This is my second year attending the Great Canadian Beer Festival (GCBF) in Victoria, BC and I think that qualifies me to dispense some sage advice on how to get the best out of your beer fest experience. First up it is a super quick walk to Royal Athletic Park from downtown Victoria and many hotels offer beer fest rates so check-in early, have a pre-beer fest pint at one of Victoria’s many great brew pubs (Spinnakers, Swans, Moon Under Water, Sticky Wicket, Canoe Club etc.) and meander your way to the gates early, I am mean really early. We got to the festival about a half hour before the gates opened and the line was down the block and around the corner. This meant by the time the line started moving and we got through the admin stuff it was almost quarter to four; we lost nearly 45min of quality drinking time! The masses behind us probably lost upwards of an hour to and hour and a half. I am not sure why the GCBF organizers do not let the crowds in early and just not start pouring drinks until the festival start time? This would allow patrons to walk around the grounds, scope out bathrooms, buy beer swag and check out the food options. Speaking of food, you can’t bring any food or drink with you AND the food selection is pretty tragic. If you are a veg like me be prepared to eat some falafel that has been parked under a heat lamp for most of its natural life. I saw some intrepid beer lovers wearing pretzel necklaces, which seems like a great idea and unlikely to get confiscated if you keep it tucked under your shirt on the way in. If you are a big geek like me pre-plan your beer route, if you an even bigger geek re-order the beer list numerically (GCBF has it alphabetically) that way you can make a big beer loop while minimizing your walking distances.
Once you actually get onto the grounds prioritize, prioritize, prioritize; many brewers run out of their more unique offerings so if you want something that is made for the festival or one of the casked ales go get it first. It really sucks to wait until the end of the day and realized the beer you want ran out an hour ago. On the other hand be aware of the ominous ‘Saturday Only’ or ‘Friday Only’ tags and have a back-up planned in case the beer you want is a no-show (ahem, Fig Saison). Don’t start the beer festival with something super strong or crazy flavoured it will skew your sense of taste for the rest of the day; on that same note don’t expect to taste much of anything by the end of the day. No matter how often you tell yourself you will pace the samples there are just too many great beers not to take advantage. Make use of super warm water randomly dispersed throughout the grounds you need to keep hydrated and cleanse the palate between samples. The brewer line-ups are long and they only get longer throughout the day so enjoy your sample while you get in line for another otherwise your glass will get all sad and empty. Try not to overbuy tokens; many people were stuck with leftovers at the end and once the air horn sounded at eight the beer stopped flowing -instantly. The bathrooms get real scary real quickly so go use the ones at the entrance as the day wears on it you want to avoid overspray. Take some time to people watch; I saw a leprechaun, Darth Vader playing the violin, living statues, a large man with a coconut bra, Duff Man, a ton of clever beer shirts, lederhosen clad freshmen and various other characters. Take advantage of the free beer swag you can never have too many coasters, stickers and temporary tattoos –my partner looked like a Nascar by the end of the day he had so many decals on his shirt. Most of all enjoy yourself, interact with the brewers, servers, entertainers and other festival patrons everyone is in great spirits -it gets loud and silly but never rowdy.
Now a bit about the beer. In all fairness I can’t really give a proper review to the samples since they were small pours, I was mixing across all kinds of styles and if truth be told I was pretty darn loaded by the end of the day; however, I would still like to offer some thoughts on my samplings and you can take them for what you will. I started with Cool Grand from Hopworks cask conditioned ale brewed with North West malt and local Oregon hops. A nice festival starter, quite balanced, a hoppy nose with a sweet finish. Yoda’s Green Tea Golden Ale from Port Townsend Brewing a very still beer with a strong green tea flavour (more than any other tea beer I have tried). Bourbon aged breakfast stout from the new kid on the block Coal Harbour Brewing; this one struck me more like a porter than a stout lacking somewhat in heft, a cold coffee taste with a hint of sweetness. Kolsch from Double Mountain Brewery (my first Kolsch!!!) light, effervescent ale with a dry fruit element that was light and crisp. Steamworks Brewing Great Pumpkin Ale (x2) just the best pumpkin beer EVER; honourable mentions to their equally stellar Grand Espresso Stout and regrets to their sold-out Frambozen = (. Three Skulls Blood Orange Wit mild wheat ale with a far too subtle orange element. Salt Spring Island Golden Ale and Heatherdale Ale; the former a nutty ale that was really crisp and the latter a dry ale with elements of honey and an almost floral like quality –both were really great and served quite cold. Moon Under Water Blue Moon Bitter a nice darker ale with a hoppy aftertaste and Tranquility IPA a middle of the road example of the style; not bad, not stellar. Sound Brewing Monks Indiscretion and Tripel Entendre. These Belgians were two of the beer fest stand-outs for me; strong and flavourful yet immensely drinkable. Pike Brewery’s Naughty Nellie, which I think was pretty good but things were getting a little fuzzy at this point. Stone Brewing Arrogant Bastard Ale, one of the longest lines at the festival and one of the most fun beers to order, this is the Stone signature drink aggressive hoppy ale with a bitter aftertaste that is really great. Yukon Brewing Red Amber Ale, which again I think was a pretty good red with a creamy mouthfeel and a bit of spice. I know there were others and I tried to keep track, I really did, but I am not sure what they were so I don’t want to do anyone a disservice by making a guess. A good selection of beers but I wish it was a little more distinct from last year since there were many repeats. Also, I did not feel like there were as many unusual flavours/styles represented; the piquant ales were there last year as were the numerous pumpkins but not many brewers had something highly distinctive.