Filling in the Blanks for Ontario Craft Beer Week 2011

You may have noticed that the old bloggity blog has lain fallow these two weeks. There’s a good reason for that. June was busier than a one legged man in an ass kicking contest, and my plan of trying to cover events every day during Ontario Craft Beer Week was not quite as easy as it seemed at the outset. I mean, if anything tells you how feasible the craft beer movement has become in the province, it’s the fact that OCB week organically grew into a ten day beer festival. I suspect at this point that if there were just an organizing website that would list events, you could probably continue indefinitely. Sure all the brewers would pass out from lack of sleep on day 23, but that’s a small price to pay for success.

What this means is that I’ve got two weeks of blogging to catch up on, and I figure that rather than scrapping the whole thing in order to get up to speed on current events, I’ll condense days six and seven of Ontario Craft Beer Week into a single post.

Let me preface these two posts by saying that Garrett Oliver was in town for those two days. Originally I was going to write a little bit about that, but there was no way that I could do it that wouldn’t have come off as fan-boy boot-licking toad-eating; just the worst kind of hero worship. It’s probably warranted, but my impression is that if there was ever a dude who was secure enough to not need that kind of praise, it’s Garrett Oliver.

I will therefore limit myself to the following paragraph, which will sound like a Bill Brasky story:

We’re supremely lucky to have that guy as an ambassador for craft beer. He’s poised, gracious, funny, intelligent and a snappy dresser. I got to tour the beer store with him as his rep explained the situation in Ontario. Garrett had everything figured out in about four minutes, right down to deducing the fact that with a burgeoning craft beer movement, there had to be some kind of online backlash (all I could add was that we were working on it). I have not seen a lot of people able to pull off a blue gingham/tattersall shirt, especially amongst the beer community in Ontario where a bowling shirt is considered overdoing it. The man wore cufflinks to a cooking demo and managed not to dirty his French cuffs. In short, it’s pointless to talk about being impressed by him because if that’s not your default reaction, you’re deranged.

Day Six: Bar Volo House Ales Takeover

This event was really interesting for me, because I was there for the first brew day Bar Volo had: Caustic Commencement Saison. I still have the sticker from that brew on my banjo case. It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come over the course of a year. While it took a while for the nanobrewery to get off the ground, they’re now producing beer at a really good clip. Some of them are pretty darn good, while some of them miss the mark. I’ve tried a lot of the beers there over the last year, because for a while they were mostly getting broken out for special events. I don’t think that there’s been anything world shaking to come out of the House Ales project yet, but that’s not really the point.

It’s early days yet, and the whole thing is kind of a journey. To me, the best part of the House Ales project is that it functions as a kind of crossroads for brewing in Ontario. Ralph Morana doesn’t often get credit for this, but all you have to do is look at the way the community connects around Bar Volo because of the often collaborative nature of the beers on offer. During any given week you’ll have Bim from Dieu Du Ciel or Fred from Charlevoix in there, brewing up a storm. He’s worked with Iain and Bartle from Amsterdam, Lackey from Great Lakes. Not to mention Flying Monkeys, Biergotter and St. Andre. Plus, Jon Hodd, who works there, is turning into a force to be reckoned with.

Because most of the brews are envelope pushers (“Black Saison” said Garrett. “Is that a thing?”), you end up with brewers going in to try them. It results in increased communication throughout breweries in Canada. That’s a pretty useful function, if I’m honest. Volo used to be my local, what with cheap pints on Mondays and a fantastic group of regulars. These days I mostly get there for events, which is a shame since you never know what’s going to be available from one day to the next.

The only downside is that with the ambitious new direction, the crowd in there has changed fairly significantly. It’s much younger. I mean, how often do you see Stefan from Dieu Du Ciel spin a DJ set? The prices have gone up somewhat. I feel like I’m verging into “get off my lawn, you darn kids” territory if I complain about those things, so I’ll just suggest this: Volo has never been static. It started as an Italian restaurant nearly 30 years ago. No one could have predicted that it would become a craft beer place, let alone one of the best in the world. The continued innovation is not trading off the old atmosphere or ambiance. Continued innovation is a hallmark of the place, and it’s no surprise that it has begun communicating that progress across the Ontario brewing scene both through collaboration and by acting as a nexus for the industry.

Day Seven: Session 99

I’m going with the extreme short form here, since this is turning into a novel.

The organizers of the Session festival learned from last year. They learned that the festival needs to be in an accessible location. They learned that the location they choose needs to have an open layout. They learned that rioting in the streets will prevent people from drinking beer, which seems counterintuitive when you think about Vancouver.

Jed did a heck of a job putting together something that felt more like a party than most festivals do. Cooking demos, easily available food, a cigar lounge, and enough space to stretch out in all helped with this atmosphere. I don’t know if the venue ever reached capacity. I was worried initially, since it looked pretty empty two hours after the kick off, but it picked up significantly and I think that everyone enjoyed themselves.

The main stage was a nice touch. A little bit of spectacle is good at a beer festival, since it tends to keep people from having nothing to do but drink. After a couple of hours of milling around sampling things, that can lead to a number of problems. On the other hand, people tend to behave themselves if you’ve got a circus strongman kicking around. The thought process is “Oh hey. That dude just bent that rebar into a heart with his teeth. Maybe I should just chill out over in the corner for a while.”

I was surprised to see that Spearhead won best brewery. I think it’s a triumph of their marketing rather than their beer, but I can’t fault them for that. It’s a part of the game that they excel at. I know people who think that they shouldn’t have won since they’re contracting out of Cool brewery, and therefore are not actually a brewery. I have to point out that it was a publicly determined vote, and that the public doesn’t care about that stuff. The semantics of the thing are only crucially important to industry people. Besides, you can’t enforce authenticity in a free market, neither can you argue from the standpoint that you should be able to without being disingenuous.

Good for them, says I, for not downplaying the role of marketing in their business plan. It worked for The Spice Girls. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s hard to argue with a gold record.

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