Last year, I managed to miss the inaugural edition of the Toronto Brew Fest. I was feeling low key, as one does towards the end of February and had decided to stay in. What became apparent on the twitter feed surrounding the event is that the reviews on the ground were mixed, which is a charitable way of saying “yikes.” While it doesn’t necessarily take a lot to earn the ire of Blog T.O., Toronto Brew Fest got the Grilled Cheese Fest treatment with both barrels. The piece that ran highlighted the festival goers tweets.
It’s odd, though, that even the two star Yelp review of the event points out that Toronto Brew Fest holds a lot of promise.
For one thing, there just aren’t a lot of beer events in the late winter and early spring. I’ve never quite understood it, but the period between St. Patrick’s Day and the May 24 weekend seems to be death for seasonal beer. Theoretically, Dopplebocks are associated with Lent, but how many of those can one reasonably get through? Big Rig is valiantly attempting to make Maibock happen, but it’s an uphill climb.
A festival somewhere in that space should be a welcome addition to the calendar. When you consider that the Toronto Brew Fest has a selection of beers from Eastern Ontario and Quebec that we don’t usually see in Toronto, it’s clear that the entire thing should have been a massive success.
I spoke by phone with the organizer of the event, Michael O’Farrell to ask him a simple question: “What happened?”
Normally, It wouldn’t have occurred to me to do that. I was planning on skipping this year’s event, but Toronto Brew Fest is really making an effort on hearts and minds. They have reached out to a quality PR firm and are working to make the event more enjoyable for attendees. It’s a good sign of professionalism. In the words of Joe Strummer, “don’t you know it is wrong to cheat a trying man.”
Michael is actually the organizer of Festibiere de Gatineau in Quebec, which is a long running and quite successful festival, so he has experience running beer events. It would appear that the distance involved and the difference in the markets created some misunderstandings and logistical problems.
The primary complaint last year was about the cost of beer samples, which came out to a dollar an ounce. As many festival goers on twitter pointed out, that’s a twenty dollar pint. That’s higher than BMO field and Rogers Centre prices. The difficulty was that in designing the festival, the inspiration was Montreal’s Mondiale de la Biere.
Quebec’s drinking culture is a little bit different and while the cost and size of samples varies at Mondiale depending on what you order, 4 $1 tickets per sample would be pretty close to the average amount. The difference that wasn’t taken into account is that Mondiale doesn’t charge anything for admission, so the slightly higher sample price is more accessible, especially since you can walk in and out of the festival.
This year the cost per sample has been lowered and the festival has come up with an RFID bracelet that holds prepaid value in the form of “brew bucks.” Essentially, cost per sample should be down to 2 or 3 per 4oz pour depending on alcohol content or production cost. That’s just about in line with the Toronto Festival of Beer, except that instead of racing to get through soon to be worthless tokens at the end of the night, the contents of the RFID bracelet will be refunded minus a small processing fee. Based on the Ottawa version of the festival a couple of weeks ago, which was pretty well received, something like 70% of the stuff on tap should be 2 “brew bucks.”
The RFID bracelet should also help with a couple of other problems. Crowding, especially towards 10PM, was a real concern for some attendees. Toronto Brew Fest has addressed this by doubling the available space at Heritage Court at the Enercare Centre and quicker payment via a waved bracelet should help keep people from digging around in their pockets for tokens they have misplaced.
Last year, a lot of the beer ran out on the Friday. This one must have been particularly frustrating not only for attendees but also for organizers. Originally, they were running a refrigerated trailer with 50 lines that was going to keep beer pouring throughout the weekend. Unfortunately, the compressor broke down at approximately the time the doors opened and Toronto Brew Fest suddenly became an old school bucket and ice kegger situation. This means that the beer didn’t even really run out. It was just that from a logistical standpoint it wouldn’t pour. That must have been maddening for everyone.
This year they’ve specially constructed a 28 line tap wall which has already been tested at a version of the festival in Ottawa. That will help a lot.
Finally, there was a safety issue. Michael put it nicely, “all weekend we had the melody of glass breaking on the ground.” It turns out that a slightly drunk, slightly angry beer festival crowd gets a little breaky. The 16oz Mason jar style glasses from last year resulted in a lot of breakage both intentional and not and this year they’ve been replaced by ecocups that people can’t hurt themselves or others with, which should delight the venue’s insurers. For those of you who want proper glassware, there’s a souvenir snifter. Presumably, if you’re spending 8 bucks on one of those you’re not going to huck it at a wall.
If you were upset by the event last year, I’m not sure that these changes will convince you to go. Personally, I’m impressed by the transparent manner in which criticism has been taken on board and addressed. It’s one thing to try and shake an answer out of festival organizers and I’ve attempted that in the past. It’s quite another for them to reach out and volunteer transparency and actually own the situation. On that basis alone, Toronto Brew Fest is worth another shot.
Plus, you might get some insight into a rapidly emerging Ottawa market and changes going on in Quebec, which really ought to be enough draw.