Monday, November 28, 2011

Toronto Festival of Beer 2005

Below is my review of the Toronto Festival of Beer in the summer of 2005.  At that time, it was kindly printed in The Boiler, the newsletter for the Minnesota Home Brewers Association.  I've reprinted it here exactly as it was printed originally except for updating my email address.  In July of 2011, I returned to Toronto to visit my niece Regan, and I was able to get to Beerbistro plus a few other downtown locations that I'll review another day.  Smokeless Joe's is closed now, sadly; the rumor in Toronto and on BA says it may re-open at a later time.  

by Cal Vande Hoef

At the U.S.-Canadian border, the customs officer asked my purpose for visiting Toronto. “Pleasure,” I said, “attending the beer festival in downtown Toronto.” He just laughed and waved me through to my next beer hunt - eight hour days tasting central Canada’s finest beers at the 10th Annual Festival of Beer (FOB) on August 5th-7th.

Arriving at the FOB is easy, a short mile walk from my hotel.  Along the way, street food - pizza by the slice, Greek, Thai, and myriad ethnic fare - is available en route to historic Fort York. Built in 1793, Fort York is the birthplace of modern Toronto and the location of the Battle of York in 1812.

Once inside, drinkers are greeted by three large beer tents surrounded by many smaller tents, some for beer and others for food. Food is on a much grander scale at FOB compared to the carnival-style food normally offered at festivals. Many of the local restaurants have booths serving up their best, including a lobster sub. Also, a “Q” tent (short for BBQ in Canadian) features television personalities like Ted Reader from Food Network Canada.

The FOB is expensive, but you have plenty of opportunity to sample. Tickets are $25 (Canadian) a day plus a dollar token for each 4 oz. sample. The plastic glass technically held 8 ounces at the rim, and could be filled for two tokens. Brewers often overfilled the single token sample, so I didn’t see the point of pouring doubles. A local drinker said the tokens are a necessary constraint on Canadian drinking habits - free beer for one price would cause them all to imbibe to oblivion.

On the website (, FOB advertised 200 brands of beer. With lines rarely more than a few persons deep, getting a beer was easy, even on the sold-out Saturday. As a veteran of Great Taste and other festivals, this should have been the perfect beer festival. However, security made everyone dump all water bottles at the gate, and not enough of the $2 bottled water was available. While I did appreciate the clean and nearly lineless portable toilets, the resulting dehydration made it difficult to spend the evening in downtown Toronto. As a result, I had only one single Belgian ale at Smokeless Joe’s—the best beer bar in
downtown, according to one brewer. And, due to recovering too long in the hotel room, I missed eating at the famous beer cuisine restaurant Beerbistro - a great disappointment.

The sampling on Friday was disheartening. Unlike the very efficient line at Great Taste, the gates opened nearly 45 minutes late. At the FOB, many of the brewers have portable bars to enhance presentation. Many larger breweries like Labatt, Molson, Tuborg, and Guinness, and mid-range brewers like Alexander Keith’s and Robert Simpson Brewing, had bars to belly up to that were bigger than Smokeless Joe’s. Unfamiliar with the breweries, I was distracted by the flashy displays and, possibly, by the commercial-clad girls serving macrobrew samples.

Saturday was much more successful. I started the day with Amsterdam Brewing, a downtown brewpub. A sample of Nut Brown Ale was good, and close to style. The Framboise was well done. However, compared to the beers offered at the pub, only the lightest were served at the festival. Moving on, Black Oak Brewing served a Double Chocolate Cherry Stout that really lived up to its name. Lakes of Muskoka Cottage Brewery was consistently good, serving a Cream Ale, Premium Lager, Premium Dark Ale, and Honey Brown Lager.

The Scotch Irish Brewing Company was delightful. St. Majors IPA (a “massively hopped” IPA at 68 IBUs) was properly bitter and satisfying. Captain Cascade, a cask American Pale Ale was smooth, hoppy, and well balanced. In the land of Euro lagers, a cask ale seemed an almost unreal find. While there had been some bright spots earlier in the day—a really interesting Eisbock by Niagara Brewing Company from the Canadian side of the falls, a true to style Classic India Pale Ale from Magnotta Brewery, and Upper Canada Brewing Company’s Pale, Red, and Dark Ale offerings were all full bodied—nothing matched Scotch Irish Brewing for quality, and, frankly, for tasting like an American brewpub.

The difference between Canadian and American brewpubs became clear - our extreme and individualistic beer consumer attitude in the lower 48 allows brewers to offer a wide range of ales and lagers while pushing the limits of style. Several Canadian brewers - Alexander Keith’s, Robert Simpson Brewing, and Steam Whistle Brewing sell only one beer (IPA, Cream Ale, and Premium Lager, respectfully). Steelback Brewing is representative of this narrow Canadian beer vision, in which the strongest beer is a Heineken Dark or other Euro import imitation. Steelback’s festival offerings included Bruce County Wild (Bavarian Pilsner), Chain (Euro Lager), Link Light (Euro Lager), Steelback Red (Amber Lager), Steelback Silver (American
Lager), Tango (South American Style Lager), Tiverton Bear Dark Lager (Euro Dark Lager), and Tiverton Bear Honey Brown (Amber Lager). In spite of having its own problems with bland beer in the U.S., our microbrew industry is fighting the trend much more vigorously than the Canadian breweries I tasted at FOB.

While it is quite possible that Double IPA and barrel-aged barleywine have distorted my taste, Canada, or possibly just Toronto, is afraid of hops and strong beers in general. They seem to prefer Euro-styled beers that taste like the imported versions.  As I was out of tokens, a young couple named Ivan and Neema bought me my last sample of the day, Glengarry 90 Shilling, a strong, malty, Scotch cask ale. We continued praising the beer from Scotch Irish Brewing as I gave them tips on how and where to find similarly interesting beer across the border to satisfy a growing Canadian thirst for beer stronger than a cream ale.

After a few more of my favorites from the day before, I left early on Sunday because of the heat and lack of new brews. In spite of drinking nearly every beer in the place over three days, my notes showed just 93 new beers. If you’re in Toronto in August, stop for one day at the festival. Spend the rest of your time enjoying the incredible diversity of downtown Toronto and drinking more than a couple beers at Smokeless Joe’s. Don’t miss dinner at Beerbistro down the street.  Cheers, eh.

About the author: Cal Vande Hoef is a full-time high school English teacher and part time beer evangelist, spreading the good beer news. Feel free to email him at  Or, better yet, stop by during Town Hall’s pint club - he’s the large bald guy reading poetry.

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