Crowd Control

Spoiler Alert: this is not a post about the overwhelming traffic to my site. Shocking.

This past weekend was the Festival of Dark Arts, a single-day deluge of very dark beer held at Fort George Brewing’s campus during, appropriately, Stout Month. I say “campus” because there are two buildings, a courtyard, and a balcony, and roughly twelve places to get beer during the fest at Fort George, and I say “appropriately” because February is officially Stout Month (it is no longer called “February,” whatever that means), and that is because it was invented in the 90s by Jack Harris, who started Fort George.

Festival of Dark Arts got a lot of flak a couple years ago for being a “shit show,” according to some sources. I was there a couple years ago, and thought the shit show was mitigated to obscurity by the breadth and quality of stouts, the artisans working their crafts, and the spooky burlesque dancers. Yes, there were people crammed into every conceivable space. But look, people: it’s a stout fest during Stout Month in chilly wet Astoria, Oregon. I know you don’t like to touch elbows, much less come within feet of each other in a mosh pit, but suck it up; you’re in line for Parabajava. Where else can you find Parabajava in Oregon? Nowhere.

This year’s Festival of Dart Arts was, in comparison to 2016, more mature. At least, I was more mature; I knew not to stand in that stupid rainy entry line at noon when I could easily wait out the line with a beer at Reach Break Brewing, literally within a stone’s throw of the line. The crowd, as a unit, was also more mature. Yeah, they were older (but they still partied; just ask the people next door to us at the Norblad). They didn’t jostle. The one thing that held back the chaos in the first two hours of the fest was the fact that everybody knew they needed a beer in order to deal with the crowd, and if they could just wait in line to get that beer, the chaos, which was mostly in their heads, would dwindle to a din. Once everybody got beer in their awesome little whiskey snifters, got back in line, and did it again a few times, the fest was terrific and some people touched elbows.

I spoke briefly with a shift lead in the pizzeria at Fort George the next day, and she impressed upon me the literal insanity of that beer fest. Over 100 employees and 50 volunteers move everything, set up, herd people to beer, and then put it all back together within 24 hours.
Every year.
One day.

FoDA crowd
This is not a picture of a line at Festival of Dark Arts.

Ask a manager at any busy place about the psychology of lines. “I was in line for 20 minutes!” somebody might complain on Yelp. But that’s likely not true. Maybe they were in line for five or 10 minutes, and since it was obviously busy, their order took longer than normal. That’s not 20 minutes in line, that’s a manager stressing out over a ten minute wait because of a Yelper. The same psychology applies to lines at beer festivals. Unless something is seriously wrong or the keg of Hunahpu’s is about to be tapped at Hellshire, nobody waits that long for a beer. And lines aren’t bad, evil things to be afraid of. Hell, they’re probably a sign that a fest is successful. For the fest organizer, it’s where to put those lines that matters. Upstairs in the pizzeria shortly into the Festival of Dark Arts this year, the line to get to the bar to get beer snaked so wildly that it was hard to tell who was in line and who was just standing around with their glass getting empty. That was a shit show, but I eventually got beer, so it was great! And the line abated after a couple hours. The fest is only as happy as you make it.

When you subject yourself to a beer fest, a tiny universe in which the people are like insects whose only purpose for the duration of their short lives is to get drunk, you have to let go. Maybe you make a plan of action because you are a smart insect, but you must trust that the organizers mostly know what they’re doing. And the organizers trust that you are there to have a good time; that’s the relationship.

Festival of Dark Arts can be a hunt and a throng and a cattle call and a shit show and all the things people want to call it who didn’t let themselves enjoy the space for the marvel of stout and crowd control that it is.
For one day.
Every year.

What is Beer Community?

It’s a staple of every brewery’s mission statement, but what does community mean? For people in the industry, it is an actual community of people with common interests and goals. For patrons, it is a public space that should feel welcoming and safe. The way a brewery (or other beer drinking establishment) interacts with other organizations can be an essential tool in its branding, and can positively augment its customer base. And breweries, more than many other businesses, actively contribute to their communities by creating jobs, supporting nonprofits and other local organizations, and by partnering with other businesses on collaborative adventures.

