The concept of launching an Ontario Craft Beer Week is a reasonable proposition. Breweries were able to prepare for the event and put together relatively small gatherings at venues throughout Toronto. The Victory, for instance, had craft beers on tap all this week. Being that they had also had craft beers on tap the week before that and for the last couple of years running, it’s not much of a stretch to throw support behind an additional week. It’s not a big ask to get a bar like Volo to display some excellent Belgian style beers, and it’s not much of a coup to get Great Lakes or Black Oak to produce excellent beer. They were going to do it anyway. These are organizations that will throw down at the drop of a hat and which will gladly throw support behind a local promotion. The fact that there’s an Ontario Craft Beer Week just means that they’ll get more attention for doing the things they’re already doing well.
Innovation, on the other hand, is risky. The Session Craft Beer Festival represents a departure from Toronto’s mainstay beer festival: The Toronto Festival of Beer. I have heard the Toronto Festival of Beer referred to by various people as “a gong show”, “a drunk tank” and “that time I threw up a bunch.” Typically the complaints that you get about the TF o’ B are that they don’t showcase any new products, that it’s incredibly noisy and crowded and that because large national brands are in evidence, it’s relatively difficult to promote smaller brands. This week I heard horror stories about serving beer there; tales of debauchery and pointless violence and poor behavior. Any time that you get ten thousand people together and supply them with an endless stream of lager, things are going to get dicey.
Session set out to remedy several problems associated with the larger festival. For starters, it’s a much smaller venue than Bandshell Park. The Sunnyside Pavilion, which is a marvel of a bygone age when Lake Ontario was swimmable has, according to the security guard I spoke to, a capacity of about 3000 people. The fact that the festival featured only craft beer removed the influence of national brands and also the presence of their proponents. Tickets to the festival cost $35.00 (and to be fair, included a very nice half pint stein), which has to be viewed as a strategic move on the part of the Griffin Gastropub, who organized the event. It’s certainly restrictive in demographic terms; People who are unwilling to pay the extra four dollars to avoid drinking Lucky Lager are certainly not going to shell out $35.00 for a ticket that doesn’t include beer samples. Once you had been admitted to the festival, samples were quite reasonable. The stein was marked at four ounces and eight ounces, but I suspect that the pours were closer to five ounces and ten ounces. A four-five ounce sample was a dollar, or about four dollars a pint. If you think in terms of comparison to Mondial de la Biere’s model, where admission is free but four ounce samples can run up to five dollars, it no longer seems unreasonable. It’s even fairly clever in that in order to get your money’s worth at Session, you basically had to commit to the whole afternoon.
In the run up to the event, I tried to get some of my beer nerd friends to go with me. None of them were particularly interested. For people who pay fairly close attention to the beer scene in Toronto, Session wasn’t much of a draw. There wasn’t a lot of stuff on tap that you couldn’t purchase at the LCBO or find on tap at other venues during Ontario Craft Beer Week. A lack of unique products limited the draw of the festival for a number of people, especially considering that even three unique beers would probably not have justified the price of admission.
This means that two categories of beer drinkers had been eliminated: Beer Nerds and Buck-a-Beer enthusiasts.
It’s a clever strategy, if you pause to think about the fact that the folks at the Griffin Gastropub managed to draw a crowd of twenty somethings with disposable income who are willing to try out new things. It’s unlikely that they would have already tried all of the beers on offer and they probably wouldn’t have gone to many of the other Ontario Craft Beer Week events. It’s fairly likely that these people will walk away from the festival having found something that they liked and that they would drink again and even actively seek out. The key accomplishment for the festival is the fact that they managed to reach and address an important demographic which is, if not untapped, then usually not taken seriously. Between the pricing structure which ensured a captive audience for an afternoon and the lovely scenery around the Sunnyside Pavilion, the attendees were relaxed and genial and even avoided having to wait in long lines.
It should have been an overwhelming success, but there was the timing.
To say that the timing was unfortunate is like claiming that war orphans are underprivileged. This was a beer festival in a remote location in the middle of the world cup on the weekend of the G20 when protestors roamed the streets of Toronto. And it rained! On the way to the festival, I caught the bus out of Keele moments after the announcement that all subway services in downtown Toronto had been stopped due to a security incident, giving the 80 Queensway the feel of the last chopper out of Saigon. People stayed home in droves. You can expect a certain amount of hunkering down when there are seven thousand people walking along Queen Street West, smashing windows and setting fire to police cars. By 3:30, people at the festival were obsessively checking their iPhones for updates on the situation. Throughout the afternoon, the crowd did pick up, but not substantially. Even after the sun came out, the festival remained fairly empty. In point of fact, more people may have been arrested in Toronto yesterday than attended Session.
It may have actually worked in their favour. For the people in attendance, there was the ability to talk to the brewers and actually learn about the beer they were drinking. There was in-depth conversation and people enjoyed themselves. I was able to spend half an hour having a good natured conversation, enjoying a tasty beverage while looking out at Lake Ontario and I was never jostled once. For the people who braved the confusion of the events surrounding the G20, it was a delightful afternoon.
To sum up, Session was a good idea that almost worked. It was valiant attempt at a craft beer festival that didn’t quite make it. I suspect that on any other weekend, this would have been a much greater success. I want the festival to succeed if they do it next year, so all I can hope for is that it can be scheduled during a period with less rioting and arson.