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ROYAL YORK CANADIAN PREMIUM CRAFT BEER CELEBRATION: November 27, 2002


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Special thanks go to Josh Oakes for writing this report.

Check out Josh's Beer Manifesto web site here.

Toronto beer lovers have long lamented not having a festival to call our own. The Toronto Festival of Beer looks good on paper, with a beautiful setting in the historic park Fort York. All the micros in Ontario usually show up, as do all the importers. But the festival is hampered by two things. One is the ridiculous legal regime we have here in Ontario. The other is that the Fort York fest is a corporate fest, and this means macrobreweries, alcopops, beer bimbos, and thousands upon thousands of lager guzzling chunkheads, dressing and acting like all the latest beer commercials tell them to. In other words, there is a beer festival, but it's not for beer lovers.

A new contender for the hearts and minds of local beer lovers debuted on the scene last week in the verbose Canadian Premium Craft Beer Celebration. The event sort of appeared out of nowhere with a press release at the beginning of November. The premise was to promote the launch of a new world of craft beer at Piper's Pub in the famous Royal York Hotel. The pub is tied to its draught contracts, but has decided to feature Ontario craft beers in the bottle, and the event was to generate publicity for this. I actually thought the show was taking place in the pub, so that's where I went first. I wasn't really impressed with it - typical hotel bar.

The Imperial Room.

But I was impressed with the actual setting - the Imperial Room. The room has hundred foot ceilings and a spacious open floor - plenty of room for the breweries and drinkers alike. The décor was what you would expect from a five star hotel like the Royal York. I arrived just fifteen minutes after opening and it was already pretty crowded. The event seemed to attract two distinct elements - beer people and suits. Being located in the financial district, and held on a Wednesday evening, the latter is not surprising at all. But the former was a little bit - after all, it was a new event.

Clockwise from left - Josh Oakes, Radek, Greg Clow, jcappadocia, Kid Presentable, DAN-D-MAN, and Doug Shoemaker.

But maybe that was part of the appeal. Legalities being what they are in this ridiculous nanny state we live in - one in which government control over alcohol is deemed essential while control over drinking water is an anachronistic frivolity - the festival could never be expected to reach legendary status. Nobody will confuse it with the Chicago Real Ale Festival or the GBBF any time soon. But it worked for me for a few reasons. First, everybody was there. Both Ratebeer and the Bartowel were well represented, which is just about a given since there are quite a few people that are part of both sites now. Mr. Kimchee/Kid Presentable was there, as was Radek (in defiance of doctor's orders - always looked upon favourably when the time comes to induct new members to the Iron Liver Club). jcappadocia came in from Hamilton, Doug Shoemaker was there, as was Greg Clow and several Bartowellers like Cass Enright, Publican and Dan-D-Man.

Peter McAuslan of McAuslan Brewing.

All of the brewers in town were there, even ones who weren't at the show (this group mainly comprises brewpubs, since the government is of the opinion that all hell will break loose if brewpubs are allowed to show their wares at beer festivals). The local beer writer scene was well represented, and the importers were there, too, even though they weren't invited to the show. In that regard, the show did very well for itself. It also allowed for drinking at a relaxed pace since I couldn't turn around without running into someone I knew.

The new look for Amsterdam Framboise.

A few of the highlights: the new 750ml stoneware "bottles" for Amsterdam Framboise. Only 1500 of these beauties were brought in from Germany, and bottle collectors will want one to be sure. It should also be noted that although I'm not a fan of Amsterdam in general, their Framboise is excellent - one of only three or four really good fruit beers in this country. It is made with frozen whole raspberries so the taste is fresh and natural, not cloying or sickly. It also blends beautifully with St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout. Well worth seeking out, especially since this beer is rare on draught (stains the lines) so is otherwise only available at the brewery.

Another highlight was the unbalanced Holy Smoke from Church Key Brewing. I count this as a highlight for a couple of reasons. One, at the end of the festival the lack of balance does not interfere with the enjoyment. Two, Church Key's specialties have always been more ambitious on paper than in the glass. When I first had the Holy Smoke last month I thought this was following that pattern. I didn't press the brewer on whether or not this was the same batch because to me it couldn't be - it was like night and day. The beer contains 10% peated malt, which is twice what Unibroue puts in Raftman. For those who haven't tasted it since the C'est What festival, you owe it to yourself to update your notes, because this it's like Laphroaig now. I hope they take this boldness and extend it to their other specialties. People in this town need to be shocked once in a while.

The final thing I enjoyed was the lack of macrobrewers - I didn't even see Sleeman, which means I'm not the only one who grasps that a 1 million hl brewery churning out Old Milwaukee and a 20% corn Cream Ale as its flagships and owns breweries from coast to coast is NOT a microbrewer. I can't believe how many people are still having trouble figuring that out. So yes, no macros, no alcohols, and no stupid peanuts running around looking for the strongest beer so they can get drunker than their buddies. That part I liked.

What didn't work? Well, the festival organizers certainly cannot be faulted for the legal straightjacket they had to operate under. You don't go to Ontario beer festivals to try new beers, I can assure you. I only had one. I won't get into the nitty-gritty here, but the government is clearly enamoured with their ability to stifle innovation. The worst thing is that some of the brewers also contributed to the less-than-innovative beer selection. Unibroue failed the local beer community miserably, only bringing their two flagships. These guys have a dozen products that are legal for sale in Ontario and they bring the two that have been here for years? Do they understand just how many people want a crack at 10, Terrible and Fringante? Or how much goodwill they could have garnered by bringing some Quelque Chose for those of us who can't find a drop of it locally anymore?

Jeers also to Agassiz Brewing, the Manitoba company who debuted their Catfish Cream Ale at the fest. The product was clearly off but they sold it anyway, not a good thing when trying to crack into new markets. Band-aid phenols in the nose and a cardboard palate do not make the kind of impression these guys were hoping for. Moreover, beer lovers were hoping to sample their full range of products. Reading the Great Canadian Beer Guide, you see listed a Pilsner (which I've had and is quite good, but doesn't seem to be in their lineup any more), a hefeweizen, a dark lager and a winter bock. To only bring one, and to have it a spoiled cream ale, is not good after such an appetizing tease. Worse yet, they did have the Dark Lager and something called Bison Blonde at the Royal York show, they just didn't let any of the beer lovers get to taste it. It didn't stop me from getting my hands on some surreptitiously, mind you (I am still the best beer hunter in the business, after all).

The last negative was the food - assembly line pub grub far below what one would expect from the Royal York. Five bucks isn't overly expensive or anything, except when you're getting three dollar food. I'm not saying they should have broken out the farmhouse Quebecois terrine and Montgomery's cheddar, but the kitchen really mailed this one in, grossly underestimating the tastes of the beer-loving community.

Overall, I did have a blast. That everyone I would want to talk to in this town's beer community was there really made it. The room was damn fine, as was the crowd overall (all you swillers out there understand that I'm not being snobby, it's just that if I wanted a bunch of immature primates slugging back pitchers of Blue I'd go to the Loose Moose). I certainly don't fault the organisers for the asininity of the Ontario government, either, but to ensure the continued success of the event they do need to fix the food situation, and work harder with the breweries to ensure that they bring brands you don't see everyday (this year's McAuslan Vintage Ale would have been a nice touch, for example). Do these two things and I'll be the beer lovers will support the fest. And if everyone else is there having a good time, I'll be there having a good time, too.