This past weekend was the 20th annual Toronto Festival of Beer, held at the Exhibition grounds. The festival is described on the website as “a celebration of Canada’s rich brewing history, hosted by experts of the brewing craft from around the world. Featuring 300+ brands onsite, this is Canada’s premier celebration of the golden beverage!”
As a recent transplant from the West this was my first time at an Ontario beer festival and I was eager to try out some of the breweries I had previously only heard or read about.
Right off the bat I have to say I was really impressed with the set-up for media. We entered through a separate gate with those who purchased VIP tickets, we were given wrist bands, which allowed entry to the media lounge -a nice spot to escape the masses and tweet, blog, instagram etc.-, we received two free beers, which were on a rotating pour schedule throughout the day, there was lots of brewery swag available, and volunteers were around to answer questions.
After leaving the relative sanctity of the media lounge (shelter) I found myself full-on immersed in one of the busiest (and drunkest) festivals I have ever attended.
To be forthright I was forewarned from another blog that this would not be the sipping and note-taking kind of fest, I believe the term douchebaggery was coined, but rather the chugging and chugging kind of fest nonetheless it was still felt like being in a beer commercial.
And in this spirit of full disclosure, it is well-stated that the Toronto Festival of Beer is sponsored by the (dun-dun-dun) Beer Store so obviously big beer had a very prominent if not dominant place.
Big Beer had lounges and dance parties, drinking games and buxom servers, swag galore and adverts everywhere, they probably even served some of their beer but I pretty much steered clear so I can’t say for certain.
Thankfully the small(er) guys also did their best to make an impression on the crowds and on that note I have to mention a few highlights.
First up, Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery (Barrie ON) with their psychedelic tents, fun swag, insane number of beers and beer blends on tap, and overall wow factor. I know I found myself returning more than once to sample their radler creations (pictured below is just one of three distinct menus).
Snowman Brewing Company also merits a special mention not for their volume or for their display but for the fact that they brewed a good gluten free beer. Yup, I said a good drinkable gluten free beer.
This meant my somewhat disillusioned hubby could break up his cider binge with something that reminded him of real beer. I am pretty sure he returned for three full pours from these guys.
Lastly, I would like to mention Nickel Brook Brewing Company (no don’t run away screaming I did not say Nickelback) who opted to turn two of their beers into ice cream floats. I sampled the maple porter float and it was pretty darn tasty though the heat may have been swaying my palate towards the ice cream end of the taste spectrum.
There were lots of things I really loved about this beer festival. It was easily accessible by transit, the hours were long enough that you did not feel rushed, there was live music throughout the weekend, there were a number of educational classes held where you could escape the crowd and take the time to learn and appreciate the beer you were drinking (ahem beer and cheese pairings), there was a pretty good volume of beer to sample, there were lots of different food options, there was a mobile app that provided festival information, you could get half or full pours, and did I mention there was a TON of beer swag to amass (my beer mat collection grows).
There were also a fair amount of things I really did not love about this festival. The party atmosphere (it got tiring pretty quickly), the insanely long lines to get tokens, the lack of beer descriptions (you needed to go to the booths to find out what was pouring and how many tokens it would set you back), the insanely long lines to get to the port-a-potties, the corporate feel of the whole event, and, if I have to be honest, the beer itself. I felt like there were not many unique festival beers like cask-conditioned ales, experimental styles etc., which made the whole thing feel like I could have just picked up a some random beer from the Beer Store or LCBO, sat down on my patio table and sampled those.
At the end of the day I am glad I went to the Toronto Festival of Beer because it was interesting to get a feel for how craft beer culture has developed and continues to develop in Ontario. To me, it seems like Ontario craft breweries are still in their infancy, finding (or making) space in a province largely under the thumb of Big Beer but based on some of the beer I sampled I think good things are coming…