The atmosphere was great. Most people were there out of genuine interest to support this historic landmark, and the beer tasting was just an added bonus. As an outsider looking in, you could really feel a sense of community that is fostered by the staff and volunteers, and it was great to be a part of that. The band was good, playing tunes that blended well into the background as people mingled, sampled and chatted.
Then, of course, there was the beer. Our entry fee got us enough tickets to sample six beers each. There were "booths" for perhaps a dozen Ontario craft breweries (I say booths in quotations as these were just tables with a few empty cases, a cooler and someone to pour the beer for the most part.) Now, there was some great selection to be had - so much in fact that most of us ended up buying more sample tickets after our initial six ran out. Most of these beers we'd all had and enjoyed to various degrees in the past, but it was still fun to walk around and sample such a large variety.
On the main floor there were three booths: Kichesippi, Steamwhistle, and Hockley. We make our way to the Kichesippi table first for no particular reason and have a quick sample. At this point it's important to say that we're assuming all these craft breweries had sent actual representatives to be a part of this event and to grow their brand. So we start chatting up the young lady, ask her a few questions about the company, the beer, and what's new and upcoming. She had no clue, about anything. So I find myself thinking "Is she really a rep, or just some person they asked to serve beer?"
Odd... but we move away, chat about the beer itself for a bit, and move on to the Hockley table. Here's where things started falling into place: the table was manned by an older couple. Not what you'd typically expect to see representing a brewery. But we don't ask any questions because we see they have the Hockley Amber, and we get a little excited. Side note: I wouldn't say Hockley makes #1 on any of our favorite brewery lists, but it definitely ranks high for one reason: Hockley Dark. Haven't tried it? Do yourself a favour. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, Hockley, old couple, Amber. Right. The Amber, we hadn't tried it before, so we get excited and all get a sample. Long story short? Win.
Now we'd been here for probably twenty minutes or so and we hadn't done the tour of the building, so we decide to skip Steamwhistle (we drink their beer all the time, and there's plenty of time to come back for a sample later) and move up to the second level and see what's happening up there. As we climb the stairs, the music starts to fade a little and is replaced by the sound of dozens of people talking amongst themselves: this is where the the majority of the tasting was happening.
Six more brewery "booths" are here: McAuslan, Dos Equis, Barley Days, Mill Street, Creemore Springs and HogsBack. Wait. Dos Equis? The odd man out in this group, but when you're the most interesting man in the world, I guess you're used to that. None of us have much interest in Dos Equis though, we're here for Ontario craft beers, so we turn our noses up and have a look around at the other booths.
At this point it becomes clear: there are no representatives from any of these breweries here. The tables appear to be manned by volunteers. A bit of a let down as we'd expected to be able to rub elbows with some reps, chat about their beers, ask questions, etc. But we don't let that stop us, after all, there is still good beer to be drank. Instead of all of us sampling the same beer, we decide to go for whatever tickles our fancy, and then share our findings with each other.
McAuslan had their apricot beer, which is always a hit with my tastebuds. A certain other OBC member, who shall remain nameless (Matt,) has strongly disagreed with us in the past that this is a great beer. But we made him try again, and he still disagrees. Allow me to quote him "I do not like beers that taste good." Okay, okay, maybe not a direct quote, but that's what I got from our conversation. But we're all friends here, so we agree to disagree.
Creemore had their pack of three, which I'm pretty sure we all sampled a bit of everything from them at one point or another. Our club has a bit of a soft spot for these guys, they know how to do things right. But we don't spend a lot of time discussing these beers, because we've featured them in one of our own tastings before.
Barley Days had their Harvest Gold ale and their dark Wind & Sail. I'll be honest, I'd heard of these guys, seen their beers before, but I'd never tried them. I'm a big fan of the Wind & Sail (surprise, surprise, Jim's a fan of a dark ale...) Very nice earthy tones with chocolatey malt taste. I'll be picking some of these up at the LCBO very soon.
Mill Street had their taster's pack. This company, much like Steamwhistle, spends a lot of time in our fridges, so we don't sample much from them. Although the blueberry wheat got some good reviews.
Lastly, there was HogsBack. This was the highlight of the evening, for two reasons: 1) We got to try their new seasonal: Sunofa Beach, which was just incredible, and 2) The gentleman serving us was none other than one of the founders, Frank. Not only did we get to talk to someone who knows what he's talking about, but it's one of the guys who started it all. So we ended up spending a good portion of our time just hanging out, having samples, talking about the business, gushing about how much we love the company and this new seasonal, and having a few laughs. Redemption!
This just solidified my opinion of HogsBack. Before last night, they brewed one of my favorite session beers, and that was enough for me. But now I have a connection with this brewery, and I feel they really care about their customer base and the community, enough at least to make personal appearances at events such as these. In retrospect, this may have been enhanced by the fact that none of the other breweries could be bothered to have an actual rep attend, but that doesn't change how I feel about it.
HogsBack: Keep doing your thing, you've got a loyal customer in me for as long as you continue to brew good beer and keep in touch with your customers like you did last night.
To the rest of you breweries: This may have appeared to be a small event, but make the effort to attend these. Keep your grass roots. Rub elbows with your customers. Create brand loyalty. You're in a growing market where you have tons of competitors creating beers just as good as yours. What will set you apart is loyalty to your brand, and you do that by creating connections with your customers. While we all appreciate you contributing your brews, it's not enough. Last night was a perfect example of that, a dozen breweries all contributed, but only one truly set itself above the rest.
Watson's Mill: On behalf of the Ottawa Beer Club, thank you for hosting a great event. We look forward to attending every year.
Thanks for reading,