STOUTS REIGN SUPREME AT FESTIVE DARK ARTS

BY WILLIAM DEAN

It rained nonstop on Christie Stone’s birthday. Outside in the cold, she could see her breath.

She couldn’t have been happier.

The Bremerton, Wash., woman spent her special day Saturday at the sold-out Festival of Dark Arts in downtown Astoria, squeezed among 3,000 other revelers. 

“We’ve always wanted to make it and finally scored tickets,” said a beaming Stone, who drove down with her husband James and another couple in an RV. 

Ready, set, sample: Christie Stone came prepared.

Dark Arts is a celebration of stouts and this year’s party didn’t disappoint. On tap were 107 dark and creamy beers – the most in the history of the winter event, hosted by Fort George Brewery since 2012.

The diversity of the offerings from throughout the Northwest and beyond was impressive, ranging from sweet “dessert” brews to potent barrel-aged varieties and a smattering of classics. 

Ignoring the ill-tempered weather, beer lovers roamed from tent to tent – many with the essential Dark Arts stout guide in their hands. 

Eyebrows raised at the descriptions of the brews and their exotic ingredients: Seaweed? Chili peppers? Oysters? Maple syrup? Bing cherries? Mango? Licorice? Peanut butter?

You bet.

Fort George takes what it calls Stout Month seriously, brewing vast amounts of the stuff. 

“We just want it to be bigger and better every year,” spokesman Brian Bovenizer said when asked about the crazy tap list and the ebullient celebration surrounding it.

Every Dark Arts marks another chapter in the evolution of stout-making, with Bovenizer saying this year’s assortment could best be summed up as “big, thick and sticky.” 

Some 16 stouts crafted by the brewery were on center stage Saturday, including five versions of its perennial barrel-aged favorite, Matryoshka. The variants boasted intriguing add-ons such as strawberries, dates, almonds, vanilla and cacao. 

For the first time, festival-goers could sample “barrel-select” Matryoshka, picked by Fort George brewers out of hundreds of beer-stuffed whiskey barrels as the best of the best. 

Also representing the North Coast region with special stouts were Pelican Brewing based in Pacific City, Sisu Brewing of Seaside, Public Coast Brewing of Cannon Beach; North Jetty Brewing of Seaview, Wash.; and Astoria Brewing, Obelisk Beer Co. and Hondo’s Brewing, all of Astoria.

There were so many stouts to sample that some measure of planning was advised. 

Christie Stone is no stranger to beer festivals, but when she first saw the Dark Arts beer list she recoiled.

“I’m going to die,” was her first thought. 

Soon, a plan formed in which the foursome would divide and conquer as much as they could, using Stone’s handy spreadsheet with room for tasting notes. Her husband, an avid home brewer, assisted with research and recommendations.

 “We agreed we’re not going to get to sample them all,” she said.

Stone and friend Dene Gray, center, study the Dark Arts guide by flashlight.

To help simplify things, the group agreed to wait on sampling the Matryoshka blends until Sunday, when Fort George held a day-after bottle-release party aptly called “The Aftermath.”

Carl Barbee of Lake Stevens, Wash., didn’t wait. He sipped his three-ounce Matryoshka on the Fort George terrace Saturday night as raindrops danced on the table.

“Stouts are my flavor,” he said, grinning.

The crowd – split among a handful of venues around the Fort George “campus,” was clearly having fun, especially after sunset. Live music was seemingly erupting everywhere, with several bands playing simultaneously. 

There was something for everyone – from folk to country to hard rock. Even some kind of animatronic robot band. More than 20 groups in all, belting out tunes from noon to 10 p.m. 

Israel Nebeker of Astoria’s Blind Pilot performed indie folk ballads in the tented courtyard to hearty applause, joined halfway through his set by some of his bandmates.

Israel Nebeker and some of his Blind Pilot bandmates performed outside.

The headliner/closing act was Red Fang, rockers from Portland who packed The Ruins venue across Duane Street from the brewery.

It may have been those warming stouts, but nobody seemed to mind the cold and rain – or take a fall. Ignoring the risk, people stood on picnic tables to catch a glimpse of fire dancers lighting up the night sky.

 Late in the evening, a young woman whooped after making it down a soaked, twisting metal staircase.

 “I passed the sobriety test!” she declared.  

A fire dancer entertained in the rain.

  This story originally appeared Feb. 18 in The Astorian.

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