Another season, another beer festival, and the Brew Fest on Feb. 12th and 13th at Lansdowne followed a typical example of the phenomenon. Ottawa is rich when it comes to quality microbreweries, and the frequent celebrations are a testament to a thriving craft beer scene in the region. While Ontario’s microbreweries are creating plenty of unique beverages, those in the National Capital Region are luckier than most; we are close to the provincial border which brings another province’s products into easy reach. Attendees at the Brew Fest didn’t even have to cross a river to sample some of Quebec’s best.
I attended the session on Saturday afternoon, and had a great time familiarizing myself with new products. After a couple years covering the craft beer scene in Ottawa it’s become more challenging to find new beers to try, but the plentiful selection at Brew Fest brought a combination of old favourites and new brews. Scroll down to see which beverages won an award in my books, but first check out an exclusive interview with the festival’s General Manager.
A Festival is Brewing
In between samples, I caught up with Michael O’Farrell, the General Manager of both Festibière and Brew Fest. We spoke about the festival’s expansion into Ottawa last year, an opportunity which came about when Winterlude was looking to add programming to the renewed Lansdowne park – in fact, they were the very first event in the renovated Horticultural building. This year, the two events opened and closed Winterlude, engaging beer affectionados on both sides of the provincial border.
The proximity of the two cities is a feature of the National Capital Region that’s often overlooked, but it brings a lot of diversity to the region. As Michael put it, “I think a lot of people in this region are scared to cross the bridge”. Brew Fest featured many Quebecois breweries this year, which was an expansion from last year’s edition. “Logistically and legally, it is very time consuming [to arrange cross-border sales]. You have to go through a private distributor. The monopoly that the LCBO and the Beer Store have… they’re slowly letting their guards down but it’s still very controlled. When the Beer Store is owned by Sleeman, Molson and Labatt, that’s a big issue for me. It doesn’t bring a healthy competition.”
On that note, I asked O’Farrell about the decision to include Molson-owned breweries in the festival, i.e. Mill St and Creemore. It’s an interesting question, because does the ‘craft’ designation come from the model of ownership, the scale of production, the creation of unique beers, or something else? “ It’s a tough one. If I were an owner of a brewery and someone offered to buy it, I’d have to think about it. It depends on your morals, your values, and your business plan… The whole craft beer industry is about finding something unique and different that people don’t easily have access to, and a lot of that comes down to the ingredients.” One thing I will say in defence of corporate ownership of craft breweries, is that it allows them to use the distribution networks of larger companies. Put into practice, you can get tasty beer like Chicago’s Goose Island at Babylon.
In closing, I asked O’Farrell about his favourite breweries at Brew Fest. “I really love Beyond the Pale. They play a lot with hops, flavours, and aromas, and they always have something unique. On the Quebec side, Gainsbourg has the same concept – they have bitter, hoppy beers that use floral aromas.”
Winter Brew Fest (Photo by Aileen Duncan/Ottawa Showbox)
Unconventional Brewing Awards
Before the festival, I reached out to friends and foes, asking them to submit categories by which I could pit the festival’s beers against each other in fierce competition.
“Beer most likely to make me take off my under-roos”
The winner of this inhibiting award is Quebec’s Charlevoix Brewery with their Belgian strong ale Dominus Vobiscum Lupulus. While packing quite a punch at 10% ABV, this beer’s taste doesn’t reveal its mighty strength. The blonde ale is bright and crisp, with notes of citrus and apple notes, and a bready malted body. If you enjoy that “trappist” style yeast flavour, these will go down surprising easy. You’ll be drunk before you know what hit you.
Musical pairing: The chill guitar in this Bahamas song somehow suits the beer. They sing “I know you’re afraid of falling flat”, which you just might after a few of these strong brews.
“Best beer-related pun”
The nominees for this award were somewhat sparse, and the winner by default was Covered Bridge‘s Eternally Hoptimistic. Despite the lack of competition, this is a delicious beer in its own right. A pale ale that pours reddish-brown in colour, the intial impression is a bitter explosion of citrus-flavoured hops. The flavour quickly mellows into toasted malts that wash over your palate. Sessionable if you like hops, but the aroma makes this a great training beer for those who are less enamoured with the bitter beauty of hops. My fellow judge Stuart first described this beer as “a lawnmower on my tongue.” However, he soon admitted “it gets better the more you drink it, kinda like heroin”. And that, my friends, is how one gets used to hops.
