Last Thursday was the 4th annual Hart House Craft Beer Festival, a great summer bash featuring beer and BBQ at the venerable University of Toronto institution. Craft brewers from across the province and one or two from further afield line the walls of the quad, while a food station in the middle sates the hungry masses with a variety of barbecued delights. It is a simple concept and one that has always drawn sold-out crowds, but it has taken a number of years to perfect an event that sees over six-hundred hungry beer drinkers suddenly amass in the Hart House quad. My ability to compare the festival only goes back to last year, but this year was a definite improvement in organization and the quality of beer.
The event actually got off to a rough start as a long lineup to get in led to a wait of over twenty minutes. Once inside, it was pleasant to see that the food was already being served in great quantities. Two separate lines wove around the food station and lessened the bottlenecks that plagued last year. Two crews were rapidly prepping the food as fast as possible – pulled pork and tofu for one line; spiced chicken, coleslaw and corn on the other side. All people had to do was pick up a serving and be on their way, a more efficient setup than last year. (That people were still slow in this process was not the fault of Hart House.) The food was tasty and a perfect accompaniment for the bounty of beers available.
Very few unique beers were available last year, but this year the beers were a pleasant surprise. There was a House Ales/Great Lakes/Amsterdam Belgian IPA collaboration that was available on cask at both the Great Lakes and Keep6 Imports booths, while Beau’s featured a cask of their Lug-Tread and Weizenbock (the Weizenbock is to appear in the LCBO in September for the Ontario brewery feature). Many excellent beers were at the Keep6 booth, all for one ticket – Phillips The Hammer, Les Trois Mousquetaires Porter Baltique, Central City Red Racer IPA and many more. New breweries Spearhead and Kensington Brewery were present, both of which have a main brand that works very well with BBQ (the Hawaiian Style Pale Ale in particular goes great with pulled pork). And while the beer geek in me was pleased with the event, it was obvious that my ilk was not the target audience for the festival.
There is something about the festival that seems to attract people willing to learn more about craft beer. It could be the venue or the food that gets out the crowds, but most people seem to be those looking to learn more about craft beer. The festival is a great way to talk to the brewers and find out about their beer, including what is tastes like and where to get it. With eight sample tickets, there is plenty of opportunity to try a range of beer styles from a wide variety of brewers. The crowd was laid back and were interested in talking about what they were drinking, making for lots of fun conversations about beer. Even though it was a Thursday night, people were definitely partying like a Friday.
Compared to the other beer festivals in Toronto, the Hart House Craft Beer festival is the best in terms of value for price of admission. Food and samples are included, which means that a great night out does not have to be expensive. The venue is a beautiful, open-air space that creates an intimate experience unique for a beer festival (the weather was slightly overcast, but became beautiful when the sun went down). It looks like the Hart House Craft Beer festival will be a permanent summer fixture for years to come.