On Thursday, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Craft Beer Festival at Hart House at the University of Toronto. I don’t get down to Hart House very much. In fact, I think the last time I was there was to see a production of Guys and Dolls and Clinton may have still been president. It’s always slightly off putting, then, to realize that there’s a very large and stolid gothic revival structure placed just outside of downtown Toronto. From a distance it tends to look as though you’re likely to be attending a beer festival at stately Wayne Manor, but when you close in on the place you realize very quickly that instead of a millionaire playboy and his butler, you’re actually surrounded by penniless grad students and their professors.
Going in to the Hart House Craft Beer Festival, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I had a page of questions that I wanted answers to and I’ll list some of them here: What was the history of Hart House? What information can I get about the previous years at the festival? Is there anything new at the festival? Is it worth the $35.00 entrance fee? What exactly is the point of having a beer festival at a university when the majority of the students are gone for the summer?
Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and I decided to enjoy myself instead of trying to answer damn fool questions about the provenance of the building and the history of the festival. You can probably find out about the building from Wikipedia if you’re really into that kind of thing, and the history of the festival doesn’t really signify since it’s only three years old. There’s not any point in asking hard hitting questions about this festival, because it’s working on its own agenda.
This festival isn’t really about promoting new, innovative products or judging beers on their relative merits or creating awareness of the Ontario beer scene. This is a festival that doesn’t really care about any of that, having decided that it would be a good idea to provide people with a very pleasant place to stand around with some good food and a refreshing glass of something cold to drink. Instead of concentrating on promotion, they concentrated on fun. Remember fun? Back when you didn’t really care very much about IBUs or whether the Wellington Silver Wheat Beer was any good? Back when the point of going to a beer festival wasn’t really about finding new beers to try, but rather having a good time and maybe flirting with girls in summer dresses?
This, more than anything, is the attraction of the Hart House Craft Beer Festival, and the demographic that it draws certainly reflects that. My understanding was that the venue was limited to 650 attendees, and out of that number, there were only a dozen or so hardcore beer nerds hanging about the place. The remainder of the attendees tended to be between 20 and 35 although there were certainly a handful of middle aged men as there are at all beer festivals everywhere. This is exactly the demographic that everyone wants to attract to a festival like this for the reason that if you can convert people to craft beer early enough, they’re very unlikely to go back to drinking whatever was available during their undergraduate lives.
The food was surprisingly good. I realize that universities tend to have on site catering staff, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. There were very tasty pulled pork sandwiches (which is essentially the sandwich of the now. You can’t go anywhere in Toronto without accidentally ingesting one of these at this point) and a table of crudités with cheese and pate and whole pieces of fruit. I liked the jerked tofu so much that it has thrown my entire carnivoristic world view out of whack. You may read elsewhere about some of the organizational problems that existed regarding the lineups for the entrees. You may hear that people might as well have been lining up for a copy of Pravda in Omsk circa 1987 for all the speed with which the line moved. You may hear that people organized platoons of diners to stand in line so that they could trade off on going to refill their glasses. These probably aren’t exaggerations, but it’s a relatively minor quibble.
For all that there was nothing brewed specifically for the festival, there were a number of things that I hadn’t tried before. Grand River brought their Ploughman’s Anniversary Ale (American Pale Ale, 70 IBU according to Zach Tremaine from the brewery) which I had been wanting to try for a while. It’s very much like the rest of their lineup: It’s a solid offering with a lot of malt although it differs slightly in that it’s about 6.5%. It’s a well balanced beer which I’m of two minds about. On the one hand it’s a seasonal offering, celebrating the brewery’s anniversary and therefore not constantly available. On the other, it’s something to look forward to.
HMH Negotiants had what was pretty clearly the most popular booth of the evening, given that they managed to sell out of nearly everything that they brought to the festival. They were very much showcasing their line of Quebec beers, with products from Dieu Du Ciel, Charlevoix and Trois Mousquetaires. I’m relatively sure that I hadn’t seen the Equinox du Printemps from Dieu Du Ciel before (It’s a 9.1% Scotch Ale with maple syrup and potentially too heavy for a warm summer afternoon) I also tried the Trois Mousquetaires Doppelbock, which I found overwhelmingly malty, but in a pleasant way.
Towards the end of the night, with the sound system turned up and, thanks to the high walls of the quad, nothing visible overhead but the stars, people actually managed to enjoy themselves. They drank beer, sure, but more importantly they sat in circles on the grass and talked and laughed and some of them even danced!
All of the criticism that I have heard of the festival has to do with the fact that there was nothing new on offer. Anyone who makes that criticism has completely missed the point of the thing. The Hart House Craft Beer Festival is not about finding you something new to put on ratebeer. It’s about opening up a new audience for the stuff that already exists. One of the problems that periodically effects the discourse on beer drinking seems to be that enthusiasts take for granted that everyone ought to have already tried whatever new beer debuted the previous month. That’s a nonsensical position. The majority of the public probably couldn’t name six craft breweries, let alone those breweries brands. It simply cannot be taken for granted that people WANT to drink craft beer. It’s why festivals like Hart House are so important: They introduce people to the concept and hopefully as a result of having fun drinking and dancing and carrying on, they acquire a taste for craft beer. It’s a small crowd and it’s a nice venue and it reaches 650 people at a time, some of whom are still in line for sandwiches.