Great Canadian Beer Festival is paradise for brew lovers

brewers push their creative limits for connoisseurs

Great Canadian Beer Festival

By Dan LettSpecial to Monday

Head down to Victoria’s Royal Athletic Park this weekend and you could well encounter a Honey Badger, a Talking Dog, or even a Tricerahops. No, these are not creatures from some genetically-modified travelling zoo, but three of the more creatively-named beers available for your tasting pleasure at the 2011 Great Canadian Beer Festival.

Canada’s biggest celebration of beer turns 19 this year. On Friday from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday from noon to 6 p.m., over 60 brewers will be pouring into Victoria from as far away as New York and San Diego, with a particularly strong showing from “Cask-adia” — the brewer’s paradise encompassing British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Adding gloss to an already prestigious lineup, there will be festival debuts from celebrated U.S. brewers Sierra Nevada, Stone and New Belgium (among others).

The main business of any such festival is good quality sud-sampling, so it is a matter of pride for GCBF Chairperson Gerry Hieter that attendees will be able to choose from over 200 carefully crafted beers, 32 cask-conditioned ales, and at least 17 unique beer styles. But Hieter is quick to stress that the festival is about more than just good grog.

“One of the most rewarding things about the event is that it draws attention to the skill and passion of the brewers,” he says. “These are craftspeople who continually excel and innovate in a brewing tradition that goes back thousands of years.”

One example of this innovation is the emerging Cascadian Dark Ale — a beer with the colour and richness of porter, but the hoppy bitterness of an India pale ale. Two examples of this style will be on offer, alongside other delicacies including potato ale, coconut wheat beer, chipotle ale and several decadent chocolate stouts.

Further emphasizing the artisanal values promoted by the GCBF, the festival will feature live brewing demonstrations. Members of the recently-formed Vancouver Island homebrewers’ guild (BrewVIC) will be offering festival-goers a hands-on experience of brewing beer in the craft tradition. BrewVIC founder Dave Shaykewich will guide newcomers through the mysterious arts of mashing, sparging, and lautering. “We want to show that brewing is a very simple process that anyone can do with some basic equipment. Once you get the brewing bug it can be addictive: the excitement of trying out new recipes and styles, the anticipation of fermentation as you wait to see how the beer turned out. Every beer lover should try it,” says Shaykewich.

There is certainly no shortage of beer lovers: the festival typically sells out within hours (this year already has), which gives local brewers a chance to win over new fans. Vancouver Island brewer Chris Graham always seizes the opportunity to push the creative limits and challenge the crowd. “We are bringing some adventurous casks for connoisseurs,” he says.

Envelope-pushing beers are difficult to squeeze into a brewery’s regular production schedule, so festivals are an essential sandbox for testing the potential of new styles.

Others brewers, such as  Driftwood Brewery’s Jason Meyer, treasure the camaraderie and the chance to see what their peers are brewing.

“We wish we could get to more festivals, but brewing can be all-absorbing,” says Meyer. “The great thing about the GCBF being on our doorstep is that we get to relax a little, knock a few back with the local brewers, catch up with guys from further afield, and see what everyone’s doing.”

Don Bradley from local brewpub The Moon Under Water is similarly-inclined: “I love seeing what others are getting up to. I’m a bit of a beer purist and I’m looking forward to tasting bitters.”

Providing something for everyone is a priority for Gerry Hieter and other GCBF organizers, who have honed the entertainment options. “This year we’ve focused on smaller acts that work better for people as they wander from stall to stall: magicians and busker-type acts,” says Hieter.

Over the past 19 years, the GCBF has raised over $150,000 for various local charities. This year’s proceeds will benefit the CFAX Santa’s Anonymous charity. The organizers are keen to help a community that has been very supportive of the festival over the years. But there are simple ways attendees can help the festival continue, reminds Hieter: “While we are delighted that so many people enjoy what we do, the spirit of craft beer is about quality rather than quantity. Public drunkenness is definitely something we are keen to discourage, and the penalties we face as an organization can be pretty severe. Folks, enjoy the day, savour the beer, but please stay hydrated, eat well, and make sure you have a safe way to get home.” M

Dan Lett writes about beer at smallbeerblog.blogspot.com, and beerontherock.com.

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