As beer festival season starts up again in earnest, On the Coast has you covered with what I think makes a good festival, and some “pro-tips” to get the most out of your festival experience.
There’s not an official beer festival season, but I notice in BC that, while the number of beer festivals keeps growing, most of them take place between April and October. This may be because those are the best months to have an outdoor festival – but that said, with crazy BC weather you never know what you’ll get!
April may seem like a ways away still, but tickets are on sale now for a lot of the festivals. So choose your festivals to attend, and buy your tickets now to avoid disappointment!
There are quite a few factors that go into a good beer festival for me, starting with the features of any good event: organization, location, product, and price.
In a beer festival I also look for other details – some as mundane as a sufficient number of easily accessible washrooms. Is there somewhere to sit down? Is there water available for drinking?
Attention to beer serving details is another – is there rinse water at each pouring station? Are the beer stations far enough apart that there is room to line up, and room to enjoy your drink after you’ve gotten it? Is the beer served at the right temperature? If there are casks, have those been treated properly? Does the person pouring the beer know anything about the beer? Some of these things may be beer geek concerns, but if organizers are going to the trouble of having a beer festival, they might as well do it right!
Fortunately I have been to far more really good beer festivals where they’re doing everything right than I have been to ones that just didn’t seem to be getting anything right.
There are so many different kinds of beer festivals – I think there’s one to suit every taste! There are big festivals like the Great Canadian Beer Festival in Victoria and Vancouver Craft Beer Week’s weekend long festival at the PNE where it would be impossible to try a beer from every brewery in attendance; and there are small festivals like the Sunshine Coast Beer Festival held in Gibsons in February.
It can be overwhelming to attend one of the bigger festivals, but if you don’t mind crowds, these are great places to try beers in sample sizes that might only be available in big format at your liquor store. Big festivals also attract breweries from farther afield and can be a great opportunity to sample beers that aren’t normally available in that area.
Smaller festivals often allow you more time to talk to the person pouring the beer, who hopefully is from the brewery and can tell you all about it! And with fewer beers available, you can avoid fomo – the fear of missing out!
The Fort Langley Beer and Food Festival is a small festival, coming up on May 20th, and will focus on local beers.
A couple of upcoming larger festivals are The Okanagan Fest of Ale to be held in Penticton on April 7th and 8th and the Great Okanagan Beer festival in Kelowna on May 11-13. Both festivals just keep growing in size. The Penticton festival has been running since 1996 and is a non-profit society that donates proceeds to charity. They are going to have over 60 breweries from around the Province there this year, pouring beer for the more than 5,000 attendees. The Kelowna festival will have over 30 breweries represented. Tickets are on sale now for both festivals.
Some festivals focus on certain styles of beer, like winter ales, fresh-hopped beers, or sour beers. The advantage of attending a style festival is that if you know you like that style, you know you’re going to spend your time drinking beers you’re virtually guaranteed to like. Farmhouse Fest, a festival focused on saisons, sours and wild ales, which is now in its third year at the UBC Farm, sells out every year. Tickets went on sale Friday for the July 8th Fest. If you are a sour fan, get your tickets now so you can go and be with your people!
There are also different formats to festivals. Some are all-inclusive, where you pay one price and all your samples are included. These have pricier tickets up front, but they mean you don’t have to worry about running out of money or tokens during the festival. Most festivals charge an entry fee which includes a taster glass and a few tokens. Then when your tokens run out, you need to purchase more if you want to do more sampling. Some festivals include food in the ticket price, others offer food for purchase, either inside the festival or from food trucks nearby.
And then there are all the different locations! I’ve been to festivals on farms, in train stations, airplane hangars, warehouses, breweries, theatres, community centres, parking lots, on boats.... It’s fun to see how creative people can be with venues!
If you're looking for different types of beer events than just tasting festivals, craft beer weeks are a great source for those. Victoria Craft Beer Week runs from March 2-11, and Vancouver Craft Beer Week from May 26 to June 4. There are beer pairing dinners, lectures, small tastings, tap takeovers, you name it! And of course VCBW ends with a big three day tasting festival at the PNE (as mentioned above).
My beer festival "pro-tips", in no particular order:
- - Read the fine print on your ticket: what is included in the price? How many tokens do you receive? Is there food included? If not, is there food available for purchase? Depending on how long the festival is, you may very well need to refuel! Or sop up some of your alcohol. Some venues will allow you to bring food in, some will not. Some allow water bottles, some do not.
- - As you’ll be buying extra tokens if the event is not all-inclusive, it is also useful to know if the venue takes credit or debit, or just cash. And if the latter, if there is an ATM on site.
- - If you’ve been to a festival or three, you’ve probably seen the people sporting pretzel necklaces. These are not just fashion statements! Their actual purpose is two-fold – to provide a wee snack as you drink, and to offer a palate cleanser between different beers. And they’re super easy to make!
- - Drink water! You may think that it will be inconvenient to be adding more liquid intake to your day, but hydrating as you go will keep you happy longer, and it does aid in slowing down your consumption to help keep you from over-indulging. My preferred method of hydrating is to drink the rinse water that good festivals offer between samples. It ensures I drink water regularly, and it saves that rinse water from being wasted – win/win!
- - Take some friends – not only are things more fun with friends, but you can also tag-team your way through trying more beers if you all agree to order different beers from each brewery and then share the samples.
- - If the festival is outdoors, dress weather appropriately! This should be obvious, but the number of sunburned or soaked or freezing festival-goers I’ve seen makes me think this is something that needs to be emphasized. And goes back to tip #1 of reading the fine print – find out if the fest is indoors or out, and if the latter, will there be cover from the elements? Is the ground paved or grass or dirt? In hot weather, wearing a hat can make all the difference between a happy festival and over doing it.
- - And lastly, the beer tokens themselves. Two things here...the first of which is that I suggest you not buy too many tickets at the outset. The beers may seem like tiny little pours and you’ll be able to drink many of them, but somehow those tiny pours really add up and I see most people with lots of leftover tokens at the end. If you want to take advantage of the bulk pricing on tokens, I suggest sharing with a friend or two rather than buying them all yourself.
- - Which brings me to the second token tip – if the tokens are the poker chip sort, you can likely use them again the next year at the festival, so hang on to them! Most people line up for more tokens near the beginning of a festival when everyone runs out of the provided tokens. If you have some leftovers, you can hold out a little while to buy more tokens and hopefully find yourself in a shorter line-up!
American Farmhouse IPA – A collaboration between Powell Brewing and Four Winds Brewing. It is a hybrid style where a traditional Belgian farmhouse ale meets an North American East Coast IPA. 6.8%. Available in 650ml bottles from the breweries and select private liquor stores.
Strange Fellows Goldilocks Belgian Golden Strong ale. Light and fruity with notes of coriander and orange peel. It is a strong beer (8.5%) that goes down really smoothly. Available in 750 ml bottles at the brewery and select private liquor stores.
R&B’s Shake Your Fruity – this is a milkshake IPA – those overnight success fruity tasting beers brewed with lactose, which makes them thick and hazy. Even people who claim they don’t like india pale ales like a milkshake IPA! This one is brewed with oats and apple puree as well, for ultimate smoothness. But what you’ll taste is juicy orange and pineapple. 7.3%. Available in 650ml bottles at the brewery and select liquor stores.