An article by Noah Forrest
Although being a relatively young craft beer town, Ottawa is starting to make a name for itself within the Canadian beer community. Like many cities at this point, their beer market is starting to get a bit flooded, and the number of breweries that are mediocre (or worse) are just as plentiful as those that are quite good or great. That being said, there are still several breweries concocting fantastic libations, and last weekend, I went looking to taste them. In order to do so, I decided to drive from Montreal to Ottawa to attend this year’s Winter BrewFest.
Winter BrewFest occurred this past weekend in Landsdowne Park, Ottawa. Specifically in the Horticulture Building. It was 25$ for entry, which included a sampling glass, and each sample ranged from 2-6$ for a 4 ounce pour. There were four sessions, I attended Saturday, February 13th from 2-7PM. The Toronto edition is occurring this coming weekend, February 19th and 20th. Details are here.
Now, being that my in-laws are in Ottawa, and the fact that my father-in-law (Berny) is a budding beer geek who brings me growlers all the time, I have certainly had some of the deliciousness that Ottawa pumps out. I think he is Beyond the Pale‘s biggest fan, and thanks to him I’ve enjoyed most of what they have to offer. I quite liked many of the beers they’ve released, especially since their new brewer arrived. A few months back he handed me a can from Tooth and Nail Brewing, it was a dark Belgian ale brewed with raisins and orange peel. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. Being from Quebec, I’ve been inundated by well executed abbey style ales for years, and without trying to sound arrogant, I’m kind of over it. This, however, was delicious. It was dry to the core, with just the right amount of adjunct flavours to match the spicy phenols. It had a good body, but was also incredibly drinkable. I was impressed. Point being, I’ve had a few Ottawa beer offerings and I wanted to try more. BrewFest seemed like a good idea.
Berny and I arrived at the event just after 2PM. The session was only five hours long, so we wanted to make sure to maximize our precious, precious beer drinking time (especially considering I never leave the house anymore). I was greeted by the amazing Suzy, whose company (Lilybelle Communications) was managing the communications side of things. She showed us around and gave me the star treatment, which was amazing. This was easily the most personal and warm media experience that I’ve had at any festival to date.
The venue and its layout were quite nice. It was a sold out event yet at no point did I feel particularly cramped, which is impressive. There were a couple of stand alone brewery kiosks (Unibroue and Gainsbourg), but they really could have used several more. They had some casks set up in the back, which was really cool, and they had a couple self serve machines as well, where you could pour out your own beers. This was a fun and innovative addition (although at a very high cost). Otherwise, it was the typical booth system where volunteers pour taps from a select bunch of breweries (several from Quebec as well, which was nice to see).
One issue, however, was the fact that most of the beers I wanted to try were located… outside!? That day, with the wind chill, it was (no joke) negative 50 degrees Celsius. Naturally, because of this, the 50 beers being poured out there were not available to drink becasue the lines were frozen. About an hour and a half into the day, they were able to tap about half of them, and although they offered blankets to rent, it was uncomfortable and (in my opinion) a poorly planned idea.
Because of the delay and because we wanted to keep our appendages from shriveling up and dying, we first exhausted the limited selection available inside. We went over to the dedicated Brasserie Gainsbourg kiosk and I ordered their “Orange Tie Wrap,” a Nelson Sauvin, dry hopped saison. It was great, and easily the best thing I drank that day. Berny had “Côte Ouest,” their west coast IPA, which I also thought was pretty good, but not earth shattering. I moseyed on over to Beyond the Pale and tried their “Govern Yourself Accordingly,” a hopped up porter, which was another highlight of the day, carrying a nice robust body with a chocolatey and fruity flavour profile. We tried a few others, but nothing particularly notable.
Before deciding to get frost bite, we figured that we would take part in the self serving station machine fun. I poured myself a 9$ glass of “Winding Road for 7km,” a rye saison from Sawdust City. Unfortunately, it was an oxidized mess that tasted more like cardboard than much else – this saddened me, especially considering that I’ve had a few of there beers and enjoyed them in the past. Berny got himself “Big Pine IPA” from Square Timber, a brewery I was not familiar with. He took a sip, gave me a look, and said there was a flavour he didn’t recognize. I stuck my nose in his glass and was hit with a blast of buttered popcorn. In the beer world we call it diacetyl, it’s a flavour compound that is sometimes tolerated in small doses in certain styles, but never to this magnitude. It was a movie theater in a glass. Undrinkable. (I want to be clear that I’m not a nitpicker who studies each sip, looking for flaws. I’m not trained for that, nor would I ever want to be that anal. But this was intense, and just plain awful).
At this point it was time to brave the cold. We ran outside and screamed our orders at the poor bastards volunteering to stand out there, then meekly ran back inside to escape horror. I didn’t even take a blanket because I’m that badass (but mostly because Berny called me a sissy). In a fit of shivering confusion I grabbed Tooth and Nail’s Pilsner, which was a delight. It was full of zesty and herbal hops on top of a smooth and easy to drink body. It was surprisingly tasty considering it is the exact opposite style of beer one wants to drink on a day this cold. Sure, my ears felt like they were dipped in liquid nitrogen, but I do love a hoppy pils.
I have to say that 25$ entry for an event where you still need to spend premium prices for small samples, and none of the breweries brought their A-game, simply wouldn’t fly in Montreal. That’s not even mentioning the outside fiasco, some very limited and expensive food, and a couple of off flavoured beers. It was a “Winter” beer festival, with maybe two or three “imperial” (higher alcohol) style beers on the entire menu? That’s odd to me.
Some of these grievances are out of the control of the event coordinators. No one can control the weather; but having a portion of your event outside, in Ottawa, in February, is a bit of a gamble. Perhaps next year they will opt out of this idea, which I think will greatly improve things. As well, I’m sure they were hoping breweries would provide more interesting and experimental “winter beers”, but clearly they did not. I hope next time they they can convince brewers to give up some of their one off kegs and big barrel aged beer for us patrons to try.
The bottom line might simply be that the Ottawa scene is so new that they don’t realize what they’re missing, allowing them to forgive the many problems I illustrated above. Or maybe they are just used to it? Either way, how long will it last until people realize that things could be much better? It would be a stretch for me to say that I thought this event was a total success. However, what I will say is that it legitimately looked like everyone was having an awesome time despite all these flaws. Maybe that’s the most important thing? Maybe they are not catering to me, and that’s totally fine. I just hope they work on some of these bigger issues for the next event so that seasoned beer geeks as well those who are brand new to craft beer can have a great time.
An article by Noah Forrest
Photography by Noah Forrest