The Toronto Beer Experience

The inaugural Toronto Beer Experience took place last night at the Berkeley Church on Queen St East, put on by the folks from the Toronto Wine & Spirit Festival. The event brought together Ontario craft brewers and added a twist by saying that each brewery had to bring a unique/one-off/rare beer to the event. Each brewery interpreted the rules in their own way, which led to some beers brewed just for the event, some seasonals that have not been released yet and a couple of beers that have been selectively available. Amsterdam, Beau’s, Cameron’s, Church Key, Flying Monkeys, Great Lakes, Mill Street and Muskoka were present, giving a nice mix of well known and more obscure breweries. Gin cocktails and wine were available for those not drinking beer, but only foolish people would have been passing up the opportunity to try these truly unique offerings.

In all of the events that I have covered, this one is proving to be hard to judge. Lots of people were unsure about whether or not the event would actually deliver on the promise of new beers or it was more a marketing ploy. A beer like a Black Oak Nutcracker or Summer Saison would be new to a lot of people, but not to those in the beer community. In the end those worries were moot as there were lots of rare and one-off beers, just as advertised. In terms of the beers on offer, it was a great event. They weren’t all great, but they represented the possibilities for craft beer to offer a variety of experiences. First stop was the Great Lakes booth for their Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire Smoked Chipotle Ale. Nice hazy amber that caught the light well. Big creamy head. Flavour of the chipotle comes through at first, then some heat at the back of the mouth and down into the throat. The spiciness kept building up throughout the beer, so much that my sample was almost overpowering at the end. A definite winner and perfect for drinking in cool weather. That was followed by the Amsterdam Wee Heavy Scotch Ale, thinking that the malts would temper the heat and still stand up to the residual flavours. Served really cold, but some boozy raisins coming through with a nutty background. Then the beer disappeared as it warmed up, leaving only some toasted malts. Overcarbonated, as my friend Mike pointed out. A disappointment after hearing good things about the recent Amsterdam seasonals.

The Muskoka Rich Terfry (aka Buck 65) beer was then recommended by someone I was chatting with, so that was the next stop. A pale ale served on cask and made with sorachi hops (developed by Sapporo, known for a lemony taste). I remember a more earthy taste and first thought fuggles were used. Wasn’t that memorable compared to the other offerings. Then it was back to Great Lakes for their Gardog Dunkelweizen, a more traditional dunkel compared to their Miami Dunkelweizen. Lots of darker malts, more conventional and sessionable. Flying Monkeys got into the spirit of the event with a Netherworld Cascadian Dark Ale made with cloves and pumpkin. A quick hit of citrus from the Netherworld before an overwhelming onslaught of spice. It was like eating a teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice. Chalky mouthfeel. Hard to finish the sample. Last stop was the Mill Street Rauchbier, their new seasonal. Very dark and smoky. Campfire and salty bacon tastes. Very nice, but a little thin. I imagine this will be served through nitro at the brewpub, giving it the creaminess it needs to be really great.

Like I said, the beers available did not disappoint. Unfortunately this one great thing was underminded by a lot of negative aspects that were really irritating by the end of the evening. The first problem was that there were too few breweries for the size of the event. Wait times were never terrible, but an extra brewery or two would have helped space everyone out and reduce the crowds that gathered around tables. Of course not every brewery is willing to make a one-off beer for one event, so maybe organizers will have to be a little lax next year in order to accommodate breweries (or breweries will be more willing to make something for the event based on the popularity of last night). Most breweries will constantly pouring beer, which made it nearly impossible to talk to them, ask about the beer and learn something. The crowd was like no other I had seen at a beer event (lots of suits and business people – a more upscale crowd, even compared to events at beerbistro) and didn’t give me the impression that they were normally craft beer drinkers. A little face time with the breweries would have helped to give them the basics of the craft beer ethos (locally made, lots of flavour, artisanal) and let them know where they can find this beer on a regular basis. It didn’t help that a lot of breweries sent along their beer girls to serve the masses, rather than brewers or sales reps (Great Lakes and Beau’s being two exceptions). Or maybe I’m just spoiled from other events that cater to beer geeks, where breweries know we won’t be reeled in by attractive women (most of the time).

You could try to have a conversation with someone from a brewery, but chances are that most of the exchange would be drowned out by either singer-songwriters/song-coverers or loud dance music. That may sound like a complaint from someone twice my age, but it was one that was repeated a lot during the event. And if you’re going to pump in lots of music, at least stick to one style. The only food I ever saw was poutine, which seemed, a) passé and b) gluttonous when drinking lots of beer at the same time. I highly doubt that is what would be served at a Wine & Spirit festival. Upon leaving there was a box that said, “Please leave your glasses here!” I understand that it is economical and environmental for the Toronto Wine & Spirit Festival to reuse glasses, but I expect to be able to take my glass when the ticket says “includes complimentary glass.” All of these factors combined for a disappointing experience when you remove the beer from the equation.

Keep in mind that this was the first Toronto Beer Experience and there is lots of hope for next year. The organizers have been doing this for a while and will no doubt fix the things that went wrong this year. It really reminded me of a classier Hart House Craft Beer Festival, which also went through some growing pains. The event may never appeal to a lot of beer geeks and that’s fine. There is no law saying that a beer event has to be catered to one group (if there was, the Toronto Festival of Beer wouldn’t suck). The Wine & Spirit Festival has their target market and I applaud them for trying to get that group to drink craft beer (even if I don’t want to drink with that market).

Final verdict on the Toronto Beer Experience: the beer part was great, but work on the experience for next year.

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