A Funny Thing Happened At Toronto Winter Brewfest

***Editor’s Note*** we were contacted by organizers, and have given several rounds of feedback for improvement on the festival, and we have decided to release the article as it was originally written and in good faith that it still constitutes important feedback and is an accurate representation of the way the festival ran. – TBP

I’d like to preface this writeup with two things: Suzy and her team at Lilybelle Communications, as well as the Brewfest staff were receptive and contemplative of all the criticism they received; also, I don’t usually write intentionally negative posts, so prepare yourself for the long read ahead – It’s just that sometimes, when we see shitty things happening in the beer community, we have to call them out.

As i’m sure you’ve probably heard by now, there’s been quite a bit of – err, hubbub – surrounding this weekend’s Winter Brewfest in Toronto.  We actually gave away two tickets for the sold-out Friday session (both Friday and Saturday sessions sold out) last week which made one twitter follower very happy.

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Our twitter winner made a sign.

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Frankly, a majority of the feedback you’re hearing is accurate.  A lot of the aspects of the business model and way this festival was run failed in the transplant from Ottawa/Gatineau to Toronto.

Toronto’s Winter Brewfest had been promoted really, really well – on the back of the already successful Ottawa Winter Brewfest that brings together Ontario and Quebec breweries, for a couple of years running.  Speaking with Alex and Nick, two of the organizers, they lauded Ottawa for being such a welcoming and kind crowd, having a great time, and understanding the struggles they had (such as 50 of their lines freezing for almost two hours as part of their festival was outdoors on the coldest weekend of 2016 so far).  Ottawa went off, to quote, “without a hitch, we can’t wait for next year.”

Our four writers were lucky enough to land a two-day media pass for both sessions of the Brewfest; the organizers were clearly proud of what they had built here and were keen to show it off.  Entering the Enercare Centre, we were welcomed by staff that swept up quickly in, gave us a guided tour of the different booths (they had 4 or 5 “bars” set up with multiple taps and breweries run by volunteers; only Amsterdam, Mill St, Collingwood, GLB, High Park, Beau’s, Creemore, and Gainsbourg had their own tent/pour station), as well as the 4 or 5 food trucks and two token stations.

Here it is, complaint number 1:  The people pouring beer were categorically poorly trained.

At the bar nearest the main food area, Beau’s refrigeration trailer was home to 50 taps, all numbered on chalkboards.  This made it easy to walk up to the bar, say “Can I have a number twenty-three, please?”, hand them your glass and tokens, and get 4oz of beer back.   At the other two bars, there was no such system – meaning that I had to ask for the beer by name.

Not a big deal.  Except that when i asked for the LTM Gose, I got the Berliner.  Not a problem.  I go back right after i’m done the (excellent) Berliner Weisse, and ask the same person for the LTM Gose, explaining that previously she’d given me the Berliner.  “Oh.  Well, what’s the difference?” was the response.  It’s understandable as a beer nerd that somewhere, some way, not everyone loves or knows as much about beer as I do.  I don’t expect a Prud’homme-esque rundown of a beer’s flavour profile at a festival.

It’s here that I really discovered the value in having your brewery reps at these events.  I don’t care if I have to ask for every beer by name, wait in ten minute lines, or fight off hockey bros (more on that later) to get to the beer – but I want to talk about the beer.  I (and presumably most other people) attend these events to taste a variety of new, different, or special beers.  The people that make or sell the beer are the ones who need to be pouring it.  It’s not about making a simple mistake and pouring from the wrong tap.  I couldn’t care less about that – it’s that they had no system of support, no knowledge, no reason to care.  The volunteer base was tired, worn out, running around like crazy, and frustrated with the job they had to do with no knowledge of the product they were pouring.  This is the fault of the organizers, not the volunteers.

Complaint number two:  The price of beer samples was heinous, astronomical, outrageous, etc.  

Assuming you’ve attended a beer festival before, you know they are (generally) not the cheapest of days out – but they aren’t the most expensive, either.  As a rule of thumb, we usually see about $1 per 4 oz.  Cask Days is $2.50 per 5 oz , and last year, twitter was aflame with people complaining about how pricey that was.  Even one of my favourite positive people and Cicerone Crystal Luxmore said it “was the most expensive I’ve ever attended, and I’m not sure why” – ouch.  I was getting messages, calls, and tweets from people, begging me to talk to organizers and “ask them what the hell this is supposed to be”.

