With the last remnants of a jetlag hanging in our skull like evaporating water droplets from a harbor fog, our brain was filled to capacity with impressions: We just came back from seeing orcas in the wild, more bald eagles than pigeons and rough-edged coasts and soft moss on millions of trees. In such a state, seeing a person dressed like a unicorn, on a field full of seagull shit, on an island – may it be as big as Belgium, the whole experience could have felt like a motorcycle race during a sandstorm outside of Las Vegas. In the end, attending the Great Canadian Beer Fest(ival) was very little gonzo, but very much fun.
There had to be a guy in Lederhosen. We were promised people dressing up and the shortcut for attendees to a beer festival are Lederhosen. On top of that, we saw pretzel necklaces, women with hops in their hair and other creatures we banished from our memory. We remember, however, a giant of a brewer with dirtbike sunglasses; we remember having had a lot of beers, eating a mountain of nachos that were actually thinly sliced and fried potatoes. We remember seeing a lot of people that were merry, few that were nerding-out and we saw a lot of police officers and security. We don’t remember though, how we got back to the hotel. The Great Canadian Beer Fest was that kind of a festival.
Let me quench your thirst
We didn’t get a feel for Victoria, the two and a half days we were there. It was an eerie vibe, driving into the city, as the smoke of the forest fires covered the sun, painting the sky in a toxic shade of orange. We spent the first night in The Drake, drinking Green Flash and Alpine beers – two breweries we have visited and have fond memories of, what permitted us to cheat on the “drink local”-mantra. Slowly, practically every brewer or brewery representative attending the festival entered the door, greeting the ones they knew, got to know the ones they didn’t. There was enthusiasm in the air. It was the beginning of a promising weekend full of fun and loving and in total contrast to the scene on Saturday morning, where people from R&B and Big Rock (we think) ate breakfast at the White Spot close to the festival grounds, getting their body temperature up with two pints of bloody marys. They had a cold and rainy day ahead of them and they had to face happy people wearing costumes.
Before the gloom, there was Friday. While in the morning the weather was on shuffle, skipping from hot to cold and fast-forwarding back, the afternoon cleared up. The smoke was further left on the pacific and sunglasses could be worn without risking a level-up on your douchebag meter. We trekked to the Royal Athletic Field with instructions to be there for a media tour, an hour before the grounds opened. The who’s who of thirsty Canadian beer writers, including the Thirsty Writer, assembled underneath a tent to listen to John Rowling, director and co-founder of the festival, give a quick welcome speech. The biggest take-away from his welcoming words was that it’s increasingly difficult to attract people to come to a festival. No wonder, John said, can people go to any bar with 50 odd taps and have their own tiny festival every day of the week.
But people did come. The festival was sold out on Saturday and only few tickets were left for Friday. It never felt crowded though: There were so many breweries, it spread out the crowd and all lines were fast moving. At one point, I mentioned to my travel-companion: Let’s see which brewery has the biggest line, because that must be the one with the best reputation. In the end, the biggest line was at the stand closest to the entry. People got in with a thirst and quenched it a few steps from the gate (maybe with the exception of Fuggles & Warlock that always drew a big crowd and that we avoided after their hard to drink Agent Orange IPA – until we nevertheless went there for their Gin & Lime Pilsner and Gin & Tonic Shiori Peach Sour).
Let me entertain you
It didn’t really feel like a beer-festival, more like people hanging out and beer was merely the reason why they hung out at this exact place and time. If there was a table of people at their laptops reviewing beers – something you see here in Europe – we missed that. And while there was a good amount of beards, there was also a lot of skirts.
Initially, John told us, they wanted to get people to a beer festival and then not give them the beers they were accustomed to: Come for beer and leave with a newfound love for craft beer. That was 25 years ago (the GCBF is the longest running beer festival in Canada and celebrated its 25th anniversary this year). With craft beer now part of the “common consciousness” in areas of British Columbia, that missionary goal is less pressing. This common consciousness translates to people attending a beer festival with the intention of having a good time more-so than to nerd-out about beer. Which means, the organizers do things for them to have a good time, like buskers juggling throughout the field, music playing in various corners, beer stands working efficiently and attendees entertaining each other with silly costumes.
Do we want to knock that? Not really. After all, what got us to like beer? The taste, right? And drinking it with friends, right? The taste might have been somewhat affected by the plastic glasses we had to use. But friends were there. Overall, it was less a celebration of beer and more a celebration of … well, it was a celebration. Now, when it’s less about beer and more about fun, then there’s the risk of drunk people – something you rarely see at a nerdy-beer-festival. This might explain all the security and the police and the constant reminder of not driving home after the festival and the general nervous babysitted feel of the event. It didn’t bother us and neither did it bother the jolly man in the bear costume. After all, there was beer and food and music and friends and fresh air and it was a fest we’d love to attend every year, if only it wasn’t a 10 hour flight away.
However, it was a beer festival after all, so drinking beer is what we did. And we had some great ones, like the Ravens Brewing Lingonberry Lime Gose and the NE-styled beers like Bossy Juice by Moody Ales and Dad Jokes by Twin Sails. We also liked Fruity Muther Pucker by Axe & Barrel and many more. There were plenty of cask-aged beers (including their tasty Framboise by Spinnacker – in general, BC is currently full of fruit and berry beers) and the breweries were mainly from BC, with the odd Unibroue thrown in for good measure: Only 5 out of the 60 plus participating breweries were from outside BC. These 60 plus breweries served three to four beers, so even trying a small percentage of all beers served was a mammoth task we spectacularly failed.