All the reasons why I continue to be disappointed by Toronto's Festival of Beer continued into 2001. There are a number of core problems that prevent Toronto's Festival of Beer from being a premium event for beer lovers and burgeoning connoisseurs looking to sample unfamiliar beers for the first time.
1. The Venue. Toronto's beer festival is extremely popular in the city, and it attracted about 15,000 people over the three-day weekend. Unfortunately, the fest remained at Old Fort York, which was too small. It was hot, crowded and very difficult to get samples or chat with brewers. This led to regular frustrations on the part of festival attendees and the brewery staff.
2. The Cost to the public. The admission fee was $25 at the door, which included a flimsy eight-page guide, a small tasting glass and ten drink tickets. At an average of two tickets per four-ounce sample, this was the most expensive pint I had ever purchased.
3. The Ticketing System. Beer samples were exchanged for tickets at the festival, which is likely a regulatory requirement. However, beer samples were "priced" individually - mainstream beers tended to be 1-2 tickets for a sample; premium or imported beers were usually 2-4 tickets. What occurred was that drinkers became price-sensitive, as they do in the general marketplace. As tickets were $0.50 each, a four-ounce sample of certain premium beers cost $2, compared to mainstream brands costing $1. This created a disincentive amongst festival-goers to sample beers that they were unfamiliar with. If ticket prices were equalized across all beers, there would be an increased likelihood of sampling something different, and would eliminate the "class structure" between beers.
4. The Cost to the brewers. The breweries must pay to attend the festival. By glancing over the brewery attendee list, a few of Ontario's new microbreweries were absent, including Glenora Springs of Picton, Heritage of Ottawa and Walkerville of Windsor. It is unknown if the cost impacted these breweries' decisions to not attend.
5. The Food. In the past, many different Toronto restaurants attended the festival, offering a wide range of food to accompany the beer samples. This year, the food responsibility was handled solely by Prime Pubs. This resulted in the main food booths representing the Esplanade Bier Markt, Fionn MacCool's and the Red Devil, leading to a significant decline in food selection from years past.
6. The Alcopop invasion. The festival in 2001 featured a number of booths representing many "alcopops" of the province, including Mike's Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice, Vex Hard Lemonade and Dave's Stingers. Unfortunately, these are not beers, and led to guzzling rather than sampling.
7. The Overall Beer Selection. The festival does attract many breweries, offering a wide range of brands to beer drinkers. However, for the seasoned beer connoisseur, there was rarely anything at the festival that was new. Every beer at the festival was already (or becoming) available in Ontario, if only in limited areas.
However, not everything about this year's beer festival was disappointing. There were a number of highlights:
1. The New Ontario Microbreweries. Ontario has had quite a few new micros sprout up over the last year or two. It was nice to see new breweries Church Key of Campbellford and Scotch Irish of Ottawa both attending, offering up their tasty brews.
2. Wellington's Imperial Stout. A rare style to find in Ontario, but Wellington makes a delicious although slightly light version. It should be available in LCBOs soon.
3. Michael Hancock of Denison's. Michael, the head brewer at the excellent brewpub Denison's, had a booth collecting signatures to petition the Ontario government to alter the brewpub laws in the province. Currently brewpubs cannot take their beer off-site, preventing Denison's and Toronto's other fine brewpubs from sampling their beers at the festival. All beer lovers should be supportive in the efforts of the brewpubs to update the regulations in Ontario.
4. All the microbreweries and importers, who despite the problems of the festival, put on a brave face and offered many excellent beers throughout the festival.
Toronto's Festival of Beer is a popular and successful event for Toronto. Unfortunately, this event does not do a very good job of promoting beer culture or the sampling of new and interesting brews. It is painfully clear that this beer festival is not geared towards beer enthusiasts, but rather for the mainstream market. It is a shame that a city as cosmopolitan as Toronto does not have an event that is truly dedicated to beer. We are lucky that Buffalo is only two hours away.