Winter Brewfest ranged between $2 and $6 for a 4oz pour, with the hard average being $4/4oz, which works out to being approximately $20 per pint.  Offended yet?  Yes, it’s true, this is the standard in both Montreal and Ottawa.  Maybe we are spoiled for choice in Toronto; the competitive atmosphere here might keep it lower than in other geographical areas.  I don’t think the organizers studied the market well enough, or researched other comparable festivals, or asked the greater beer community to prevent what happened.  People were (understandably) in an uproar:

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Go search who @brewfesttoronto on Twitter to read the whole list of complaints, but did they ever take a BEATING on Friday night from social networks. Wow, I don’t envy the social team. Also, check out the top right guy’s twitter feed if you want some (stream of consciousness meets alcohol-laden) laughs.

 

Really though, a great way to describe this festival was it was four times the price of the Roundhouse Festival and twice the price of Cask Days, with not even half the number of rare/unique beers.  Shudder.

Even being there, if you were being given free beer, was incredibly difficult to stand.  Speaking of which…

Complaint number three: It was absolutely jammed and as loud as a club 

This one is the real kicker.  So by now, you’re picturing yourself with an empty wallet, the most expensive beer you’ve ever held in one hand, and a twelve dollar poutine in the other.  Unfortunately, you can’t eat it, because there are no available tables or seats, and everyone is pressed shoulder-to-shoulder (much like in a club) while listening to DJs (much like in a club).  Wait, did they just try to create BrewClub?

In all seriousness, dear readers, this event was massively oversold.  Between the poorly laid out bars (in the middle of the narrow walking areas, making them even more narrow) and the general mass of people that the room was rated for, it was absolutely the busiest I have ever seen any beer festival be.  Shouting orders at volunteers, not being able to carry conversation with your friends or brewers, and general discomfort from the drunken antics of many a hockey bro (seriously, this one guy got about 6 $4 samples of a light lager, downed it, and went back for the next one) really tore apart any remaining feeling of desire to remain at the actual festival.

How do we resolve this point?  Well on the Saturday event, the organizers rented more space (25% more) and it lightened up parts of the venue, but the fact is that most of the beer was crammed into the lower third of the venue closest to the gate, so it didn’t do much.  They need to take a page from the Roundhouse festival and feature as many vendors along the perimeter as possible, in our opinion.

In Summary

Ultimately, this event was well-attended.  That, and you can’t please everyone, right?  So what’s the solution?

Unfortunately, what you also can’t do, is (whether by lack of information, a surplus of ignorance, neither or both) gouge people trying to support the craft beer community and culture.  We’re pretty used to it.  Whether buying from the LCBO or when Cousin Randy drags us to *insert chain restaurant here* for Wing Wednesdays and the only drinkable thing is a $9 bottle of Mill St. Organic from the Premium menu, we’ve seen it before.  But don’t treat us beer fans like a captive audience.  Or, maybe this is just us being spoiled asshole Torontonians living up to our stereotype.  Or, as is the balance of the universe, maybe the answer lies somewhere in between.

At the end of the day, I felt like this:  The Toronto Winter Brewfest was a perversion of the popularity that the microbreweries have amassed. Ultimately they’re to blame for their own success, but it’s a combination of the gleaming future they want and the exclusivity beer fans want.  I had a hard time believing we weren’t being had as the best idea for a cash grab since my cab driver told me he didn’t take Debit or Credit on the way over.

I’ll finish with a quote from a brewery rep that made me laugh:  “And another thing, it was turned into a fucking carnival! Pour-your-own, DJs and their loud music, games, $1 or more per ounce, it was packed when I got there, and the reps were all dead eyed; probably feeling the same way. I don’t want to go back.”

And the worst part?  The amazing beer I had from Le Trou du Diable, Beau’s, Left Field, and Gainsbourg is completely overshadowed by all of the above.

I don’t want them to come back.  Not like this.

– Mike

5 thoughts on “A Funny Thing Happened At Toronto Winter Brewfest”

  1. Hello Mike.

    As an agency representative working in the Ontario alcoholic beverage industry, I had written Suzy asking for a comp to check out the festival towards future vendor participation, but did not get a response. Now I know why.

    Luckily, or unluckily, I was offered an extra ticket for Friday night by a friend. I have to agree 101% on everything you said along with another point. When I arrived, about 6:30pm, the main serving station was closed due to lack of refrigeration and the beer was pouring foamy. If the pressures were turned down and the samples were poured slowly, they would have at least been able to serve product.

    Because of the packed shoulder to shoulder crowd, I lost my friend and shortly after I texted him to say I couldn’t stand it anymore and was leaving. He replied back with the same message.

    If I had paid the full admission price to put up with this abuse, I would have been really pissed.

    And to think I took the TTC for this!

    Martin.

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