Recap: The 2015 Ottawa Winter Brewfest

Beer festivals are a beautiful thing. All the fruits of the craft beer scene in one convenient location. Not having to wait for the summer to enjoy those fruits, even beautifuler (not a word, but appropriate). This past weekend was the first Ottawa Winter Brewfest. An iteration of the Gatineau based Festibière, the festival promised to bring the same great craft beer and hearty food as the Québec based festival. The lads from the Club and I have attended the Festibière across the river and it's always been hit or miss. We enjoyed the summer festival, but didn't really love the winter festival. So, we thought, why not give this one a shot?

The Winter Brewfest was held at the revamped Lansdowne Park; specifically, the Horticulture building. Don't know where the Horticulture building is? Neither did I. It's near the end of the complex, just across from the Aberdeen Pavilion. If you haven't yet been down to the newly renovated Lansdowne complex, you gotta check it out. Beautifully faced buildings with all kinds of interesting shops and restaurants, not to mention a shiny new stadium that doesn't look like something built during the cold war (apologies to all those living in cold war housing). The festival was held inside. It was fairly cold out on Saturday so I wasn't complaining about the indoor venue. If you've been to an outdoor winter beer fest you know it has its appeal. You're out there, all bundled up, toque and mitts, beer in hand. Your breath is misting, you’re sucking in big lungfuls of crisp winter air. Groups of rosy cheeked festival goers are extolling the virtues of the great Canadian climate. Well, let me tell you, when it's minus 25 with the wind chill the appeal drops right off. Once inside the Horticulture building things were laid out fairly basically. The two largest beer kiosks were situated in the centre of the room, with 3 additional smaller kiosks near the entrance and along the wall. Food was tucked away at the back next to a small stage and a long table where all the casks for the festival were available.

First things first; we needed to drop off our winter gear. The coat check was located on the second floor and cost $2 to check. The staff at the coat check were efficient and understanding; the line never got too long and they let me grab my phone when I realized I’d left it in my jacket. Priority number two was drink tickets. Tickets were $10 per sheet. A sheet was 20 tickets. That works out to 50 cents a ticket for the mathematically impaired. Drink samples were on average 4 or 5 tickets per 6 oz sample. Some of the casks were up to 7 tickets but c'mon, it's a cask, you gotta expect to pay a premium, right? I myself don’t necessarily prescribe to this philosophy but it does seem to be par for the course at many festivals. If it’s special, and there’s limited quantities, price goes up. Supply and demand I guess. I don’t like it, but it makes sense. Food was provided by one of the restaurants at Lansdowne, Local Public Eatery. They were serving up chicken tortilla soup, poutine and fish tacos. I myself had a taco but the lads tried the soup and the poutine. All agreed everything was delicious and fast. Value for dollar wasn't too bad either. My taco was 12 tickets which equates to $6. The only criticism we had was that the cup of soup was a little small but it was 3 bucks so was it really too small? I mean it is a cup of soup after all.    

As me and the fellas descended upon the beer taps we did stand in awe at one station, the self service station (just out of view to the right in the above photo.) This consisted of 3 fridges, side by side with taps on the front. Each indicated what was on tap and how many tickets it was. At first this defied belief but then I spotted the staffer manning the ticket can and came back down to reality. I have to say the idea intrigued me. But 16 tickets for a full glass? My craft beer nerve was twitching at the idea of blowing nearly a whole sheet of tickets on just one beer.

Each of the manned kiosks was arranged with several tap stations. Each station represented a craft brewery and provided 2-3 beer options. Only one brewery had its own kiosk; Creemore. They had about 6 beer selections and a big fancy set up. How much they paid for this special set up, we can only speculate on. It was a bit conspicuous as several of the usual heavy hitters such as Beyond the Pale and Beaus were limited to the standard space. The overall beer selection was pretty good. There were 24 craft breweries present. The brewery list was comprised of some out of towners like Nickelbrook, Amsterdam and Great Lakes Brewery; some local fav's like Clocktower, Big Rig and Broadhead; as well as some new comers like Whiprsnapr, Bicycle and Dominion City. Now, limited to a max of 3 beers per brewery made the selection at each station pretty tight. Many breweries had brought at least one old stand by and then something interesting or seasonal. Now, for an Ottawa festival this was a pretty decent turn out. But for me, being a craft beer super freak I was a little underwhelmed. I would have liked to see some more variety. Don't get me wrong, some of the regular line up stuff in town is pretty spectacular, but when I go to a festival I want be to wowed. Bring it! Shove a peach pumpkin ale at me. I'll drink it, no matter what Budweiser says. Now that is not to say there wasn't some great beer at the festival. There were some real standouts. Bicycle’s Mountain of the Moon, a fruity and citrus-forward American Pale Ale; The ClockTower’s Oyster Stout, a smooth creamy stout with mild saltiness and hints of roast malt; and Sawdust City’s Le Chandail de Skokie, a “Bière de Garde” with a strong caramel malt backbone, a spicy yeast characteristic, and a fairly strong alcohol presence. 

Overall the first Winter Brewfest at Lansdowne was good. The venue was amazing and the set up really well thought out. I enjoyed many of the beer offerings and all my favorite local craft brewers were in attendance. I would have liked to see a little more variety in beer but such is life. I would definitely recommend to anyone that they attend next year and encourage Festibière to do this event again.