When you tell people that you’re going to Montreal for a beer festival there are a number of different reactions that you can expect. Politely feigned interest is fairly common and is recognizable by the “oh I’m so jealous” response, since the respondent assumes that this is what is required of them. Probably the most frequent is something akin to bafflement that you would go five hours out of your way in order to drink a beer. It’s at that point in the conversation that you have to firmly correct them that it’s not just one beer, but something like four hundred. Typically this is followed by slack-jawed amazement and the assumption that you’re probably going to wake up several weeks from now in a shed near Rimouski. This theoretical person, now forever possessed of a somewhat disparaging mental picture of your vacation, will go back to doing some incredibly edifying thing like reading The Secret or working on their vision board.
What you’re really looking for when you mention that you are going to go the Mondial de la Biere in Montreal is the answer “oh, really? What days?” It doesn’t necessarily have to be a group experience, but the whole experience is amplified by having a ragtag collection of ne’er-do-wells, drunken reprobates and fixers. You know. Beer nerds.
Last year, I went into the festival completely blind. I had never been to a festival before and had no idea what to expect. I had taken a brief look at the list of beers that were available and had come to the conclusion that there were some pretty rare things that I had to try. Things you couldn’t get in Canada: Avery Maharajah. Dogfish Head Midas Touch. There were things from Baird Brewing in Japan and Mikkeller in Denmark. For about the first hour it was miserable. I had decided to attempt to speak French and my ability to actually order any of these things was severely compromised by a nearly total lack of proficiency. I was onto my third sample of beer (and about a quarter of the way through an abortive attempt to conjugate the verb prendre) before running into people I knew from Toronto. There are a lot of advantages to being in a large group for an event like this, not the least of which is the ability to immediately drop the pretense that your high school French was going to get you through the week. You may be able to competently discuss L’Etranger and Huis Clos in English, but when faced with the realization that your level of discourse in French is somewhere below Hop on Pop, complete and total surrender is called for.
There are other advantages as well. First of all, there are three to four hundred types of beer at the festival. This doesn’t include the dozens of other offerings at brew pubs throughout the city. All in all, you’re looking at something like five hundred varieties of beer. Your job is to fit a certain number of them in without proving the aforementioned theoretical person right about Rimouski. This is where group think pays off in a big way. Nearly everyone at the table of beer nerds last year had their own notebooks for jotting down their opinions and ratings and a copy of the list of beers available. They consulted with each other before they decided what to try next. They brought their own water to cleanse their palates. If a much sought after beer wasn’t up to form, they would let each other know that it might be better to try it on a different occasion. Even better, since they all had their own lists of beers they needed to try, if something proved to be exceptional it would almost immediately get on someone else’s list. I think the example of that from last year might have been the Hopfenstark Berliner Weisse.
The other thing that group think accomplishes is taking some of the burden of research off of the individual. If you were to take the list of available beers and then cross off everything that was mass produced and everything that you’d tried before you might remove half of them. Past that point the list is going to get fairly obscure. In order to determine what to try you’re going to need to start looking things up on the internet. You’re going to need to ask questions like “Is this particular beer a good example of the style?” and “Is this beer going to be worth the number of tickets I’m paying for it?” You somehow need to whittle down the number of beers you want to try to just under fifty, leaving room for the suggestions of other people and also for the whims of the festival organizers who may decide that certain things are only offered on certain days. You could consider the process a success if you tried sixty percent of the things you wanted to try. This kind of complex value analysis would take hours since you’d be looking up ratings of various beers and looking at the websites of various breweries (frequently in Flemish). You could have a spreadsheet or an ad hoc system of checks next to certain things on the list you wanted to try. Certain logistically minded friends of mine would probably create an Access database in order to solve the problem and then dial into it from their phones.
It’s a lot easier to just ask Doug: “Hey Doug, is this any good?” It absolves you of the burden of due diligence and there’s the possibility that he might buy some snacks for the table. And while the answer will typically be along the lines of “Oh yes, that’s a very good beer. It reminds me of this time in Hamilton…” you’ll be at the point in the afternoon where due to the number of samples your facility in English will have degraded to match your French and you’re happy not to have the onus of contributing much to the conversation anyway.
Perhaps the biggest bonus of having a group of people is the ability to gather information. You’re more likely to hear that Broue Pub Brouhaha will be serving a bourbon aged version of Dieu Du Ciel Peche Mortel if there are six of you walking around and talking to various vendors. The benefit of this is that the festival tends to get crowded at night and on the weekends, so if you can find out ahead of time where the cool kids are going you’re probably going to get to try something fantastic. Quebec has a booming microbrewery industry and the brewers rightly view the festival as a challenge. They are going to show off as much as possible and it is your duty as a beer nerd to stand there with your mouth agape, staring in wonder. In order to do that, you need to know where the good stuff is going to be well in advance so that you stand a chance in hell of actually reaching the bar before midnight.