It took me a while to let my thoughts settle on this year’s Ottawa Winter Brewfest. I’m far from an apologist in the craft beer community, but I am the kind of guy who likes to look for the good in everything. That said, it was very difficult for me to find anything good to say about the 2016 Ottawa Winter Brewfest. Here are my five main reasons why this festival failed miserably:
5) The music was bad. The DJ they hired was just not good. The music was either too loud, or not loud enough. There was poor transitioning between songs and the flow of the music just felt wrong. By the look of the DJ, it was as if he was attending his grandmother’s funeral and every person at the festival was suspected in her murder. While music is a minor part of a beer festival, it was bad enough to crack into this list.
4) The staff had little interest in the craft beer community. I think I can speak for a large number of craft beer enthusiasts when I say I want people who represent the brewery to be in attendance. I don’t want festival staff who don’t know anything about the beer they’re pouring or the brewery they’re representing. I want my servers to be genuinely enthused by and invested in what they’re doing, and this is usually only attained by having the breweries supply the servers. Sure, a couple of the people pouring were nice and knowledgeable, but overall these were people who’s only concern was to keep the lines moving. This just cheapened the experience and diminished the feeling of community that we usually get from these festivals.
3) The outdoor portion was a disaster. It was under -40 degrees celsius on Saturday. "Cold enough to freeze the nuts off a buffalo," as my old man used to say. And yet half of the beer was being poured exclusively from the outdoor booth. I get it guys, it’s hard to plan for extreme weather… or is it? It’s the middle of February! Weather is bound to happen! Whether it’s extreme cold or extreme snow, you can pretty much bank on Canadian Winter paying a visit to your event.
Another major problem with setting up an outdoor booth in the middle of February was the coat check system. People had to line up (and pay, which we’ll talk about later) to check their coats when they arrived at the fest. Then when they were ready to brave the great outdoors, they had to line back up to retrieve their coats. After that, they had to stand in line to get a beer. Finally, they had to line back up to check their coat again. Does anyone else see the problem here? We’re lining up to retrieve our coats, so we can line up again to get our beer outside, and then we're lining up a third time to once again check our coats - and this is all for one beer! Don’t get me wrong, good beer is worth waiting for, but that’s just ridiculous. Now sure, we had the option of borrowing blankets (with a $20 deposit,) but this just seemed like a bandaid solution to a larger issue.
And then there was the problem with the lines being frozen, and therefore the outdoor booth not even being ready to pour when the Saturday afternoon session kicked off. Fast forward to an hour and a half later, the lines were thawed and we could go out and sample the other half of beers that were promised to us. But there was a huge problem: everyone had been drinking inside for an hour and a half and by this point many had tried most of what they wanted. So what happened next? Everyone rushed outside at the same time, further compounding the aforementioned triple lineup debacle, and several exciting choices were sold out almost immediately (no Nickel Brook Kentucky Bastard for this craft beer lover!)
2) The event organizers ruined the spirit of a craft beer festival. When a typical beer festival is run, the festival organizer invites breweries to attend. With that invitation, some parameters may be set such as booth size, pour size, and number of staff. Usually this is all common sense stuff. The spirit of a festival is to allow breweries to connect with their customers, promote their products, and grow their brand. Successful event organizers understand and respect this, providing as few restrictions as possible.
But at Winter Brewfest the breweries were extremely limited in three very powerful ways: a) Breweries were limited to three beers, b) these beers were chosen by the festival organizers, and always included at least one of the brewery's flagship beers, and c) these beers were served out of a generic space that used little to none of the breweries’ own branding.
Yes, you read that right. Craft breweries were handcuffed hard at this event. For breweries like Beau’s, Beyond the Pale and Dominion City to be limited in these three ways was an immense disappointment! At any given time these fine folks (and many other breweries in the city) have an incredible selection of at least half a dozen beers and sometimes as much as three times as that! Craft beer lovers such as myself specifically seek out these events so we can try as much new stuff from as many breweries as we can! We don't want to sample Beau's Lug Tread for the 15th time in as many weeks, we want to try all their new funky creations they came up with for FeBREWary! Now of course, there were some breweries who were not limited in the same ways. Gainsbourg, Unibroue and Creemore all had larger setups that used their own branding and offered an upwards of six beers each. These setups, presumably, came at a premium to those breweries however. And this leads me into my final point…
1) The Monetizing Factor. This festival just stank of maximizing profits and scraping every penny they could from their customers. First, you pay $25 for a glass and the privilege of getting in the door. Your first $25 doesn’t even come with a single ounce of beer. Second, you’ve gotta pay to check your coat. Sure, it’s only $2, but now you’re up to $27 before you even have a drop of beer touch your thirsty lips. Now honestly, $27 to get in the door and check your coat wouldn't have been that bad of a deal in its own right. But when tokens ended up costing $1 each, with 4 oz. samples costing 3 to 5 tokens each... Well, you can do the math and see that you’re averaging a buck an ounce, which translates to an average of $20 per pint of beer drank at the festival. I don’t know about any of you, but if I’m going to shell out $20 for a pint of beer it better be served to me in a golden chalice that I get to take home and place on my mantle at the end of the day.
So in a nutshell, how did Ottawa Winter Brewfest 2016 fail us? It robbed us of the very soul of the craft beer community through poor planning, substandard staff, severe limitations on the breweries, and extreme monetizing of the entire event. Fellow Ottawa craft beer lovers: this is a call to action! This is NOT what craft beer festivals are supposed to be! We cannot accept this. As consumers it is our right - and some would even say it is our duty - to demand better.
Unless there are some massive changes to how these festivals are ran, I for one will not be attending again. The only enjoyment I experienced during this whole event was the company of fellow beer lovers and a few tasty brews such as Beyond the Pale’s Govern Yourself Accordingly (a very delicious Rye Porter,) Gainsbourg’s West Coast IPA, and Cassel Brewery’s Sleeper Car Double Chocolate Porter.
If you felt similarly, I would strongly recommend leaving a review on their Facebook page.