interesting Belgium IPA hybrid so I knew it would be one that would draw true beer enthusiasts (although I didn’t know just how enthusiastic some people would be about Stone Brewing).

Stone Brewing Cali-Belgique IPA
Stone Brewing Cali-Belgique IPA

After a very short orientation talk which included how far to fill each cup, how to tell when someone is intoxicated and when to cut them off, we were lead to our taps.

Given how strict the OLCC (Oregon Liquor Control Commission) is, I was surprised how short and informal the ‘training’ was, especially considering how rigidly controlled some of the other aspects of the festival were. For example, at the end of my shift I walked outside of the complex to check if the Burgerville food cart was still there (as I hadn’t eaten lunch) and I was told I had to dump my water bottle out as I reentered. Total insanity.

At the tap we were giving another brief rundown of how the shift would run, some simple do’s and don’t and then we waited, and waited, and waited.  A good fifteen minutes after the official start time we finally got the OK from the the OLCC guys to turn on the taps and start serving the beer… and then the fun started.

After pouring my first pitcher of beer I realized that I hadn’t been given an opportunity to taste the beer I was pouring. After shrugging my shoulders more than a few times when asked what the beer tasted like I started to grill each beer fest goer as to what they thought of the beer.  The wide variety of responses was amazing. Some people thought the Cali-Belgique IPA was very flowery, others really hoppy. One guy said, “‘It starts off tasting like a Belgian and then drops off to an IPA,” while another proclaimed, “Yeah, this is an IPA from the get-go”.  I heard the beer described so many different ways by so many different people that I wondered if I was serving the same beer to all of them.

Happily Pouring Beer at The Brewers Fest
Happily Pouring Beer at The Brewers Fest

After about an hour into my four and a half hour shift I began to see a pattern – a good majority of the people coming to try the beer came because of their affection for the brewery. “I’ll try anything that Stone does”, commented one festival goer while many just proclaimed, “Give me THE STONE”.  I also found that many people extended their affection for the brewery to me as if by proxy serving this beer I was connected to the goodness that is Stone Brewing.

One of my biggest challenges serving beer at the beer fest was that the Cali-Belgiue IPA is an extremely ‘heady’ beer. As I poured the beer from the tap into the pitcher a thick head of foam would form. Several volunteers and even the tapmaster tried to pull a pitcher of the beer without it being so foamy and none of us succeeded.

About two hours into my shift I realized another major mistake I had made. By taking the first shift of the festival I hadn’t had an opportunity to try or have any beers, so after serving twenty or so pitches of the Stone Brewing beer, I wanted a beer more than I had ever wanted a beer in my life.

One Extremely Foamy Beer
One Extremely Foamy Beer

As my third hour ticked by I continued to pour to an almost endless line of people, and I was extremely happy doing it. There’s something about giving people something that they enjoy that’s extremely gratifying. As each person happily sipped away at their beer I felt a sense of joy that I could be a part of that experience.

As the fourth hour ticked by we got slammed. One of the other volunteers keep a second pitcher going as I quickly drained the first. More people came up to get full glasses of beer so we were constantly battling with the foam to keep the beer flowing.

I was finally ‘relived of duty’ by another volunteer after four and a half hours of pouring. On one hand I was excited to be able to go off and enjoy the beer at the Brewers Festival, but another I was sad to to see the shift end. It was a remarkably enjoyable experience.

My very first beer of the Brewers Festival was the Bayern Brewing Dragon Breath Dark Heff. The beer had been recommended to me by one of the Rogue Brewing brewmasters. The beer was a tasty and unique beer that I quiet enjoyed. As I savored the beer I remembered that I had neglected to eat lunch before my shift and that even the small taste of beer was already having an effect. Unfortunately I made yet another mistake and plunged ahead.

Determined to make my way back to taste the beer that I was pouring all day I made a quick stop at Full Sail Brewing to taste their Full Sail TLD 03 , a remarkable light and crisp beer. Then to Scuttlebutt Brewing Company to try their subtle and drinkable Tripel 7 Belgian Style Ale.  Still working my way towards Stone Brewing I stopped at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery for one of the stand-out beers of my tastings, a Festina Peche, a brilliant, sour peach fermented beer. I then decided I couldn’t pass Ninkasi Brewing and try their Radiant Summer Ale. I’m a big fan of Ninkasi but I really didn’t care for their Summer Ale.

Sucess! Stone Brewing's Beer
Sucess! Stone Brewing's Beer

By the time I finally made it back to the Stone Brewing tap I was feeling little to no pain. Working a full shift (and not drinking enough water) and skipping lunch had brought my alcohol tolerance to near zero. But at last I had a chance to taste the beer I had been pouring all day. As I took a sip I savored every morsel of beer and then smiled realizing that I had been pouring one of the better beers of the festival.

Volunteering at the Oregon Brewers Festival far exceeded my expectations. It’s something that I plan to do every year, and I now have some key lessons that I’m going to share:

  • Go over the beer list the night before and pick a beer that interests you to pour
  • Show up early to your shift so you can get a good pick
  • Eat a good sized meal before your shift as there aren’t a lot of chances to take a break
  • Drink lots of water
  • Have A beer after your shift but come back the next day for the full tastings when you’ve had a chance to have some good food, water and rest
  • Volunteer!! The fest runs on the enthusiasm and generosity of local beer fans and you have the ability to contribute to that.

The Oregon Brewers Festival is always the last full weekend in July and this year runs 7/23-7/25 at the Waterfront park.

For more information see:

For the 2010 fest be sure to check out PDXPipeline who is giving away a $50 package to the Oregon Brewers Festival.