When Ninkasi was still tucked into a bay in the building that used to stand where its tasting room is, it doled out kegs and kegs to official and unofficial parties and concerts; I have fond memories of pouring red cups of Believer and listening to a Grateful Dead cover band at the Eugene Whiteaker Hostel during the Last Friday Art Walk; music events were particularly rife with black and teal. Now, nine years later, Ninkasi has its own recording studio; bands only pay for the recording engineer, James Book’s, time.

While the big breweries are relegated to grocery store shelves and distributor warehouses, local craft breweries and beer bars can use the social aspect of beer, arguably its most important contribution to civilization, to indirectly pay its customers back. This happens both economically and psychologically. The pub is where connections are made, where ideas form and mutate, where business deals are hashed out and relationships are negotiated (strike that; reverse it). Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? The pub or taproom may also be a place of solitude; one finds a nook out of sight to read a book, or even sits at the bar, turning pages and tilting glasses. The thrum of a busy but safe space without the stress of a shopping mall or bus station can be meditative, white noise.

My own experience has taught me not to expect any particular social situation. Meeting a friend for beer yesterday, we were joined by two more friends, then two more friends; pure happenstance. Our conversations expanded and contracted within the group, and pulsed with laughter. I absorbed the spirit and left happier than I arrived.

DSC02159s
Community starts with good people. Beer helps!

How does a business that relies on income and capital put money back in the pockets of its patrons? Many do so through work with nonprofits; the benefits are more than mutual. As an example, Oakshire Brewing gives 1% of sales of its Watershed IPA to the McKenzie River Trust. This helps not only to protect the brewery’s water source, but helps keep my wife in a job! That’s a pretty tight circle. In turn, employees and donors from a beneficiary nonprofit are likely to support the brewery.

On a broader scale, Hopworks and Patagonia Provisions partnered to make Long Root Ale, a beer using Kernza, a perennial grain that requires far less cultivation than annual grains like barley and wheat. While Kernza is unlikely to ever replace barley, the project emphasizes Hopworks’ interest in organic and sustainable business practices; a partnership with an arts organization may not have fit the brewery’s mission statement as well.

Though beer is not known as the best paying industry, it does provide tons of jobs; local jobs are naturally better for a local economy, and brewing and serving beer cannot be outsourced. Building a strong, regular customer base also adds opportunity for mutual support. Contractors (at least the ones I know) really like beer. They hang out at a spot long enough, chances are something’s going to break or need to be built; there’s that economic wheel spinning around again.

How do you fit into your community? How do I? It should be a mantra, a thing to reflect on periodically throughout the day, a subtitle to our lives. A part of our conversation over a beer.

We, the Consumers

Who controls whom? Increasingly, advertisements for products show up after a  conversation, rather than a dedicated internet search; our phones are indeed listening to us unless we tell them not to (and even then I’m not so sure). Want to buy a new TV? Instead of heading to the electronics store and conversing with a knowledgeable employee, we turn to the peer reviews, read ratings on the high and low spectrum, and make “our own decision,” or go to a store that sells everything from TVs to baby food and hunt down a roving person in uniform hoping for a reliable answer. Or, worse, we click on an advertisement and take a blind risk on a product; later, we are proud to have saved money on the potential piece of junk. Just as the consolidation of specialized brick-and-mortar businesses has lowered knowledge, breadth of choice, and quality of product at Walmart and its ilk, the consolidation of information and goods online and the rise of “Yelp culture” via proliferation of peer reviews has made everybody “an expert;” thus, nobody is an expert. We, the consumers, are complicit in this cycle when we choose to base our consumption on the advice of laypeople.

This dour, generalized view of middle class humanity plays out in the beer world when beer drinkers choose to base their buying habits on unqualified information from beer rating sites, and then either add their feedback, which feels more valuable than it is, or don’t, which defeats the purpose; the system works better, supposedly, with more input. In a fascinating New York Times Magazine article about cryptocurrency, internet protocols, and blockchains, author Steven Johnson quotes a former Google strategist, James Williams: “The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will.”

This topic may seem too heavy for an enjoyable beverage like beer. It ought to be, but in this age of information access, subtle marketing techniques, and “likes” as social cachet, attention is what it’s all about (see previous post and subsequent Facebook debate for proof of my own foray into the attention economy). When a beer receives good attention–positive reviews–its desirability increases. And while questions of quality arise from this conversation, public perception and reaction are arguably bigger factors.

