Ticket’s for Astoria’s hottest Black Friday item — all 2,400 of them — sold out in less than 30 minutes this year.
Fort George Brewery’s Festival of the Dark Arts, which takes over its entire Duane Street campus the third Saturday each February, has gone from an obscure fundraiser for the arts to one of the region’s most sought-after beer festivals.
Jack Harris, co-owner of Fort George, first held the event in 2000 and 2002 as a fundraiser for Astoria Visual Arts.
“I was working at Bill’s Tavern” in Cannon Beach, Harris said. “I always wanted to throw a stout festival. I was kind of looking for a little group that could use a fundraiser.”
The festival started out at the foot of 10th Street with 10 to 12 stouts, which Harris drove all around the Pacific Northwest to collect, and around 200 attendees. It featured a macabre-themed art show and fire dancers, a staple of the event’s entertainment.
Fort George revived Dark Arts in 2011 after buying the Fort George and Lovell buildings from their former landlord, Robert Stricklin. The festival takes over the entire campus, with dark-themed artists and stout-pouring stations spread over both floors of the Fort George Building, an upstairs garden along Exchange Street, a downstairs courtyard on Duane Street and a gallery and taproom in the Lovell Building.
“Beer festivals are really boring, if you go to a lot of them,” Harris said. “This was really at the heart of it. We’re trying to be the opposite of a beer festival, and really be engaging with people and have lots of really interesting, hands-on things to do. The dark thing has always been a tongue-in-cheek sort of aspect of it.”
Attendance steadily swelled. At least 2,500 people attended Dark Arts 2014, braving 60-mph wind gusts and more than an inch of rain. After the onslaught, Fort George capped attendance to keep the experience enjoyable. Over the last several years, the event has sold out faster and faster.
“It’s kind of gone from about five days, to five hours, to 25 minutes,” said Brian Bovenizer, marketing director for Fort George. “It’s about the most in-demand beer festival in the region.”
This year, Fort George sold 2,000 all-day tickets and 400 “Twilight” passes for people to attend after 6 p.m., when the initial wave of drinkers thins out. It has resisted calls to hold the event multiple days and take it on the road to larger venues in Portland and Seattle.
“Half the draw is being able to go from building to building and room to room, and across the courtyard and upper (Fernhill) Glass area,” Harris said of the brewery’s campus. “It’s just kind of this discovery.”
Fort George continually fine-tunes the event to keep it enjoyable in the constricted space. It began renting out the The Ruins at the Astor, an event space across Duane Street in former hotel lobby of the John Jacob Astor Hotel building, for a third concert venue and oyster bar. In 2020, the brewery plans to close Duane Street between its campus and the Astor building to provide a larger experience.
About 40% of the attendees at Dark Arts come from the Portland metro area, compared to about 10% from Astoria and a smattering of others from around the U.S. and Canada. But Fort George also recruits around 120 volunteers to help its staff put the festival on.
“A lot of the regulars and locals are volunteering,” Harris said. “They’re kind of going to the festival, but they’re going to it as volunteers.”
Fort George provides earlier volunteers entry, a tasting glass and several tokens for pours. Later in the day volunteers can’t attend beforehand, but the brewery gives them a gift card and, for the closing shifts, a 32-ounce fill of any Dark Arts beer. As of Friday, later volunteer spots were still available at tinyurl.com/DarkArtsvolunteers
Other business owners like the surge of more than 2,000 winter visitors, Harris said.
“The streets are full all weekendlong in Astoria,” he said. “It is a big bump for everybody at that time of the year.”
Fort George developed an unticketed event the Sunday after Dark Arts called The Aftermath, when the brewery releases variants of its bourbon barrel-aged stout series, Matryoshka, and sells stouts that didn’t run out the day before. Crowds line up around the block at the Lovell Building, buying hundreds of cases of beer to go.
In addition to Dark Arts, Harris is an architect behind Stout Month, a dark beer appreciation running throughout February. The brewery releases three or four stouts a week throughout the month, the crescendo being Dark Arts. Fort George plans to expand Stout Month with more events throughout the region.
Dark Arts has been named the best beer festival in the state the last several years in a row by Willamette Week’s Oregon Beer Awards. The Oregon Brewers Guild recently named February Oregon Craft Beer Month.
“They even cited the Festival of Dark Arts and what we do with Stout Month as a reason,” Bovenizer said.