How to Survive the Great Canadian Beer Festival

Brews. Bands. Costumes. Food trucks. Small, yet intensely valuable $1.50 plastic coins. A satyric bacchanal of craft beer under the hot sunshine of a Victorian summer day.

Victoria’s Great Canadian Beer Fest is a yearly rite that attracts breweries from all over the country to fill up countless 4 oz. plastic glasses and cope with the attentions of eight thousand mildly drunk beer aficionados. It’s sort of like the Kentucky Derby, except three thousand kilometres north and absent all the roided-up horses.


It was my first time at Beerfest this year and I only had a vague idea of what to expect, leaving me a charred and smoking heap by the end of day one. If you’re fortunate enough to have an extra sick day so you can glue yourself to the ticket website, here’s how to make it through the gauntlet next year, complete with pairings.


Have a little foresight, for god’s sake.


In a few scant hours you’ll be reeling around with a beatific grin on your face and any work-related concerns will have evaporated. Clear your schedule so you don’t end up having to ditch the festival and rush to a meeting where your boss mercilessly ridicules you for spilling your sobering coffee all over your chair, then sitting in it. This definitely, definitely didn’t happen to me. I would never be so stupid.

Pairs well with: Longwood Brewery Super G Ginseng Cream Ale – Nanaimo BC.

This bright and punchy herbal beer might just help remind you of all the pending appointments you’ll need to postpone; it was almost like a beery Jägermeister with an Asian twist. It’s also a bit of a blast from the past, as Longwood brewmaster Harley Smith got the recipe from his friend, Phillips brewer Ben Schottle, who used to produce it for the late Hugo’s Grill and Brewhouse. And unlike many of the seasonals at Beerfest this year, which won’t be available until next summer, you can expect to see this one in liquor stores as early as the end of October.


Dress for success – and pack light.


Don’t come directly from work wearing slacks and nice shoes and carrying your laptop and empty Tupperware containers in your bag. Remember, you’re about to spend several hours walking around on alcohol-soaked grass in thirty-degree heat. I recommend boat shoes, shorts or a skirt are mandatory, and a shirt with a chest pocket gives you a nice place to dock your empty glass.

Pairs well with: Parallel 49 Tricycle Grapefruit Radler – Vancouver, BC

A mix of crisp lager and grapefruit juice, this shandy or radler (German for cyclist) has been my primary drink of the summer, owing to its reduced alcohol content and thirst-quenching citrusy punch (it’s also good poured over a Slurpee. Don’t judge.) Perfect for gently bracing yourself to tell your coworkers you’re skipping out to go home and change before spending the afternoon drinking “for work”. There’s still some left in local stores, and as a successful seasonal you can expect it to return next year.


Invest wisely, or be prepared to bargain.

With some napkin math, we can determine that if you’re at the event from noon to five on the Saturday, with twenty-five tokens you can have five samples an hour, or one every twelve minutes. This is a fairly narrow window considering all the time you’ll spend wandering around hemming and hawing on how long the lines are and how little you appreciate Extra Special Bitter in this weather.

If you stick around to the end, you’ll find that many folks have overspent on tokens, leaving them without enough change to snag the sale of 3 for $10 Jamaican hot pockets that only appears during last call. Go gentle when bargaining with these fools, and if you happen to be one, remember you can keep them for next year.

Pairs well with: Hoyne Brewing Co. Summer Haze Honey Hefe – Victoria BC

The brewers at Hoyne buy honey from The Empress Hotel’s beehives to produce this interestingly warm-tasting filtered hefeweizen, or wheat beer. “It’s quite a mild hef, mostly citrus flavours with a little bit of sweetness on the end thanks to the honey,” said Hoyne’s Val McKay. For Beerfest they infused it with Grand Marnier, letting you eke out a tad more value than otherwise. The plain Jane version is still in stores and will make a comeback next May.


Assemble the dream team.

Having a bunch of ingrates around to kvetch with makes the event far more enjoyable. Not only will one of them carry around the program guide, giving you insider knowledge on which brew to pick while you wait in line, they can also stake out and hold a shady spot.

It’s also undeniably pathetic to be wandering around looking for your group, so many of the roving gangs have a uniform so they can easily recognize each other. Consider printing t-shirts with a brash, ironic slogan for maximum value.

Pairs well with: Postmark Brewing Raspberry Lemon Zest Hef – Vancouver BC

This is one of the cask-conditioned brews I stealthily checked out before my group showed up to ensure it didn’t run out and that you could brag about it later. Postmark is a brand new venture that has yet to bottle anything, so if you want to try it you’ll have to cross the pond. “It has 200 lbs. of local raspberries from a family friend’s farm out in Abbotsford,” said rep Mackenzie Patterson. “4.8 alcohol, a nice refreshing summer beer.” It had a nice raspberry bite and the citric acid was cut by smooth hefeweizen malt. Other people in line asked for the “raspberry lemonade” and it wasn’t an unfair label.





Consider your stomach contents.

Five samples an hour means twenty ounces, or about a pint every hour for five hours. For me as a 6’0, 220 lb. man, that’s about a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration, leaving me disinhibited, extroverted, and impaired in reasoning, depth perception and peripheral vision — the artist formerly known as a good buzz. Your mileage may vary.

To maintain your tasting schedule and avoid digestional upsets, I recommend a solid pre-festival meal and a couple of $20 bills. Rather than eating the bills, turn them into a grilled smokie or some eats from the Taco Justice truck.

