Surfing the Great Canadian Beer Festival
Past Great Canadian Beer Festivals, in Victoria, British Columbia, have been a beer tourist’s Mecca.
I lived most of my misspent youth some 90 miles from Vancouver and Victoria. Canadian beer was an always sought-after treasure, and Canada, an exotic destination mere miles from home. Did all Mounties sing like Nelson Eddie? Was the city of Victoria really shipped piece by piece from England? The answers to those questions remained in the air, but we KNEW that Canadian beer was STRONG.
American beer was 3.2 percent alcohol or, if stronger, was certainly less than 4 percent. We KNEW that. On each bottle of Canadian beer, the label informed us of its alcohol at not more than 5 percent. Of course, alcohol content in American beer, in those days, was measured “by weight,” whereas the Canadians measured theirs “by volume.” The difference is roughly one-fourth. Four percent by weight is 5 percent by volume. Canadian beer was, and is, almost the same strength as American beer, and these days, strong Canadian beer is actually less common than strong American beer.
But I digress.
Last year’s Great Canadian Beer Festival MMII, the 10th, was held in November at the Victoria Conference Centre, behind Victoria’s magnificent but elderly (1908) Fairmont Empress Hotel. The festival’s seemingly limited offering of some 130 beers and ciders from 31 breweries, including five US beers from Washington and Alaska, was a real blessing for those of us to whom Canadian beer was a rare opportunity to indulge ourselves while visiting what is surely Canada’s most distinctive and beautiful small city.
I was lucky enough to get a media pass for GCBFMMII, because the event’s 4,000 tickets had sold out (at C$20/US$15) in close to 45 minutes after they went on sale early in October. The 5,000 or so attendees (including exhibitors, staff and media) imbibed some 65,000 taste samples (C$1 each).
I started my beer incursion there with Unibroue of Quebec, whose beers may well be Canada’s best. Their new Le Terrible, an abbey-style dark ale at 10.5 percent, is nicely done. I also tried their Trois Pistoles, a strong dark ale, 9 percent. Unibroue takes its inspiration from the classic brews of Belgium and northwest France. The beers are not imitation Belgians, no, not at all; they are each original and distinctive.
Next I tried Canoe’s Victoria-brewed Beaver Brown Ale, a splendid example of American-style brown. I lingered a while with Brian MacIsaac’s organic-brewed Crannog Ales (from Sorento, BC). Kick in the Pants Ale is dry hopped and cask conditioned. Old Mill Flax Ale represents an interesting concept as a mild ale with flax as a major brewing element. My favorite of theirs was the Back Hand of God Stout, 6.2 percent, with an almost chocolate-coffee element in its makeup.
I sampled the last of Longwood’s Nanaimo (BC) delicious cask-conditioned British-style IPA (6.8 percent). Victoria’s Vancouver Island Brewery offered excellent Hermannator Ice Bock with an elegant, almost prune brandy finish. At 9.5 percent; it was smooth and friendly, fit for a winter’s fireside libation.
There were many more, as well as some fine Washington state beers.
After 10 mostly sold-out festivals, the management (Dave Preston, chair, and John Rowling, president of CAMRA Victoria) concluded that they needed a larger location. They were in luck when they managed to secure the nearby (10-minute walk from downtown Victoria) city-block-sized Royal Athletic Park, home of soccer club Victoria United, on Cook Street between Pembrook and Caledonia. The new location for Great Canadian Beer Festival MMIII forced a change in festival dates, moving back to Saturday and Sunday, 5 and 6 September. They expect to sell some 10,000 tickets, invite 40 to 50 brewers (150 beers?), and utilize some 350 volunteers. More information can be found at the website, www.GCBF.com.
Visitors in Town
The visitor to GCBFMMIII will enjoy wandering about Victoria, BC’s seat of government and a great little city of 73,500, much of which actually does appear to have been moved lock, stock and barrel from England.
Good motels nearby go for C$80-100/US$60-75 (City Center Traveler’s Inn, double occupancy, half mile from the festival). Even the Fairmont Empress Hotel, with its Old World elegance, is only C$159-479/US$120-320 (don’t miss their High Tea—it’s a gas) and a nice walk to the Royal Athletic Park (1.5 miles through old town Victoria).
In some ways, that part of Victoria has preserved all of the best that is British while still holding to the finest of Canada. Plan on spending a couple of extra days to explore.
There are six brewpubs in town (three are close). Spinnakers, the country’s second oldest, at 308 Catherine (across Johnson Bridge off Esquimalt Rd.), is the most famous. Don’t miss Buckerfields, 506 Pandora, in the basement of Swans, a splendid downtown boutique hotel (C$159-259/US$120-195) and only 0.3 mile from the Royal Athletic Park. Hugo’s at 625 Courtney (near the Empress Hotel) is best noted for Rowdy Monk, a delicious abbey dubbel, and the subtly balanced Hotel Porter.
Canadian craft brewers labor under constraints that some of us would consider uncivilized. In some provinces, Molson or Labatts are in charge of all beer distribution. Those two megabrewers have been accused of packing store shelves with multiple brands of yellow industrial beer and foreign imports (mostly US and Euro-lagers) to the point that little shelf space remains for craft beers. Until recently, when the law changed, it was almost impossible to market beer in any province where the brewer did not actually brew the beer. Molson and Labatts both built breweries in Canada’s more populous provinces, and, of course, they still dominate the Canadian brewing scene.
Canadian craft brewers make wonderful beer; but if you are a hophead, remember that Canadians are just now getting themselves addicted to hops. Give them a little more time to get there.
While you are at the festival, be sure to stroll world famous Butchart Gardens, tour the city in a double-deck bus, and take an afternoon’s drive up Highway 14 along the south coast of Vancouver Island with its splendid view of Juan de Fuca’s magnificent waterway to Puget Sound. The visitor can fly in direct or travel from Seattle (three hours by high-speed ferry).
Canadians drive on the right side of the road, speak American English like the natives they are, and treat U.S. visitors very nicely. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was kind enough to declare that our president is really not a moron. Now what other country in the world would be that congenial?
Please join me in surfing the GCBFMMIII in Victoria this September.
Fred Eckhardt lives in Portland, Oregon, and drinks his beer wherever he finds it. He loves Canada but does not work for the Victoria Chamber of Commerce nor any hotel group. He’s looking forward to September.