As Toronto’s beer tastes mature, so has the city’s biggest beer festival—with fewer frat boys and Bud Girls, and far more craft brews.
“The Crazy Canuck is tasting really good right now,” said Simon da Costa, brewmaster at Black Oak Brewery, tipping drinkers off to the Great Lakes booth after pouring them a sample of his own suds. At Wvrst last week, Da Costa, along with reps from five other breweries, were lined up across from a long row of picnic tables, their beers chilling in buckets of ice or in kegs. Holding strings of 12 beer tickets, an after-work crowd of twenty- to forty-somethings trickled in for a casual dinner and craft-brew sampler. The evening was among the handful of satellite events that lead up to the city’s biggest beer bash, Toronto’s Festival of Beer, running July 27–July 29 at the CNE’s Bandshell Park.
Along with the dozen samples of beer, patrons received a sausage and fries, and, crucially, a coveted Saturday ticket for the TFB. The other 10,000 tickets have already sold out; like most of the crowd, Zach Allison, a 25-year-old plumbing-parts salesman, attended because the Wvrst dinner was the only way to get his hands on one.
There’s a ton of enthusiasm for the ambitious festival; this is the 10th year that tickets for Saturday’s main event have sold out. “When we started 18 years ago, we had six brewers and a refrigerated beer truck at Fort York,” says Les Murray, president of the festival. “But over the past 15 years, beer culture has taken off, and the craft industry in Ontario has exploded. Now we have more than 40 brewers with over 200 brands.”
In those early years, Toronto’s Festival of Beer was much more about Bud Girls and brand experience; patrons used to complain that only brews found at The Beer Store, one of the top sponsors, were available to try. But the festival has slowly transformed into a more sophisticated beast, in line with Toronto’s maturing beer palate. This year, there are 19 rare beers from Quebec’s top craft brewers, like Le Trou de Diable and Dieu du Ciel!, plus 24 special cask ales designed specially for the event by four Ontario craft breweries. The typical festival-goer has evolved, too: Murray says when he began, about 80 per cent of revellers were male, but now women buy up half the tickets. Last year also saw the launch of the Queer Beer Festival, which kicks off again a day before the weekend party, on July 26.
This year, the festival even swapped out plastic cups in favour of an actual eight-ounce glass stein. It’s a decision that gives beer its due: not a down-the-hatch guzzler, but a complex tipple worth savouring. If Allison is any indication, Toronto drinkers already see it that way. “I’d rather enjoy one or two quality beers than throw a bunch back,” he says.
Other (non-sold-out) events at the TFB
Girls Guided Beer Tour: A tour by Canada’s only female beer sommelier, Mirella Amato.
Brewmaster’s Series: Brewers and experts geek out over beer styles, food pairing, and dry hopping.
World of Beer Pavilion: Keep 6 Imports will pour 19 beers from seven Quebec microbreweries.
Grilling Tent: Demonstrations by chefs like Bestellen’s Rob Rossi and Campagnolo’s Craig Harding.
Caskapooloza: Great Lakes Brewery will pour 20 one-off casks created specially for the festival.
Toronto’s Festival of Beer, July 27 to 29 at Exhibition Place’s Bandshell Park, beerfestival.ca.