After saturating yourself in any regional beer scene for some time, you come to know many of the personalities who are integral components of its vibrancy. In Portland, Oregon one person you are likely to cross paths with if you attend a beer festival is Preston Weesner.
A veteran to the Oregon beer scene, Weesner also serves as a barrel tender and beer blender at the illustrious Cascade Brewing Barrel House. Weesner can be found running the kegs that he helps to round up at the Holiday Ale Festival (HAF), as well as at several other popular craft beer events such as the Oregon Brewers Festival and Hair of the Dog Fred Fest.
Now in its 17th year, the famous Holiday Ale Festival, located in heated tents in the heart of downtown Portland at Pioneer Courthouse Square, has grown from “The 12 Ales of Christmas” to a five-day extravaganza featuring more than 40 one-of-a-kind feature beers and an additional 20 specialty tappings.
As we like to do every year, we caught up with Preston Weesner to learn more about the 2012 Holiday Ale Festival. For a complete listing of beers as well as times and details, click here.
How many years have you been running Holiday Ale Fest?
Preston Weesner: Ten years, but sometimes it seems like yesterday that I was volunteering at the fest myself.
Between being the general manager and blender at Cascade Brewing Barrel House, you must be pretty busy all the time. How do you find time to juggle the two positions, plus help with so many other beer fests around Portland?
PW: It never seems like I’m doing too much. In fact, sometimes I feel like I could do more. Multitasking and needing little sleep seems to make it easy for me. It helps that the events need lots of long term handling so I can work on them way in advance, the blending is a hands on right now thing, so that is what takes the most time right now.
Do you ever feel burned out, like you just want to not do it some years?
PW: Well there is always the feeling right before an event where I’m making sure that I thought of everything and all the plans I’ve made will play out correctly. When the event starts it’s almost like autopilot for me. It’s not until it’s all over and done that gravity of the whole thing will come into full perspective for me, but by then it all done, so I have another year to prepare which always seems like just enough time to get it right.
How many beers will be featured this year at Holiday Ale Festival?
PW: We are fortunate to be working with 44 breweries for the main line beers, and 20-plus special tappings that are usually from the cellar. This really is a fest for the fans.
How many people attended HAF last year and how many do you anticipate attending this year?
PW: Were pretty fortunate to have right around 17,000 people over the 5 day fest last year, and I would expect that we will be right there again this year.
The Holiday Ale Fest appears to grow more and more each year, not just in the physical size of the event or the number of beers but the attendance keeps growing each year, too. How difficult is it to work with the growth and accommodate the on-going expansion of the event, especially considering the tented venue in Pioneer Court House Square?
PW: Well, the physical growth is coming to an end I think. Every year I think we have done all we can to get the most out of every brick, but then the next year we find a way to squeeze in a few more bricks and make a little more room. The attendance has been about the same for the last few years. I’m sure the size of the venue has a lot to do with that, but we also see people come several times to get a chance to try all the beers. We have been right around 40-50 breweries for the last four to five years. That is a floating number based on the breweries; it will continue to float I’m sure. It’s all about the breweries. They make the best beers around, and the people here know it. We’re glad we can bring then all together in one location and give the fans a chance to experience such a great selection of beer in one location.
What is the most challenging part of the event for you?
PW: Working on the event for more than nine months. It takes forever for the event to get here. It takes a long time to coordinate with the brewers, volunteers, staff and the temporary infrastructure that it takes for an event to appear, happen and then disappear. For the beer fans it’s the ultimate pop-up: 50 breweries, vintage kegs between three to seven years old – all over five days, and then it’s gone. Then there is just the good beer memories and the breweries.
What is the most rewarding part of the event for you?
PW: Seeing it all come together, seeing fans, brewers together talking about the beers. I mean, the spectacle of the whole thing, it’s pretty amazing.
How/where do you store all of the amazing vintage beers you have accumulated over the years?
PW: In a cooler, where else?
How do you ration enough beers to keep such a steady supply of vintage brews year in and year out?
PW: That’s all about the brewers. If they didn’t make it, we would not have it. While you could call cellaring an art, it’s really an exercise in patience.
What are some beers that you see as highlights this year? We know you are a lover of sour beers. Anything that you are especially looking forward to tasting yourself?
PW: It’s always nice to taste the collaborative beers. I was able to do another visit to Bear Republic and blend “Prepare to be Boarded” a Caribbean stout that might have some sour stowaways on board with Peter, Rodger, and Rich. They have pretty good little sour program that is kind of undiscovered, and Peter will try anything. I finally got to go to Firestone Walker and work with Jim at their growing Barrel works program. “Wild Merkin” is a sour blend, it will seem familiar to the Barrel Aged Merkin fans. Lauren (Salazar) from New Belgium will be here and we will be doing quite possible one of the smallest sour collaboration ever with Cascade with just two kegs blended on site. And the bourbon barrel-aged version of the Widmer/Brew Crew Collaborator “Hallucinator:” is really nice. I look forward to tasting each and every beer, because when it comes down to it, I’m as big a beer geek as the brewers and fans and really, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do quality control, right?
Anything else you’d like to share with the folks coming out the the HAF this year or anything else you’d like to add?
PW: Forget all you know about beer festivals because this one is one of a kind. It’s outdoors in the middle of winter in Oregon in heated tents! It’s a great time to come meet some friends. Forget the chaos of the holiday season and just relax for a little while. I’d quote my friend Don (Younger), but I feel his quote is over-used and not understood by most. At the end of the day it’s just beer and friends, does it get any better? Not in December in Beervana!
Watch our interview with Preston Weesner from the 2010 Holiday Ale Festival here.