A beer aficionado travels across the pond to imbibe, and says we dont realize how good weve got it
"I'd kill everyone in this room for a drop of sweet, tasty beer..." - H. Simpson
Welcome. For this journey might I recommend a stool, a pint and a nice soft pretzel? For these are the tools of the trade at The Great Canadian Beer Festival in Victoria, B.C.
The 10 th anniversary of the festival marked a decade of legendary suds. Fortunately, over the past several years I've had the privilege to witness the evolution of both good beer, and the festival itself. This years festival fell smack dab on Whistler-Blackcombs opening weekend. But since it was the only thing falling I wasn't too heartbroken. Rather, it seemed like perfect timing to drown the snow sorrows that had gripped many an early season pass - holder.
The Great Canadian Beer Festival is literally Canada's largest showcasing of microbreweries. The debauchery runs for five hours Friday and eight hours Saturday so needless to say, pacing is key.
What has made it such a legendary event, aside from the beer, are the people in attendance. In years past this was attributed to the insane ticket buying process. Only a handful of tickets were given to select micro-breweries around the province. This led to serious beer drinkers going to near superhero lengths to acquire tickets, thereby creating an event made up of 100 per cent true beer lovers. And it makes all the difference when you're surrounded by people who are there for the beer, not just the alcohol.
This year, however, things were done differently. Tickets were sold on a single day and only in Victoria. At first this seemed like a good idea, but it now appears to have changed the entire dynamic of the weekend.
This isn't just a "back in my day" thing either. Veterans of the event agreed this festival was different. By observation, the crowd was visually more diverse and generally younger. Not that these changes are bad, it just depends what you're into; a beer lover's event where brewers rightly take their place as the centre of worship, or a college kid piss up.
Further proof that things were different: uncharacteristically, at the end of the festival , there was no beer. Instead of savouring the melodramatic dance of hops and barley; people seemed more inclined to CHUG, CHUG, CHUG. I even overheard someone say that most of the beers sucked, while admitting to be a Bud drinker. Even Amnesty International would understand torturing this guy.
Just to make sure I wasn't imagining things, I posed the question to some representatives of CAMRA, the "good beer club" that arranges the event. They confirmed my suspicions that the event had taken on a new dynamic. Upon reflection, ticket distribution was cited as the obvious contributing factor.
But the crowd aside, this year (as always) some exceptional brews took the stage. Namely The Brew Brother's with their Prairie Steamer. Black Plague a delicious stout from Storm Brewing. And my favorite, an organic stout by the name of, The Backhand of God.
On a local front, you'll be proud to know that over the past several years Sea to Sky Countrys own Mike Kelly has brewed some of the best. I've enjoyed countless mugs of Mike's creations without truly appreciating where his talent fit in the grand scheme of things.
I was made aware of Mike's reputation at last year's festival during the brewer's dinner. I was in awe, surrounded by those responsible for creating the amazing beer we had just sampled. Then came the question, "Where do you brew Bryan?"
"Actually I'm just a very good customer at the Brew Pub."
Well that was it, they had never heard of such suds devotion. With my new found brew cred they immediately stumbled over each other with tales of Mike's undeniable skill.
Mike started his frothy career back in the day at the old Whistler Brewing Company, or as they used to call it, Whistler Brew School. From there he made his way south where he spent the best years of my life at Squamish's own Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Company.
When asked what beer he was most proud of, his response was one of a hurt father, saying he loved all his liquid children equally.
When asked what his greatest accomplishment/risk was? He tells of introducing a Hefaweizen (Hef to its friends) to Squamish. Hef is a cloudy Bavarian wheat beer with a strong banana, vanilla aftertaste. Needless to say it was a roaring success. He attributes this to both the fabulous beer and the fact that the Howe Sound Inn is somewhat of an anomaly in the brewer world. Brew pubs are traditionally frequented by upper class beer snobs. But here you have penny-scraping mountain bikers and climbers ready for a refreshing challenge.
With his family headquarters in Pemberton however, the long commutes led to the inevitable move back to where it all began... Whistler.
Now Whistlerites have the honour of having the best of the beer festival any day of the week at the Whistler Brewhouse. Mike's the Quasimodo guy in the fish bowl above the kitchen, painstakingly ensuring every beer is heartbreakingly delicious.
As for the future of the festival? Well, next year, the crowd won't be the only thing that's changed, as the entire event is being moved outdoors. With the new venue comes a bigger crowd. Not only will we lose the intimacy but as Mike points out, we lose the luxury of indoor plumbing as well. When it comes to beer festivals, indoor plumbing is something you don't fully appreciate until it's gone.
Still, we must consider ourselves lucky. Once a year the Great Canadian Beer Festival, although changed, is consistently an amazing showcase of the finest suds around. And in Whistler, we have beer that can go toe-to-toe with the very best every day of the week at the local brewhouse. As if we needed another reason to call this the best place on earth.