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Beer festival turns 20 with spotlight on Canadian brew

Those in attendance could sample more than 150 beers from 55 stalls over the weekend
The Great Canadian Beer Fest is living up to its name in its 20th year.

Victoria’s social event of the year is turning 20.

From humble beginnings as a one-day indoor festival with 15 breweries and 1,500 people, the Great Canadian Beer Festival has grown into a world-class, two-day outdoor event that attracts more than 50 breweries, 8,000 people (20 per cent from out of town) and injects more than $200,000 a day into the local economy, according to GCBF chairman Gerry Hieter.

Never in its 20 years has the festival lived up to its name quite like it will this year.

“This year we’re focusing on Canadian beer. It will change the flavour of the festival enormously,” says  Hieter. “It’s the closest we’ve ever come to living up to our name.”

Breweries from B.C., Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Yukon territory have already confirmed.

More than 80 per cent of the 55 stalls at the 2012 festival could feature Canadian beer, up from just over 55 per cent last year. The reason? After nearly 20 years, the GCBF no longer qualifies for consular liquor privileges — a cross-boarder agreement between the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the U.S. Consular General that allows liquor to be imported and consumed during a specified charitable event.

After a debacle with the B.C. Liquor Distribution (LDB) and Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB), who pulled GCBF’s consular liquor privileges less than 24 hours before the gates were supposed to open for the 2011 festival (privileges were eventually reinstated just three hours before the gates opened), Hieter says he “just couldn’t go through that again.”

“They say we don’t qualify because we’re not a registered charity,” says Hieter. “We’re a not-for-profit society and our mandate is to put on the best beer festival we can. If there’s any money over and above our expenses and the money we need for the following year, that goes to charity. But that’s not good enough for the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, because now they’re saying we’re not allowed to have a bank balance from one year to the next. We have to give it all to charity ... They’re literally trying to legislate us out of business,” he says.

But never fear, 14 American breweries have applied to participate in this year’s festival. These breweries already have distribution in B.C. and, therefore, don’t require a special licence to participate.

“There are probably as many American breweries as Canadian breweries in the B.C. market right now,” says Hieter. “We used to get all these little guys from Port Angeles, Port Townsend, Bellingham and Anacortes who don’t sell beer in B.C., but they come because it’s fun and there’s the benefit of ferry traffic from Victoria. They’re all pretty disappointed they can’t come this year.”

With 55 stalls offering three brews on average, those in attendance could sample more than 150 beers over the weekend. Tickets are $33.60 for Friday and $39.20 for Saturday (including HST, plus $4 surcharge at and go on sale July 21at 9 a.m. Beer samples are $1.25 each.

This year, the festival has increased its entertainment budget by 50 per cent, with everything from local gypsy marching band Bucan Bucan to some busker type acts coming to celebrate the anniversary.

“I’m proud of the fact this festival is so highly regarded,” says Hieter. “Every brewer tells us this is the best festival they’ve ever come to.” M

Great Canadian Beer Festival

Sept. 7 (3 to 8pm)

and Sept. 8 (noon to 6pm)

Royal Athletic Park

Tickets go on sale July 21 at 9am at



Is beer getting snooty?


Over the 20 years that Hieter has been involved with the Great Canadian Beer Festival, he’s watched attitudes about beer change dramatically.

A pioneer in the B.C. beer scene, Hieter helped set up many breweries, including Victoria’s own Lighthouse Brewery and the Whistler Brewing Company, among others.

“In the beginning, craft beer was a tough sell,” says Hieter. “The big guys just considered us a fad, but the hardest part was convincing people that we didn’t make a mistake because our beer didn’t taste like Kokanee.”

And although the big brewers are king when it comes to quality and consistency, Hieter says local craft brewers have a leg up on their competition.

“You cannot beat the quality of a factory-made beer. That’s what they do best. Their quality is second to none, their consistency is impeccable. Where the difference comes in is the big brews are a victim of their own size, they have to put in corn and they have to buy six-row barley and they have to use hop extracts because it’s all the cheapest to use, whereas you wouldn’t catch a local craft brewer touching any of those things. They don’t use corn, they use two-row barley, they use the best, freshest hops they can find. It all comes down to ingredients.”

Hieter says the proliferation of beer blogs and websites like have flooded the market with information and opinions, many anonymous and many negative, giving anyone the ability to become an amateur beer expert.

“Now when I go to the liquor store, I hear people having very informed conversations about beer and it blows my mind.”


Ales vs Lagers


The local craft beer market is made up predominantly of ales and Hieter says this stems from an upside-down market.

“You could make an ale and have it in the keg in 10 days, or you could make a lager and have it in the keg in 21 days, but you couldn’t charge as much for the lager as the ale because people perceived the ale to have more value because it was darker and had more flavour,” says Hieter.

“Everything goes full circle and I’m predicting that in a couple of years we’ll see everybody with good pilsners and lagers, and I think Sean Hoyne is first out of the gate and he’ll be the benchmark, so good for him.” M