“If you like this, you may like that…”

Rather than a catalog of new items with raw details, pricing, and availability, beer rating websites create roadblocks and distractions by telling the consumer what they want (again, I’ll use the non-binary third-person singular terms “they” and “their” rather than he/she; it’s becoming grammatically easier), rather than encouraging the consumer to make their own decision based on data provided by the brewery. The ability of technology to tell us what we [think we] want is pervasive now; identifying when that’s happening and making a rational decision to adopt or reject the opportunity is the least we can do to remain autonomous. If a consumer chooses to read ratings, they should be prepared to make the same rational decision. But rejecting the opinion of one’s peers infers that one’s own opinion is just as insignificant; a loss for the attention economy.

In the less dramatic scenario of a catalog, the onus of descriptive ability would fall on the brewery. It would ideally prohibit active marketing techniques. It would force users to choose based on their own preferences and riskiness. It would encourage consumers to seek the advice of trusted individuals, or institutions. (Here is my bias: with eight years working in both commercial beer and homebrewing retail, I would like to think that my training, and that of my peers in the industry, matters. When a customer asks for a recommendation and then chooses, right in front of me, to opt for the suggestion on their phone, it’s a slap in the face. Is that what free will looks like?)

The Times Magazine article goes into some depth about the philosophy of open-source material and the potential for internet users to have control of their own identities rather than parting them out to corporations. The upshot is that it decentralizes and democratizes information and currency. The concept is a huge threat to our current economic infrastructure and forces people to become more aware of their virtual space. One doesn’t need to know coding language to understand that having control of one’s personal information reverses the power structure. For the beer consumer, having an intimate knowledge and control of their senses takes power away from marketing and centralized sources of potentially unqualified information. It provides an opportunity to engage more personally and honestly with friends and qualified people in the industry, and encourages others to do the same, organically.

The beauty of this evolving philosophy of decentralization, though it is quite complicated, is that it makes room for free will in virtual space. Right now, our physical world is partially informed by the internet, which is highly consolidated. Our engagement with others on solid ground is altered by internet memes, often passively and unironically. We are at risk of losing ourselves. For we beer consumers, it is imperative to rise above the noise, to take stock of our senses, and to use all external resources carefully. Seek qualified sources. Take risks, they won’t kill you. Question my recommendations, or use me as a metric in your own experiment. Just don’t let anything tell you what you want.

favoritebandsucks
I used to own this t-shirt.

The Eugene Beer T

Eugene is about to have its own “Beer T.” (Disclaimer: the T looks like it was drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch by a toddler. Work with me, people!) The mostly straight shot from Sam Bond’s Brewery in the east to Ninkasi in the west, which includes ColdFire, Steelhead, Oakshire, and Hop Valley, will be joined at the “joint” by The Wheel Apizza Pub, a New Haven-style pizzeria and pub from Tacovore’s Steve Mertz. Tobias Schock, former head brewer at Agrarian Ales, will head up the wet side of the operation. Word is he’s been perfecting a pilsner recipe and playing with new hops and Mecca Grade Estate Malt; sounds just right.

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 12.29.11 PM

Two new brewery tasting rooms will add to the vertical portion of the Eugene Beer T. Coincidentally, both are located in new buildings constructed after fires destroyed the previous ones. Claim 52 Kitchen will open just south of 12th Ave. on the east side of Willamette, where a fire destroyed an antique mall several years ago. Another local brewery will open a satellite tasting room in the former bowling alley at 2490 Willamette. Once the new locations are open, the pub crawl will also include the Falling Sky Pub. (And here’s a shameless plug for The Bier Stein!) The diverse range of beer produced in the Eugene-Springfield area easily matches that of other brewery-heavy cities, and should not be overlooked by tourists and locals seeking quality suds. Craft beer lovers in River Road and South Eugene are still waiting for a brewery to move in. 

Click the link below to view the map, which also includes pins of the good beer bars in the area. Please note that Google would only allow so many spots on the walking map; WildCraft’s new spot and Falling Sky Deli aren’t included.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1CYJlscsTluds6um8yHr41LiVLvJDjOyD&usp=sharing