Between them, the Queer Beer Festival and Toronto Festival of Beer have about as much subtlety as the dancers in the window of Miss Behavin’. Tall, buxom and tanned women are always at the ready to give you lots of free swag, all for the cost of your e-mail, a credit card or your soul. (Just kidding: they have no use for your credit card.) The crowd was surprisingly young on both nights. My expectation was old guys with pot-bellies, but it was mainly young men and women looking to have some fun and drink some beer. There was a definite party atmosphere during the festival and it was nice to see Toronto looking laid-back for once. The big draw for Thursday seemed to be Ace of Bace (yes, that Ace of Base), but the larger Friday night crowd was definitely there for the beer.
Was there a big difference between going to the Queer Beer Fest on Thursday and the Festival of Beer on Friday? No, except for one guy in a mesh shirt, the gender of the Great Lakes Caskapalooza dancers and fewer people on Thursday. One sad truth that held consistent over both days was that some of the Ontario craft breweries put on a rather poor show. As the festival has a poor reputation, my expectations were low – show up, see lots of branding from the macros, drink the normal craft beers and head out. The first thing I noticed when walking into the festival was that the Ontario Craft Brewers had a great location right in front of the stage, while the brand experience areas were located in the fringes of the grounds. My pleasant surprise at seeing a number of one-off beers quickly turned to mild disappointment and then outright rage when I tried more and more of the beers.
Flying Monkeys, coming off a recent win by finally getting the Smashbomb into the LCBO, brought out a number of fruit beers and the Super Collider (an imperial IPA that will show up in a special LCBO release this fall). The Pink Lemonade was decent – not exactly beer, but much better than an alcoholic cooler. The Super Collider was just a mess, though; boozy and sugary, much like really bad port. It was dreadfully obvious that the beer just wasn’t finished and not at a stage where it was meant for human consumption. My expectations have been lowered drastically for when it appears on shelves. Then there was the Dark Chocolate Strawberry beer, which my friend Samuel was brave enough to try. The strawberry aroma was a little artificial and the taste was just horrid. Imagine the taste of a diet shake/meal replacement with lots of Splenda, artificial strawberry and chocolate, and a metallic finish. Probably the worst aftertaste I’ve ever had in a beer.
The highlight of the festival for the past year or two has been the Caskapalooza section put on by Great Lakes. Set off in their own little section, complete with a lovely fountain and the Devil’s Pale Ale hearse (aka dancing platform for the scantily clad), Caskapalooza is essentially a mini-fest inside of the larger festival. There were about six or seven casks available at any time and were changed throughout the festival as they ran dry. Perhaps it was just bad timing, but the casks I tried ranged from decent to very disappointing. The Miami Weiss was somehow extra bitter on cask and the Canucklehead was a little green but still tasty. The Up In Smoke was a smoking dud – flat, thin and containing only a vague amount of smokiness. There was no campfire element. Heck, this didn’t even resemble microwaved bacon.
A number of other beers were either too young (Mill Street Tankenstein, Stonehammer and Wellington Guelph Special Bitter mashup). Usually reliable beers were having bad days (Churchkey Holy Smoke, McAuslan Cream Ale). Maybe it was the fact that some of the beers were sitting out Thursday and then Friday, but there were a surprisingly large amount of bad beers by breweries that rarely fail. What I didn’t understand was why the booths were choosing to service these beers that obviously were in poor condition. A beer festival is a great chance to show off craft beer and your brand to prospective customers, most of whom are young and have expendable incomes. They will likely be willing to spend a little more money to get a quality product, but serving a bad craft beer will only create a culture of bad stereotypes.
Yes, as a beer geek I represented a small population of the festival crowd and most people were not going around trying all the unique one-offs. I wouldn’t be as angry if they just made bland, inoffensive beers that tried to bridge people between Keiths and craft beer, but these were beers that tasted off. Most of the breweries would probably not serve the beers at a place like barVolo, so why give them to people who are possibly trying your beer for the first time? Almost a week after the festival, I can still find no logic in pouring bad beer.
There were some highlights, especially two of the other beers at the OCB mashup booth. The Beaus Lugtread and Black Oak Nut Brown were blended to form the Lug-Nut, a surprising combo but one that created a deliciously malty kolsch. The Great Lakes Devil’s Pale Ale and Amsterdam Boneshaker were also blended together and though tasty, it just showed how similar the beers are. The Amsterdam (416) Urban Wheat was very nice on tap, having a bit more funk than from the bottle. I finally got to try the Niagara College First Draft Ale, which was a serviceable ale when you’re outside drinking at a festival.
The festival itself was quite enjoyable. The lineups were never too long, except at the booths for sample tickets (one easy way to make sure people don’t drink too much). While the Friday night crowd was substantial, there was still lots of room to get around and explore the festival. From a beer geek perspective it doesn’t compare to some of the other festivals, but I wouldn’t stop people from going (especially if you like leaving home with handfuls of swag like that dude, seen before he got an elephant hat).