Musical pairing: I might be in the minority here, but I love puns. NOFX aside, it’s hard to find musical examples of this particular form of humour. I’ve paired this beer with more conventional form of humour. As a side note, you can catch Radio Radio at Ritual in March.
“I don’t even like beer”
Many breweries boast that their double IPAs or triple imperial stouts are “not for the faint of heart.” While I’ll take a dark bitter beer more often than not, there are those who find hops overwhelming.
For the faint of heart, I recommend the Infusée by Brasseurs du monde. Marketed as a “tree tea white beer,” the brew manages to taste closer to peach juice than beer – yet still clocks in at 5.4%. It’s aromatic, delicious, and the best (only?) tree-infused beer I’ve ever had. I clearly wasn’t the only one who liked it, because it sold out pretty quickly.
As this is a tea infused beer, listen to this killer track by The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer while enjoying a pint, or two, of the delicious beverage.
We like beer. (Photo: Aileen Duncan/Ottawa Showbox)
The good was pretty great. The line-up assembled by the organizers was epic and featured so many amazing bands it was hard to choose which stage to attend at times. I must admit it was pretty awesome to go from The Planet Smashers to NOFX, to Taking Back Sunday, to Brand New, to Meshuggah, to Weezer. Not every festival can bring the ska then shift to punk, then have you relive your high school emo days, followed by blowing you away with Swedish math-metal and then have you on an island in the sun with California nerd-pop-punksters.
Weezer covering Blur’s “Song 2” was pretty cool. Sitting back and watching a massive puff of smoke envelop the crowd as Cypress Hill hit the stage was hilarious. Seeing the ridiculous passion and power of Obey the Brave. The ultra-bizarre spectacle that is Primus which was followed by Joan Jett was an interesting transition and a few checks on the bucket list. Kicking back and listening to Billy Talent just play hit after hit after hit and singing along with all my friends. Being disappointed that Danzig just isn’t what he used to be, until he was finally joined on stage by Doyle and they slammed through most of my favourite Misfits songs like bats out of hell. Getting to see Bane again, who really knows how to engage a crowd. Yelling along to Bigwig again after all these years, the boys still got it.
The devil’s juice, Octane, a tall boy with 7% alcohol and something like 130 mg of caffeine. Believe me when I say Lucifer is behind this product, it wields ungodly powers.
I also found Rockfest’s prices very fair. There were multiple food options (chip stand, Mexican, vegan, etc.), beers were $5, mixed drinks were $6, and water was something like $2 or $3. Also several well-placed, free water refill stations. The camping where we were staying had food options open late and a bar for those needing a “night cap.”
Now for the bad: Montebello is a beautiful place and very accommodating, but the city simply does not have the infrastructure the 200,000 people reported to have attended this year. Rockfest has grown too big and maybe too fast. There is one off-ramp and it is chaos, so what should have taken five minutes took three hours. I’m sure that logistically it’s a nightmare but I have to believe there’s a better way to proceed. After getting off we arrived to a dead-end with cars trying to find their way out and others parked to drop off their camping gear. The main parking lot was closed due to the heavy rain, we went to another lot lot a kilometre away (which was full), we finally parked where we shouldn’t have after a cop told us he wouldn’t fine us, and we heard of shuttles from the lots to the campsite but we never saw them… We missed a lot of incredible acts that drew me to the festival during this.
A shot from our camp site, us and over 3000 other tents.
The next shortcoming was the setup of the two secondary stages that faced each other, that always always had acts on at the same time. It was the worst sound bleed I have ever experienced at any festival. This was most apparent on Saturday when Danzig was on one stage and Grimskunk was overpowering him from the other. It ruined some songs and sometimes entire sets.
Having heard some of the stories from last year, we treated ourselves to VIP tickets. Here’s a quick breakdown of these tickets:
The Good: four VIP-only outhouses and a private bar where we never had to wait in a line of more than four people.
The Bad: reserved seating was all the way at the back far from the main stage and perfectly placed in the sound bleed of the two secondary stages.
The Ugly: we were promised shade but the only place there was any was under the bleechers. We were promised “access to all showcase nights at intimate venues on June 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 22nd,” and “Private tent (shade!)” We got none of those things, the worst of which was never hearing anything about these intimate or secere shows…
Lastly, and this doesn’t fit into any category, it was very noticeable and rather funny the amount of people wearing t-shirts/tank tops with “Smoke Meth and Hail Satan” written on them. They outnumbered any and every other piece of clothing throughout the festival.