BY KEVIN MANAHAN
With the summer sun shining high over Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park, throngs of people milled about the grounds in flip-flops and sunglasses holding froth-filled mugs. I was at the 22nd annual Oregon Brewers Festival, curious to find out if people were still willing to spend their hard-earned cash on craft beers. The answer was evident from the first chorus of cheers I heard echoing from the tasting tents: Even in a recession, people – Portlanders in particular – still love their beers, and local breweries are likely to benefit most from their loyalty.
While admission to the event was free, visitors instead purchased a taster package ranging from $10 to $50 for beer samples or full drinks. But for those in attendance, it was clear that money was no object in their quest to sample the 80 brews available under the wide, roomy tents. Beers from across the country were represented at the festival, but from the conversations I had, a passion for local brews and sharing it with others is what’s keeping the beer economy from running dry, at least in Oregon.
“There’s a real love of the craft brew,” said Ken Baer, co-founder of Portland startup Taplister.com, who was at the festival promoting the company. “‘Craft’ is a perfect word for it. I think people also want to have that sense of community, and in Portland, it seems like the level of pride is going up.”
Baer, who grew up in Portland, believes that growing sense of pride is a big driver of the local beer economy, something that’s developed as Portland began making its mark as a veritable beer Mecca.
“I remember when I was in high school, it was like, ‘Oh, Portland. Nothing ever happens here. We never get noticed, we never get mentioned on national TV,’” Baer recalls. “And now we do, and part of it’s because of craft breweries.”
The very existence of a company like Taplister could be evidence that the beer industry doesn’t have to worry too much about losing business, even among the money-strapped; Taplister is a website that lets beer lovers in Portland search for beers and find out what’s on tap at their favorite pubs across Stumptown. The company certainly benefits by taking advantage of social media, using trendsetter Twitter to spread the word about tap lists. And Baer has even developed an iPhone app for Taplister called Beer Signal that makes searching for beers in Portland more convenient. Does a young beer-related startup stand a chance in this economy? With just a few months in operation under its belt, the road ahead will certainly be long and trying for Taplister. But Baer feels confident, given the fun-seeking spirit of Portlanders.
“There seems to be a really strong desire now to get out and meet physically with your friends, and that’s something we’re trying to promote,” Baer said. “And even with the economy being down and maybe people not going to restaurants as much, the pubs seem to be pretty busy. I hope that continues.”
As I took a seat off to the side of the entertainment stage, Baer’s words seemed to ring true. It was still early that Friday afternoon, but already I could see casually dressed Portlanders meeting up with friends, likely replacing their usual happy hour with the festival’s bountiful libations. But a poll we had run on our website a couple of weeks ago indicated that Oregonians were making across-the-board expense cuts in this recession, and some of us in the office wondered if craft beers were among the casualties.
“[With] the people we know, that’s not where they’re going to cut back,” said Melissa Good, 69, a visitor who joined me at my table. “They might cut back somewhere, but it’s not going to be on beer and fun.”
Melissa and her husband Bob, also 69, have attended the festival every year since its inception and have seen a significant growth in the festival’s attendance, particularly in the past five years. And Bob said the crowds this year – projected at 70,000 – were at least as big as last year’s.
The stories I heard from the Goods perfectly reflected what Baer explained to me earlier. The retired couple is big on contributing to Portland’s economy, patronizing the local arts and food scene and, of course, being huge supporters of local breweries.
“You’re not gonna get Portlanders to give up beer, no matter what the economy is doing,” said Melissa, as she raised her mug to join another rousing round of cheers that spread like wildfire across the park; a fitting toast to an industry that doesn’t seem to be tapping out anytime soon.
Considering that, maybe the success of the local beer industry has as much to do with pure escapism in this economy as it does with Portland pride. After all, Americans went through the same thing during the Depression, and Baer suggests that the beer business was probably just fine then, too (once FDR ended Prohibition in 1933). “They couldn’t afford anything else, but they still had that need to socialize."