After clamoring for years for a proper beer festival, it is amazing how the Session festival has been received the past two years by the beer-igensia in Toronto. A large number of people have written off the festival without actually going, usually do to a combination of price and tickeritis (the painful disease where people will only spend money to try beers they have not tasted in the past). Instead of comparing Session to something like the Toronto Festival of Beer, it is compared to the Mondial festival that takes place in Montreal every year – arguably one of the best beer festivals in the world. None of this is fair, especially because Session is a wonderful beer festival that deserves to be given a chance by beer lovers around Toronto.
The first edition of Session was hit by a double-whammy of disasters (lots of rain and the G20 debacle), so this year is was located to 99 Sudbury. This multi-purpose space not only included some indoor sections, but was TTC accessible while not being in the heart of downtown. The weather was more co-operative, but there was still the occasional drop of rain and the constant threat of cloudy skies. Most Ontario craft brewers were pouring beers and brought one-offs, while a number of breweries from across Canada were represented by their importers. There were actually too many beers available to try and attempting to remember everything would have been impossible. But there were a number of highlights, including:
- The Amsterdam Elementary Ale was a single malt/single hop brew that was a perfect way to start off a festival called Session. Lots of flavour, well balanced and the type of beer that would still offer something new after two pints.
- The Cheshire Valley Summer Ale. The latest seasonal from Paul Dickey is another great session beer. An English-style golden ale, the Summer Ale has a nice grain profile that is undercut by lemon and white pepper. Another winner from Cheshire Valley that is now appearing in the better beer bars.
- Beau’s Festivale Plus Sticke Alt. The barrel-aging craze has officially come to Ontario and has a new example for all other brewers to follow. This beer, brewed for the 5th anniversary of Beau’s, was aged in bourbon barrels and was just phenomenal. Cinnamon, vanilla, bourbon, brown sugar and more. Amazing aroma and flavour. I couldn’t identify either beer, which is actually impressive – the two beers plus the barrel created a brand new beer instead of a mere variation. My favourite of the festival.
- Flying Monkey Blanche Épicée. Holy spicy saison! The Flying Monkeys one-offs never lack flavour, including this peppery and zesty monster. Perhaps the brewery needs to learn that not every beer should be a flavour bomb. It was getting mighty intense near the end of my sample.
A number of beer and food pairings were going on throughout the day, all at no extra cost. These weren’t cheap affairs either – Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery and Mark Cutrara from Cowbell were some of the speakers/cooks. Garrett cooked up some of his favourite crabcakes, all the while throwing in digressions about the origin of the recipe and how fun it is to deal with the LCBO. The crabcakes paired quite nicely with the Brooklyn Lager, though Garrett said he would ideally use the East India Pale Ale. Having a free stage for food and beer demonstrations was a great idea, especially because most craft beer drinkers are interested in quality food as well. The only problem was a lack of microphone for the speakers, but those are the small hiccups you’ll see in a new festival. Hopefully this will be a permanent feature of the Session festival.
Another small hiccup was an issue with the venue. Due to government regulations and all things bureaucratic, you weren’t able to take a drink into the area where the food demonstrations were happening. Yes, you could drink in that area, but the little walkway between the festival and the demonstration stage wasn’t licensed. A weird quirk and equally annoying when you have to chug the Great Lakes Bag O’ Mangoes (7% ABV) in order to catch Garrett Oliver. Another small issue during an otherwise great festival.
There were two awards that the attending breweries were vying for – best brewery and beer of the fest. Spearhead Brewing won for best brewery, a big accomplishment for only having one beer that hasn’t even been out a month. Dimitri van Kampen of Spearhead, shown above, was also happily displaying the trophy they won at the Mississauga Beer Stock just a day before. Muskoka won best beer for their Red Hop Chili Pepper, which was one of those beers I sadly missed out on.
Most complaints heading into the festival were about the cost of tickets. A $35 ticket got you a glass and entrance (the concert that followed was extra). Sample tickets cost $1 each and most beer samples were one or two tickets, while food cost between three and five tickets. The cost has been a big deterrent for people the first two years, especially as it comes with no beer tickets, but it is a standard amount for Toronto. The Toronto Beer Festival costs you $38.50 this year and gets you five sample tickets, a sample cup and free concert. Sounds like a better deal until you factor in the soul-crushing feeling of seeing people chugging Bud Lights until they’re drunk enough to start a fight. The Hart House Craft Beer Festival is $35, gets you eight sample tickets and some BBQ. Okay, that’s an awesome deal, but the selection does not compare to Session. There were more beers available then I could possibly sample, which is disappointing but also proof of how interesting the festival was for someone who spends a large amount of time drinking beer. The breweries were also very nice with their sample pours – definitely more beer than you would get in the usual plastic sample cups. The amount I spent between the admission ticket and sample tickets definitely was worth it for all the festival had to offer. I highly recommend that everyone give the Session festival a chance next year and not prejudge based on cost alone. This has the opportunity to grow into the beer festival that Ontario has been waiting for.