Most beer festivals follow a similar template: Beer-lovers gather to sample a variety of inventive ales and lagers from local and regional breweries, most of which you won’t find on store shelves. There might be live music or chainsaw pumpkin carving, but that’s the well-worn pattern.
But Fort George Brewery and its annual Festival of Dark Arts care not for your beer festival format. Steven and I discovered this first-hand when we attended the second annual festival last weekend in Astoria.
Sure, there’s variety. But to steal a quip from Henry Ford, “You can drink any beer, as long as it’s stout.” There were 47 stouts on tap and only 47 stouts on tap. I can’t begin to review the various beers, but I remember trying the following varieties (with descriptions culled from the official festival guide):
- Fort George Campout Stout: Made with chocolate malt, caramel malt, marshmallows, and coconut sugar crystals
- Fort George Meeker’s Mark: Aged in Makers Mark Barrels
- Fort George Bourbon Barrel Aged Cavatica: Up-front bourbon taste backed by a dark, malty stout
- Fort George Squashed Stout: “Butternut and acorn squash create rich buttery flavors in this amazingly smooth stout.”
- 10 Barrel Power to the People American Stout: “Big, smooth, and hoppy with notes of bittersweet chocolate.”
- Hopworks Army of Darkness: “Black and bold bourbon barrel aged stout with a nice dry finish.”
Good lord that’s a lot of stout. And, as I review the official guide, I see another dozen or so that I wish I’d tried. That’s what I loved, though: the brewers took a pretty standard beer and found nearly four dozen ways to put a unique spin on it. They did well, too; I didn’t try a single subpar brew with my 10 taster tokens.
No Festival of Dark Arts would be complete without, you know, dark arts. The entertaining lineup included a blacksmith, Tarot card readers, fire dancers, old-time photographers, tattoo artists, glass art displays, Tuvan throat singing, poetry readings, something called “action painting,” belly dancers, and more.
Yes, “and more.” That super-long list doesn’t account for all of the wackiness and fun that went into the festival. There was something to see or do (other than drink beer) for the duration of the event, and all of it amazed. In the span of about three hours, I watched fire dancers in the courtyard, observed a woman painting with beer (!!!), and talked to a glassblower in the taproom.
Naturally, the beer took center stage, and the sideshows entertained. But the Builders and the Butchers nearly stole the show with a blistering live set that roused the crowd from our drunken stupor.
It would be easy to pigeon-hole the Portland-based outfit as a “folk” group, thanks to the presence of an acoustic guitar and occasional mandolin. But they defied easy stereotypes, dabbling in rock, country, gospel, and Americana throughout the set. Crammed on a stage no larger than a child’s bedroom, the Builders and the Butchers delivered one foot-stomping number after another, with vocalist Ryan Sollee alternately wailing and defiantly singing through it all.
Sollee’s somber lyrics and the heavy percussion — most songs required two drummers — fit well with the “dark” atmosphere of the festival. The band rocked out for roughly two hours, sounding like an angry tent revival act performing for an audience of fervent believers. Toward the end of the set, Sollee echoed the sentiments of everyone in the crowd when he said that he’d be back next year. “And if we’re not invited, we’ll be getting drunk.”