The opening parade of the Oregon Brewers Festival this year promises a different sight: Instead of a grand marshal pulled by the traditional bike chariot, a guy on a unicycle playing flaming bagpipes will get the celebration of craft beer underway.
Not only that, the Unipiper, Portland’s quirky icon, also promises to deliver “something memorable.” He hasn’t worked out all the details yet, he said, but it will involve “full flame and sound.”
“I’m trying to come up with something,” said the man inside the suit, Portlander Brian Kidd. “It gets hard when you ride a unicycle with fire-breathing bagpipes, so that’s my eternal Unipiper struggle, is how do you take that to the next level?
“But we’ll see. I definitely want to give people something they haven’t seen before,” said Kidd, who plans to forgo the traditional bike-chariot ride in favor of his one-wheeled perch.
The Unipiper will lead the 2-mile parade from Ecliptic Brewing in North Portland across the Broadway Bridge to Tom McCall Waterfront Park to kick off the four-day festival, now in its 32nd year. Portland’s signature annual gathering of craft breweries, one of the largest on the West Coast, runs Wednesday-Saturday, July 24-27, with the parade getting things started at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Unipiper + beer
The social media phenom may strike some as an odd choice to be this year’s high-profile face of the event, as past marshals include beer industry heavyweights such as the Widmer and McMenamin brothers, and longtime Rogue Ales brewmaster John Maier. Kidd acknowledges his selection was a bit of a departure, but he has supported the festival for years and also has two feet – or one wheel — solidly in the beer world.
“With the unicycle and bagpipes, I’m combining two of my interests, and the beer is adding another to the mix,” Kidd said. “I’ve always been into the beer scene in Portland and then got into homebrewing. My connection in that scene led me to folks who were interested in doing collaborations.”
Kidd’s beer resume includes a series of one-off collaborations with Rogue Ales and his most recent: The Unipiper Hazy IPA he created with Portland Brewing as part of the “Keep Portland Weird” beer series. Some proceeds from the beer go to benefit another Kidd endeavor, his Weird Portland United, a nonprofit he created that raises and distributes money to keep Portland’s unique creative spirit alive and kicking.
“The weird in Portland these days is too often swept under the rug as we become a more sanitized version of ourselves,” Kidd said. “I know there’s a lot of people who appreciate the weird as much as I do, and I hope we can inspire some of the more new people coming to Portland — talking about why we love it so much and hopefully get them to contribute to our vibrant arts and culture scene.”
Chris Crabb, spokeswoman for the festival, said Kidd’s commitment to Portland and the festival made him an obvious choice.
“The Unipiper has been a longtime fan of the festival and has always promoted the event in his own way,” she said. “He’d buy tokens on his own dime, then pass them out as he rode along the waterfront, encouraging people to visit the fest. … He’s become a symbol of Portland, as has the annual festival.”
Asked if joining the list of grand marshals was intimidating, Kidd said, “That is the precise word that is in my head. But hopefully folks will appreciate that I’m not trying to be the next McMenamins brothers. I’m trying to do my own thing and contribute something unique to the Portland beer scene, and I hope that’s what folks see it for.”
A celebration of Oregon
The local beer scene is what this year’s festival is all about, as only Oregon breweries will be featured. In the festival’s first year, 1988, the state had only six breweries, so organizers went beyond state lines and invited popular breweries such as Bell’s Brewery of Michigan and Sierra Nevada Brewing of California to help spread the craft-beer word here.
Organizers don’t have that problem anymore, said Art Larrance, the festival’s founder and one of Oregon’s craft-beer pioneers.
“Today, there are close to 300 breweries in our own state, and we felt it was time to really showcase all the regions that make Oregon one of the most successful craft beer hubs in the world,” Larrance said.
Festival organizers plan to pour more than 100 beers and ciders, with more than 80 being released for the first time. The number of ciders jumps from two to eight this year, all poured from one trailer. An Evasion gluten-free beer will also be available.
Other changes this year:
- No Sunday: The traditionally lowest-attended day of the festival is eliminated. Cost-saving measures last year trimmed the festival from five to four days, Thursday through Sunday, and this year shifts the days from Wednesday through Saturday.
- More shade: Beer trailers at the south end of the festival move away from Southwest Naito Parkway to the river side of the grounds, opening space under trees and creating more shady, grassy lounging areas.
- Delete the app: If you used the program app last year, delete it, as it’s not in play this year. The traditional printed program will be available.
Oregon Brewers Festival by the numbers
- 32: Years of the festival
- 93: Beers being poured, led by 20 IPAs
- 8: Ciders being poured
- 34: Oregon cities represented by the 101 participating breweries/cideries
- $23 million: Festival’s economic impact on the local economy in 2018
- 60,000: Number of people organizers expect to attend the festival this year
If You Go
- When: Gates at 11:30 a.m., taps noon to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, July 24-27
- Where: Tom McCall Waterfront Park, 300 S.W. Naito Parkway. Entrances at Oak Street, Pine Street, under the Morrison Bridge and along the seawall at Pine Street.
- Cost: Entry is free. To consume alcohol, a tasting package can be purchased at the festival (cash-only, ATMs on-site) for $20, which includes a tasting mug and 10 tokens. Mugs and tokens can also be bought in advance at Cascade Brewing Barrel House, the Lodge at Cascade Brewing, Deschutes Brewery in the Pearl District, and Belmont Station. Additional tokens can be purchased for $1 each. Four tokens buy a 12-ounce pour, one token buys a 3-ounce taste.
- Safe transportation: Waterfront Park is close to bus and MAX lines. The festival also works with the Portland Bureau of Transportation and its Safe Ride Home program, which offers reduced-cost rides home to prevent drunken driving. The program provides discounted vouchers for $20 toward Radio Cab taxi rides and $5 for Lyft and Uber rides throughout the festival weekend. Vouchers will be available to everyone on-site. TriMet bus and light-rail lines are also available close to the festival. Promo codes and vouchers available at the festival.
- Age: Minors allowed, but anyone under 21 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian; no pets.
- Other attractions: The festival also offers a “meet the brewer” area, a brewer dunk tank, beer-related vendors, homebrewing demonstrations, games and food vendors. The Crater Lake Soda Garden offers complimentary sodas for minors and designated drivers. A Brewers Brunch is held before the parade on Wednesday, but tickets are sold out.
- Parade: For more details including the route for the Wednesday morning parade, go to the parade page on the festival’s website.
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