It’s no secret that the Toronto Festival of Beer has skewed itself more towards the mainstream for quite a few years now. While good beers and times have been found (I will never forget human foosball) the event is definitely an example of quantity over quality.

While I may not dislike it as much as some folks, I was still quite pleased to receive an email from Curt Dunlop and Jed Corbeil, the duo behind the Griffin Gastropub and the Muskoka Beer Festival, informing me of their plans to hold a craft beer festival in Toronto.

The idea is incredibly exciting… local beers and food should attract a crowd of like-minded enthusiasts and the opportunity to sample some new brews (Tree Brewing from Kelowna, BC is sending their Hophead IPA!) is not to be missed. With 21 breweries attending at last count and each of them bringing 1 to 5 types of beer, it’s going to be a very busy day!

Corbeil and I made arrangements to meet at C’est What? which was appropriate considering the pub is basically a temple to local craft beer. It was quickly apparent that he’s the kind of guy who loves what he does. His passion for beer is definitely there and he knows his stuff but he’s no snob either. Noticing he was well into his pint of Black Oak’s 10 Bitter Years (my favorite of the moment) I ordered myself one as well and we got settled in to talk about Session, the Griffin Gastropub and Ontario Craft Brewers.

Corbeil was raised in Bracebridge (he calls it Molson territory) but eventually moved to Toronto where he studied music at the University of Toronto.  He later ended up in Japan where he found he really enjoyed their custom of going out with coworkers three or four nights a week to a succession of bars and restaurants. As he explains, “Everyone goes out because you can’t entertain at home; there’s no room.”

Things started to gel after a trip to Germany where his brother (now a brewer with Mill Street) introduced him to some excellent beers and a stint in Honduras where he learned how to run a small business. After coming back to Bracebridge with his wife to raise a family, Corbeil ended up buying a local pub with Curt Dunlop which became the Griffin Gastropub.

After switching from the macro-brews to Ontario craft beer they lost a chunk of their regulars but found they more than made up for it with new guests and some old-timers who came to appreciate the new brews. While deciding which beers to carry took a lot of thought, it was also a lot of fun.

“We consulted with my brother, Sam Corbeil, about some of the staples he liked in the Ontario craft market. We did a huge beer-shop at the LCBO at Queen’s Quay and spent the next couple of months drinking. It came down a lot to how readily available the beer was to the north as well as which breweries were ready to jump on-board with converting the locals. We had great help from some of the breweries, which are very much showcased at the bar, but we try our best to be as drinker-friendly as possible with our choice of styles. We like to have a wide variety of product but limit our styles to only a few brands… 2 or 3 blondes for example.”

With 10 taps and over 30 bottles, they were able to keep the beer nerds satisfied while offering comparable (and superior) brands to those might never have thought to have tried them before. Their selection even resulted in change at the local LCBO with the number of OCB products being offered jumped from 3 to 20.

Summing up his feelings about the advantage of craft beer, Corbeil says it’s all about “now versus whenever.” The idea of seasonal offerings ties into the growing emphasis on living both locally and seasonally and I don’t think that’s a bad thing for consumers to grow accustomed to.

Not content to simply run a pub, Corbeil and his partner began hosting beer dinners the last Sunday of every month featuring a different brewery or region every month. March was all about Quebec, April was the east coast and May went west. For all of June, they’re featuring Beau’s (one of my favorite breweries, you can find their Lugtread Lagered Ale [169334, 4x600 mL, $15.60] at most LCBOs ).

With the support they’d garnished so far, it only made sense to start a beer festival. Now in it’s second year, the Muskoka Beer Festival has proven to be a hit and they have approached the OCB about doing it seasonally around the province. “Our goal is to have a festival for each season in a different city,” proclaims Corbeil.

With this kind of expansion come new challenges but he is up for it. “Greg Causeway [of the Toronto Festival of Beer] has been a great help with offering suggestions on what to do and what to avoid.” When asked to compare the two festivals, Corbeil had this to say:

“The TFOB to Session is like Microsoft to Apple. Microsoft is a very large company, very easily-accessible and user-friendly.  It has made a huge mark in its field and will continue to do so for years to come.

Apple is directed more to a specific target audience, with a more artistic approach in mind. Although it is also has the ability to be user-friendly, it also requires a great amount of time and dedication to master and truly enjoy what it has to offer.

I feel that Session will target those ready  to experience the creative significance of real craft beer. It will be a day for people to celebrate those craft brewers and the time and dedication they have put forth to get the attention of those who are willing to embrace it.”

Food is definitely going to play a big part. Duggan’s Brewery, the Leslieville Cheese Market and Rodney’s Oyster House amongst others will be serving up tapas-style plates that will undoubtedly pair with many of the brews served alongside. Corbeil promises there won’t be any “doubling-up” with types of food and that will come from the GTA.

When asked whether there are any new beers attendees should be particularly excited about he says people should look out for Muskoka’s cask-conditioned IPA, Tree’s Hophead and Great Lakes Miami Vice. When it comes to OCB beers in general, he really enjoys Black Oak’s 10 Bitter Years, Mill Street’s seasonals and Garrison’s Imperial IPA and Hop Yard Ale. “I think people are going to be blown away by some of Muskoka’s upcoming seasonals.”

With a winning combination of OCB beer and local food, it’s safe to say that Session will definitely please enthusiasts and maybe even convert some with more mainstream tastes. Corbeil, Dunlop, the OCB and the others who are helping put this together have definitely raised the bar and if they pull this off, I can only hope that others will follow their lead.

The festival is being held on June 26th, from 12 to 8pm. Admission will cost ya $35 and it’s being held at Sunnyside Pavilion which is located at 1755 Lakeshore Boulevard West, Toronto.

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