Ontario Craft Beer Week 2012: A Recap

Ontario Craft Beer Week has now come and gone. There were so many events in Toronto that trying to do a recap seems futile, because this is really just my recap of the events I attended. Seeing as I also didn’t get outside of Toronto, this is a small snapshot of what happened during OCB Week.

Sunday was the second Brewer’s Backyard event of the summer. The first one was chaotic from what I’ve heard (Victoria Day + nice weather + Great Lakes beer = lineups) but there were no such issues this time. There were three Amsterdam beer stations located around Koerner Gardens in the Evergreen Brickworks. Each station had a more mainstream beer (Oranje Weiss, Big Wheel) and a one-off or special release, which rotated as kegs ran dry. I couldn’t stay long enough to try too many beers, but there were two highlights. One was the Maverick & Gose, one of the strangest beers I’ve ever had. Gose beers are brewed with salt and coriander, which makes for a very surprising first sip. But my palate slowly got used to the salt and was able to see past it, finding a dry beer with some nice lemon and funky yeast. The Daddy Issues Barley Wine, brewed with Eric Ecclestone of Biergotter, was also incredible. Aged in Jack Daniels barrels and coming out with an 11% ABV, it was perfectly balanced and incredibly easy to drink. The GTA Farmhouse Ale, a collaboration with Great Lakes and Steam Whistle, was fine, but had the tough task of following up two amazing beers.

Overall, I was very impressed with the Brewer’s Backyard. The Koerner Gardens are very spacious and airy. There were lots of families around, but I didn’t really notice until someone pointed it out. Having kids running around or babies in strollers reminded me of being in a Munich beer garden. There were multiple food stands to choose from, serving items like paella or pulled pork sandwiches. The next Brewer’s Backyard is July 2nd and features Black Oak, Cheshire Valley and Kensington.

Then there was a large gap between Sunday and Thursday, filled with work and the Beer Academy launch. Thursday saw action resuming with two tap takeovers. The Flying Monkeys invaded barVolo and brought with them a lot of new beers and one-offs. Some were American wheat ales (like the new Stereovision and its kin, Genius of Suburbia), but unfortunately a lot were darker beers that didn’t sound as appealing with the temperature feeling like 40 degrees. My first beer was the Ryezin’ Up the Rye of the Tiger, a rye saison. It look very unappealing, a murky appearance like a beer cocktail made with orange juice. Luckily it tasted better than it looked, with lots of peach and mango but little rye. The Genius of Suburbia was a disappointment – the Monkeys really need to lighten up the malt load to make this a refreshing wheat ale. Instead of a hoppy wheat ale like Miami Weiss, it was closer to the Hoptical Illusion with some wheat. Didn’t do much for me. The Smooth Hoperator Double IPA was a decent beer, but not clean enough. The House Ales collaboration (a Galaxy SMASH – single malt, single hop) was having problems both on tap and cask, which was a beer that I was looking forward to trying. Overall, the beers were disappointing considering the success that Flying Monkeys have had with Smashbomb and Netherworld.

From there it was a short trip to another tap takeover, this one featuring Great Lakes beers at the Burger Bar. This event wasn’t as widely publicized and many of the taps weren’t switched at 6pm. No saisons were on initially, but it was nice to have Karma Citra and Lake Effect to go with a couple of their excellent burgers.

Friday was a quick stop at C’est What for their annual Summer Festival of Beers (which I think used to be a Spring festival, but whatever). 1812 was the theme of the night and a number of beers were made with ingredients that could have been used at the time (molasses and spruce were two popular additions). The Nickel Brook Saison and Cheshire Valley/Black Oak/Sawdust City Daily Bread were highlights. The Amsterdam and Great Lakes/C’est What molasses beers were both intriguing, but showed what a tough ingredient that is to use in a beer. It was a short visit, but the C’est What festivals are always a great way to try a lot of new and interesting beers.

Then Saturday was the big Session festival, a day that may be debated for a long time because there were very good and very bad parts. For those unaware, it was advertised as an all-in festival – pay one price for all the food and drink you want during a three hour session. Last year the glass was a sturdy mug with a handle, this year it was a nice tulip (think a smaller version of the Spearhead glass). The great part was the beer – in three hours I sampled at least fourteen beers (often asking for a smaller sample). I only ever poured out beer because of the time constraint and trying not to get absolutely smashed. Highlights were the Bellwoods/Sawdust City collab (I believe it was called Dusty Barrel and had some brett in it), the Nickel Brook Berliner Weisse and the Amsterdam/Flat Rock Sour Cherry Imperial Stout. Even the two fruit beer casks (F&M’s Strawberry Light and Kensington’s Watermelon Wheat) hit the spot on a sunny day. Always nice when a fruit beer actually has really fruit that you can taste.

Now for the complaints, which will probably be nothing new if you’ve been on the Internet since Saturday. The lineups for the men’s washroom were crazy, because there were only three stalls. The food lineups were sometimes very long and I didn’t bother getting some food because of that. (A lot of stands were making everything fresh, which is awesome but incredibly time consuming. I don’t expect the Burger Bar to bring pre-cooked burgers and then reheat them, but damn that would have helped the line. Such is the drawback of getting quality food vendors.) There was a confusing ticket/passport system for beer/food, which meant that the food wasn’t unlimited. The beer still was, but you had to go back for more (free) tickets so the breweries could get redeemed for how much they poured. The space was also incredibly packed, especially compared to last year. That made it really hard to talk to anyone at the booths for a significant amount of time before they had to handle the throngs.

Another oddity – there was a best cask of the festival, but not that many casks at booths (which made sense, because the beers were getting warm very quickly in the heat). Some breweries definitely did not get the memo that the best beer of the fest award was only for cask beer. This was clearly a festival that has industry support, though. Most craft breweries were in attendance and they brought a special beer or two. (There were a lot of repeats from other events, but also plenty of new ones.) The breweries clearly want to help make this a special event, which is great because the crowd was definitely a mix of craft enthusiasts and the craft curious.

Session was not perfect, but neither was Mondial this year. I think the all-in ticket is a better value than having to buy a $30 ticket, then buy samples and food on top. I missed the food and cooking demonstrations that happened last year, which helped provide an educational slant to the fest. But the most important thing is that the beers are great and it is solely dedicated to Ontario’s craft brewers. The people behind Session have tweaked it every year and are still trying to figure out what works best. It is a good festival with the potential to be great once all the logistics have been worked out.

And that was Ontario Craft Beer Week 2012! In short – a great time with lots of interesting beers. I’ll have some more general thoughts about the week itself on Wednesday.

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