The Whistler Village Beer Festival (WVBF) returns this weekend to Olympic Plaza, giving visitors and locals alike one more kick at the can at a beloved summer celebration. After a two-year hiatus, the crew at Gibbons Hospitality Group are ready to get beer in hands of patrons and welcome more than 40 breweries and cideries back to Whistler.
“It’s fabulous to see events coming back this year,” says Ann Marie Lauer, the operations manager leading the beer festival’s organizing efforts for the fourth time. “We’ve often considered (WVBF) to be the last party of the summer. If you can mix beer, music, food and mountains, I don’t think you can go wrong.”
The footprint of the WVBF Main Event grounds are expanding a bit this year to give both patrons and breweries enough space to get the most out of the weekend. And while the number of craft beer breweries is slightly down compared to years past, the number of unique beverages getting poured has gone up. Each brewery, cidery and seltzery (yes, it’s a word) is allowed to pour three lines rather than two as they did in previous years.
“The [breweries] were really excited because they wanted to showcase a mainstay, a seasonal and maybe even a specialty beer,” says Laurer. “They get a chance to play around a bit more and it gives our attendees even more things to try. Plus, the brewers get to talk about more beer.”
Much ado about music
Beer festivals are not just for flannel-adorned, bearded, hipster craft-beer nerds anymore. Inclusion and accessibility is top of mind across the craft beer industry as it balloons beyond the niche it once was. With so many more bars and restaurants serving craft beer than even five years ago, festivals need more than just great beer to get people through the gate. Being able to bring your non-beer-loving (or gluten-intolerant) friends to enjoy ciders and seltzers is one way. The other is to make the event as much about entertainment as it is about beer.
“We wanted to bring the music up a notch this year as a celebration of the return of WVBF after so much time away,” says Lauer. “It adds another element to the festival, it gets people excited to be outdoors celebrating craft beer in B.C. Everyone loves having music there, we’ve got hundreds of videos of people dancing. It’s a good time.”
In addition to some of Whistler’s favourite local artists such as The Hairfarmers, Red Chair, DJ Stache and JennaMae & The Groove Selection, the music lineup will be headlined by two-time-Juno-winning indie rockers The Strumbellas on Saturday, Sept. 17, followed by Fernie’s quintessential, ski-town “Stoke Folk” band Shred Kelly. Dancing will be optional, but strongly encouraged.
Some challenging years for beer
While the province’s hospitality industry is hoping to put the last couple of years of rolling pandemic shutdowns and venue capacity restrictions behind them, the challenges are far from over for B.C.’s craft brewers. Strike action from Aug. 15 to 30 at BC Liquor Distribution Branch warehouses throttled alcohol supply for almost all food and beverage venues across the province. Keg beer sales went unhindered (as those kegs are delivered directly by breweries or their contracted distributors), but BC Liquor Store shelves were looking far emptier. A caveat of this shortage was that it affected mostly large B.C. craft breweries that ship in large quantities, such as Whistler Brewing Company, Steamworks and Phillips. Smaller breweries, such as Coast Mountain Brewing, Backcountry Brewing and Pemberton Brewing, could still deliver stock themselves, stretching their capacity to produce enough beer beyond contracts already in place.
“That was very unfortunate, because there was no interruption to the [macro] foreign and domestic beer supply, such as Molson, Labatt and Sleeman, since those breweries deliver [to BC Liquor stores] on their own,” says Ken Beattie, executive director of the BC Craft Brewers Guild. “The craft beer market was losing volume. Smaller breweries were asked to bring in more product, but it was nowhere near the market lost by B.C. craft breweries overall. There are certainly big breweries in the Lower Mainland that have had to lay off staff because of the strike.”
Further up the supply chain, news hasn’t been exactly sparkling over the last couple of years, either. Canada’s drought-affected 2021 barley growing season was one of the worst in a generation, with dismal results in terms of both the quantity and quality of the barley crop in Western Canada, according to the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre. Barley prices increased by an average of 40 per cent, which affected craft brewers especially, since they rarely use corn or other fermentable adjuncts like their macro brewing counterparts. Whistler’s Coast Mountain Brewing sources the majority of its high-quality brewing malt from Germany’s southern state of Bavaria, but that price hike was even more pronounced.
“In 2021, a 25-kilogram bag of Weyermann base malt was $42 a bag,” says Kevin Winter, co-owner and head brewer at Coast Mountain Brewing. “Today, that same bag is $64. We use anywhere between 12 to 18 bags of grain per batch and we’re brewing about seven to 10 times a week. So it’s a big jump in costs, but luckily our base malt supply has been pretty constant.”
A global scarcity of aluminum cans drove packaging prices up, as did the rising costs of fuel and transportation. And let’s not forget about general inflation and a labour shortage that won’t let up. Yet despite a seemingly dire landscape for aspiring craft brewers, the industry is hanging on. One boon of the pandemic was that it forced the province’s hand to relax a few key liquor laws.
