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Beer begins flowing at 'America's Oktoberfest'

Story highlights

  • Oregon Brewers Festival is a five-day annual event started in 1988 in Portland
  • More than 80,000 beer fans from all around world gather at this year's OBF
  • The OBF is a free and family-friendly beer party with more than 80 different craft beers

Those hardy micro-brewing pioneers of the first Oregon Brewers Festival in 1988 were looking for some free advertising and a few people to taste the beers they were brewing in tanks scavenged from dairies, food processing plants and -- yes -- a never-used nuclear power plant.

They hoped 5,000 people might drop by and they corralled their buddies into manning the taps, promising a leisurely day of suds and sun at Portland, Oregon's Tom McCall Waterfront Park on the Willamette River.

More than 15,000 people came and chaos reigned.

Coolers didn't work right.

The beer poured foamy, warm, then not at all because the kegs were dry.

Brewers scurried back to their breweries for more kegs.

The owner of Deschutes Brewery drove nearly 200 miles from Bend with all the brewery's spare beer -- nine mini kegs.

The crowd drained those too, and loved it all.

America's Oktoberfest was born.

"I had traveled to Oktoberfest in Munich and knew what a big beer party was like," says Art Larrance, who now owns the festival. "I wanted to create that atmosphere."

The 27th Oregon Brewers Festival begins Wednesday, when a parade of hundreds of brewers and beer fans troops across Portland's Hawthorne Bridge to the park, where Grand Marshal John Maier will tap the first keg.

Hundreds more will be consumed over five days by a crowd of more than 80,000.

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Family-friendly behemoth

From shaky beginnings, the OBF has become perhaps the largest outdoor craft beer festival in the country, a sprawling, family-friendly behemoth that attracts visitors from around the world.

It's the spiritual home of Oregon craft brewing and the crown jewel of the city known as Beervana: Portland, Oregon.

Denver's Great American Beer Festival is older by six years and offers more beers -- 3,100 last year to the OBF's 80 or so.

Tickets cost $80: admission to the OBF is free and a tasting glass costs $7.

The GABF isn't a family event: its 40,000 attendees sign up for one of several sessions in a convention hall chockablock with beer fans intent on sampling all 3,100 beers, not in a grassy park on a glorious late July weekend with big white pavilions, ranks of picnic tables and riverine breezes a-wafting.

Serious beer judging is a big part of the GABF, where a couple hundred medals are awarded in dozens of categories.

In best laid back Oregon fashion, the OBF doesn't award medals and lets the crowd be the judge of which beers are its favorite.

"The GABF was the first, and it was their show," said Larrance. "We didn't want to copy them, so whatever they did, we pretty much went the other way.

"It's a very different festival in that sense, and that's why it's grown and evolved."

Oregon Brewers Festival, July 23-27, 2014, Waterfront Park, Portland, Oregon

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