Toronto’s Festival of Beer: A Reappraisal

Last year my trip to Toronto’s Festival of Beer did not end so well.  It was my first time going to the festival, but I came away being mad at the Ontario brewers more than with any general impression of the festival. In fact, I didn’t think it was too bad, maybe because I was there on a quiet Thursday and left on Friday before things got crazy. This year I was kind of looking forward to an evening of drinking outside, especially because the event was now getting some approval from the craft beer crowd (both the Toronto Star and The Grid had similar articles talking about how the fest was maturing). Perhaps I came to expect too much, because I once again left the festival with a bitter taste in my mouth (and no, it wasn’t from the beer).

First off, let’s cover the redeeming aspects of the festival. 1) Great Lakes Caskapalooza. Six or seven casks at any time. The casks were improved this year, at least from the two samples I had. 2) Keep6 at the Quebec pavilion. Hopfenstark, Dunham, Trois Mousquetaires, Le Trou du Diable and more on tap. 3) Drinking outside on a sunny Friday evening, mainly surrounded by grass and trees.

And now everything else, starting with going to buy beer tokens and finding out they’re only available in packs of twenty ($20). Um, right. So people just spent $38.50 for their ticket (included glass and five tokens) and now have to spend at least twenty more dollars? I call bullshit. (For the record, my ticket was a media comp.) The tokens could also be used for food, but that still means most people were spending almost sixty dollars for their night out. You cannot make claims for social responsibility when you make attendees buy tokens in bulk quantities. Most beers were one token (some, like Caskapalooza and the Quebec imports, were two), meaning those tokens are buying you a lot of beer. I can only imagine a lot of people ended up with pockets full of leftover tokens.

Okay, so you’ve just spent sixty bucks on a beer festival. What do you get for that money? The chance to have a bunch of advertising shoved in your face. This was just as true last year as it was this year, but perhaps my rage at the beers blinded this fact. Toronto’s Festival of Beer is a huge branding opportunity for everyone involved and they do their best to take advantage. I had never heard of Foundry cider coming into the festival, but it was hard to avoid after an hour because they were clearly giving away free t-shirts. Some areas are known as “brand experience areas,” so at least they’re not trying to hide that fact. Maybe it’s just my mindset, but I prefer not to pay to see advertising (though I do tolerate movie trailers, if they’re for movies I want to see).

Apparently Shock Top is a local beer

The Ontario brewers were really starting to get into the spirit of the festival, which was a curious sight. Beau’s were giving away their visors to anyone who showed a pulse. Nickel Brook and Lake of Bays had new brand experience areas, joining Mill Street. The booths showed an interesting mix of normal staff (sales reps, brewers, owners) who were able to talk about beer to those just hired from the weekend and didn’t know where the brewery was located. (For the record, Hogsback is from Stittsville, ON. The cans say they’re from Ottawa, but my wife calls bullshit on that.) Obviously Great Lakes doesn’t have the staff to manage a normal booth and the Caskapalooza, but were their staff only hired on looks? Steam Whistle was making box hats for the umpteenth year in a row. I know these breweries are businesses first and have to be profitable, but I don’t see how they expect to beat the large breweries by copying their techniques. Craft beer is supposed to be different and unique. The breweries should not strive at becoming large enough to ape the tactics Molson and Labatt’s.

There were some interesting absences from the festival. Amsterdam, a brewery located very close to the CNE, did not have a booth this year. Church-Key was another brewery missing. I can’t remember if Cameron’s participated last year, but they skipped as well. No clue why these breweries weren’t there – Church-Key is small and don’t go to many events, Amsterdam may be too busy getting ready to move – but it is strange any time a brewery the size of Amsterdam or Cameron’s is absent from the largest festival in Toronto.

There were some other positives about the festival, but not enough to redeem the glaring negatives. There were some interesting food options this year, such as the Feasting Room’s ox heart Philly cheesesteak sandwich and lots of sandwiches with bacon at Fidel Gastro’s ($5 at both stands), but this really just amounted as a good way of using up twenty tokens in an expedient manner. There were other negatives, but harping about how crowded a sold-out event was makes me feel like an old, crotchety man. (The crotchety part is true, but my age puts me squarely in the demographic for this event.) Based on what people were saying on Twitter, most other beer writers seemed to be enjoying themselves so I suggest you seek out their opinions. To me, this isn’t really a festival but a giant party and it is worthwhile if you go in expecting such an event. That’s not what I look for in my beer festivals, so I’m officially done with Toronto’s Festival of Beer.

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5 responses to “Toronto’s Festival of Beer: A Reappraisal

  1. We went in 2010 (Cameron’s was there that year) and have had no real desire to return. The whole vibe was ‘quantity over quality’ and the overbearing security presence a real turn off, though I guess if people are slamming 20+ beers, needed.

  2. More importantly, it just wasn’t fun. I would expect to have some fun for that much money, on a nice Friday night. And you didn’t mention all the cigar smoke…

  3. I’m just rounding out my first year in Toronto, so I’m still trying to judge what beer events are worthwhile and what I can afford to skip. I didn’t head down to Toronto’s Festival of Beer because I got the vibe it was more about drinking and less about beer – more about drinking “culture” and less about beer culture. From your review it seems like my suspicions were correct!

    I suspect though, for someone just leaning that beer is not just a fizzy yellow make-me-drunk drink (i.e. not beer geeks), this is an ok experience for trying something new and maybe being exposed to craft beer without having to buy random six packs. Would that be a fair assessment?

    • Yes, this could be an okay experience to try something new, but someone could also spend $60 at the LCBO and try a lot of new beers. And with the party atmosphere, it’s not really about experimenting new beers and talking about them with the breweries. There probably are people who will find a craft beer they like, but it would be the exception.

  4. We are hoping to create a different vibe at the Roundhouse Craft Beer Festival August 11&12th in Roundhouse Park, Toronto. Noon to 6pm so no late night party, just an afternoon to sip & savour. 9 craft brewers + 5 food trucks, $10 admittance, and smaller crowds so you should be able to talk to the brewers about their craft. Picnic blankets encouraged.

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