“We were lobbying for a change to the patio liquor laws prior to COVID, then it just made perfect sense,” says Beattie. “Keep people outside, keep people employed and keep people safe. In the first year of the pandemic there were over 20 breweries that opened in B.C. In the second year, there were just under 20. There hasn’t been the number of breweries that have closed that people may think, and the breweries that did close, in general, have been purchased and reopened [by new investors] very quickly.”
Changing with the times
With beer festivals needing to adapt as much as the breweries they invite, what will the future of these events look like? The Vancouver Craft Beer Week (VCBW) festival on July 9 and 10, at the PNE Fairgrounds, came close to selling out and featured notable music artists such as Bedouin Soundclash, Titus Bank, Half Moon Run, Missy D and Skratch Bastid. Interestingly, organizers labelled the event as a “craft beer and music festival” on their website and promotional materials. It also had 11 specialty food trucks and chef pop-ups offering everything from Texas barbecue to oyster shucking. So, is the purist beer nerd gathering moving over to make way for a more food- and entertainment-focused atmosphere?
“If you were a small brewery or tasting room in the past, you would go to a lot of festivals because that was your marketing dollars, where people could try your beer,” says Beattie. “Staffing a team from a brewery to attend festivals is harder these days and the expense of attending is high. Many breweries invested in canning lines during COVID so they could sell online and might be thinking, ‘Maybe we don’t need to go to all the festivals we used to go to.’
The kind of cool thing is, there are so many new breweries, so you’ll likely see some new faces at the fests you attend.”
So what’s the ace the WVBF has up its sleeve to keep both patrons and breweries coming back? Easy. It’s in Whistler. Few beer festivals can match the resort’s blend of beautiful mountain setting, vibrant dining scene, nightlife and outdoor recreation (recreation is recommended before imbibing, of course).
“Majority of ticket holders are from the Lower Mainland,” says Lauer. “The second biggest attendance is a tie between Vancouver Island and the Okanagan. We know Whistler is going to take care
The other motivation for breweries to attend is the prizes. Rather than dust-gathering trophies, WVBF continues to award top breweries with draft lines at some of the most popular Gibbons venues. If you’ve walked past a busy Black’s Pub recently, it’s not hard to see the value of a contracted beer line to a craft brewery looking to grow its sales.
Beer trends for 2022
Before you enter the gates of the WVBF, you may ask yourself: what’s everyone drinking these days? Mega-hopped beers have had their day. The hazy craze lingers, but many IPA fans are gravitating back to traditional West Coast styles or embracing new experiments like the cold IPA (an IPA fermented at lower temperatures, closer to the temperatures you would ferment lagers). Fruit-forward sours got a lot of non-craft drinkers into the craft brewing mix and still have a strong fanbase. But across the industry, the biggest trends are on the lighter side.
“The trend I see mostly these days is lower gravity beers,” says Derick Franche, brewmaster at High Mountain Brewing inside the Brewhouse Whistler. “I think Shaketown in North Vancouver is a perfect example of that. They’re making three-per-cent (ABV) beers whereas a few years ago those style beers would be almost unsellable. From what I’ve observed, young people are drinking far less than people of our generation.”
With non-alcoholic beers having had a boom of their own, perhaps the three- to four-per-cent easy-drinker is the next hazy? Or maybe, it’ll come down to a battle of the “crispy boi.”
“Right now, the biggest trend is lagers,” says Winter. “People want clean and crisp beers again, and they want it from their local craft breweries.”
With as many as 120 different taps pouring at the WVBF, festivalgoers should have a suitable sample size to conduct their own survey.
Whatever beverage is pouring or music playing, the goal of the WVBF hasn’t changed: it’s about bringing people together for a good time. Weather in September is as unpredictable as the West Coast gets, but that’s not going to stop people revelling with the liquid long considered a gift from the gods.
Think you know a good pale ale?
The Master Crafters: Holy Grail of Pale Ale takes place Friday, Sept. 16 at Longhorn Saloon from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. The identities of attending breweries are kept secret, with simple number identification and Longhorn staff doing the pouring. Try all and vote for your favourite in a blind tasting. An event for the beer nerds indeed.
“Balance is what makes a perfect pale ale. When you are drinking the perfect pale ale (none better than Firestone Walker in California) nothing should stand out. It should just be a perfect guzzling beer. There should be nothing holding it back from just getting poured down your gullet except for the carbonation bite. I’ve always been in search of making the ‘perfect’ pale ale and have yet to do so 23 years into my brewing career. That’s how hard it is to make it amazing.” Brewmaster Derrick Franche, High Mountain Brewing
The festival officially kicked off Sept. 13, and runs through Sept. 18. For the full lineup of events, visit gibbonswhistler.com/festivals-events/whistler-village-beer-festival.