Pairs well with: Dagerrad Brewing Blonde – Burnaby, BC

This is an important one to pair with food, as like many other Belgian blondes, it’ll knock you off your ass with its sneaky 7.5% ABV. There’s a ton of variety in Belgian beer, traditionally unconstrained as they were from the dumb purity laws in the rest of Europe, but this one is a fair representation of the archetype with its spicy hit, full feeling in the mouth and boozy finish. “They’re pretty sweet, they tend to be a lot lighter than a British or German style,” said brewer Ben Coli. “They use sugar to elevate the alcohol content while keeping the body light.” Dagerrad’s in stock at many private liquor stores here in Victoria.



Be intrepid. Explore a little.

I don’t like hops very much. Hardly very West Coast of me, you might say. After all, BC, Washington and Oregon are often considered North America’s bastion of the India Pale Ale (IPA), among the hoppiest beers around. There’s something to be said for a flavour that grows on you, but to me, the West Coast fixation on hops is mostly posturing.

That said, if you go to a tasting festival and don’t do any exploring, you’re sort of missing the point.

Here are a few brews I experimented with.

Saltspring Island Ales Earl Grey IPA – Saltspring Island BC

Okay, I did have training wheels on for this one. Saltspring’s IPAs (like their excellent Snug) are brewed in the original British style, making them less hoppy but still quite light in colour. This new Earl Grey version was equally well-balanced and delivered a nice flavour without egregious bitterness. “It’s brewed with actual Earl Grey tea bags and we add an essence of bergamot to it,” said self-proclaimed Saltspring beer slinger Stacy White. It’s currently only available on-tap at several Victoria pubs, so let’s buy it out and encourage them to bottle it.

Wolf Brewing Co. Kaffir Lime & Lemongrass IPA – Nanaimo, BC

Apparently Wolf Brewing didn’t get the memo about the racist history of the word Kaffir (or “infidel” in Arabic). Nevertheless, their surprise cask IPA, not listed in the program, was really enjoyable. I couldn’t pick out the lemongrass flavour (I seem to also be unable to detect it in bubble tea) but it had a solid hop taste without too much bitterness (are you sensing a theme here?)

Lighthouse Brewing Currant Event Sour Black Currant Saison – Victoria, BC

My friend Shane, who you might remember from our articles on Zampone or Banh Mi, is on a fermentation kick at the moment, and one of the planks in his platform is sour beer. These brews are made in a non-sterile environment, allowing strains of wild yeast and bacteria to unpredictably flavour the beer. “We put all of the dregs of everything cool we drank over the last few months in there, and we inoculated the wood for a few months,” said Lighthouse brewmaster Dean McLeod. “Then we made a saison and filled it up and it’s been aging in this barrel for six months. It also recently got an addition of fresh black currants.” It tasted almost like a liquid cheese, with a vibrant yeasty bacteria flavour, mellow but fruity. “We got pretty much every bug known to humanity in that cask,” said Dean, laughing. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding.

Green Leaf Brewing Serendipity Apple Saison – North Vancouver, BC

This was another sour, also based on a saison, which I normally like as the barley version of nice summer hefeweizens. This one was a little more restrained, having been simply soured with lactic acid bacteria and fermented with Brettanomyces yeast. There was a slight apple flavour until your swallowed, and largely it tasted like nutritional yeast. I think it would’ve been good with movie popcorn, but as it was in a one-off cask I’ll just have to imagine it.




Try something to look forward to.

The festival happens in a weird part of the year, when seasonal summer brews are coming to an end and fall beers are on their way in. Though it’s hot and Halloween might be the furthest thing from your mind, it’s worth trying a few upcoming quaffs so you don’t spend twenty minutes browsing instead of partying on October 31st. Here’s a few I tried:

Howe Sound Brewing Pumpkineater Imperial Pumpkin Ale – Squamish, BC

This is one of the original pumpkin beers in BC and may in fact be the first; according to Howe Sound sales rep Folland O’Connor, it’s also one of the best selling in the province. “It’s kinda like pumpkin pie in a glass, it’s very spicy, you get a lot of nutmeg, with a nice crisp finish.” I thoroughly enjoyed this beer; the Imperial name means a double helping of ingredients, which gives it a high “gravity” and an 8% ABV. For Beerfest they snuck some rum into the batch, making it nice and full in the mouth with almost a smoky flavour along with caramel and spice.

Granville Island The Pumpkining Pumpkin Ale – Vancouver, BC

On the other side of the pumpkin divide is this beer, a mild, easy drinking brew unlike many super-filling alternatives. The pie spices helped a lot with the character even in the lighter malt. Granville Island is currently reinventing themselves several years after being bought by the massive Molson Coors, and this is one of their “Black Notebook” small-batch series still made in the original brewery. Look for it and its 6.66% ABV around the end of September.



Rounding it all out

If you have a good time, it’s a win, whether you sampled the dankest bitters or drank nothing but cider. Wilder folk than I might seek out the inevitable post-fest industry parties (including this year’s Artlandia parking garage launch event!) or simply continue the festivities at your chosen watering hole, but I just fell asleep on my couch, my head resting on a stack of unfolded laundry. Such is life.

Written By:

Vancouver-born photographer, writer and designer Sol Kauffman has had his hands dirty in restaurant kitchens for years, washing dishes and slinging pizzas. In 2008 he moved to Victoria to pursue a BFA in Creative Writing at UVic ...

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