In the past month, I’ve had the pleasure of going to two distinct festivals in Toronto (sorry Session, I heard you were terrific but I was unable to see past my throbbing hangover after a best friend’s birthday).

The Hart House Craft Beer Festival is in it’s 4th year at UofT. Held in the quad that sits smack-dab in the middle of the aforementioned cultural centre, it’s got an impeccable reputation with enthusiasts and it wouldn’t be difficult to argue that it’s played a large role in the craft beer renaissance taking shape in our city.

Beside the excellent beer, they’ve got a free BBQ and a couple of DJs from CIUT, one of the best radio stations around. Did it live up to my expectations?

Largely, yes. The crowds only became noticeable when one was in line for food. To be honest, I was only bitter because I had no friends to go and bring me more beer while I waited. I would pay to settle all of the booze in my gut if it meant not having to wait so long and I’d imagine others feel the same.

Where Hart House shone was in their ability to please both the hardcore and the novices. A lot of the beers available were at the LCBO and anyone who’s given to trying new things had probably already whet their whistle with more than a few of them.

The single most amazing thing about this festival was that most of the crowd did not have a lot of experience when it came to trying craft beer but they were there to learn. While waiting for my sample, I regularly heard plenty of questions being asked about the beer available, different styles, availability and the breweries themselves.

I saw future enthusiasts being born.

As to those who’d already sampled most of the wares available, as well being a great opportunity to talk with friends and colleagues, there were enough interesting beers flowing (some coming to the LCBO soon and others never offered before) to keep them satisfied.

One of the personal standouts for myself (and quite a few folks I talked to) was the collaboration cask brewed jointly with Great Lakes, Amsterdam and Bar Volo. Keepin’ It 6 was billed as a Belgian IPA and I found it to be softer and more floral than the Crazy Canuck, the most immediate beer I could compare it to.

Another highlight for me was Black Oak’s Double Chocolate Cherry Stout. Well-balanced, the cherry was neither too chemical nor did it overwhelm the classic stout notes. It almost made up for them not bringing a cask of their highly sought-after 10 Bitter Years.

The single most amazing booth at the festival belonged to Keep 6 , an importer of many fine beers from Quebec, British Columbia and America. With over 20 beers to choose from, many of them not available in Ontario, many people ended up spending most of their night here.

A couple of standouts for me included the Les Trois Mousquetaires’ Porter Baltique, a very massive beer chock-full of rye, milk chocolate, coffee and licorice, and Central City’s Red Racer IPA (256594, 355 mL, $2.95). The latter sold out but was quickly restocked by the LCBO and the former will be coming to everyone’s favorite paternalistic liquor store in the fall.

Along with Session, the Hart House Craft Beer Festival is largely responsible for introducing people to quality craft beers which in turn leads to these folks asking their local LCBO to carry these products. It really does work like that. Money talks and if the LCBO can reasonably ascertain a reliable supply of the product, they’ll probably carry it.

For such a small event, they really do offer something for everyone and at $35 for a ticket (with most samples costing $1) its value can’t be beat.

The second festival I had the pleasure of attending was The Toronto Festival of Beer. Now in its 1th year, it regularly attracts thousands of people and is pretty much in the same league as street festivals like Taste of the Danforth.

Much of the criticism leveled at the Greek cultural event can be applied to the our city’s biggest beer festival. The massive crowds create trouble with excessive consumption of booze, security and tenuously-connected advertising. If you read any of my fellow bloggers, most of them don’t like it.

Ask them why and you’ll hear attendees characterized as drunken fratboys with mainstream products being given more attention while smaller craft brewers can’t get in or languish, off to the side. This is definitely a regrettable aspect of the festival but here’s where I’m going to differ from my colleagues.

I think it’s getting better. Budweiser may have their massive, two-story semi, blasting music and packed with partiers but it’s off to the side, along with many of the more well-known brands.  Craft beer is located in the center of the event, just off from the main stage. While there aren’t as many new options for the enthusiast, this is still an excellent opportunity to expose consumers to local beers.

As to the drunken fratboys charge, I can only say that in three years of going, I’ve never been in or witnessed a single altercation. On the contrary, I’ve met many friendly souls, all enjoying themselves and spreading good vibes. With an event of this size, you’re bound to attract a couple of assholes and I don’t doubt there are unpleasant incidents but I’ve yet to leave this festival in a bad mood.

Maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you don’t like raucous crowds and the idea of human foosball leaves you cold. I wasn’t able to attend on Thursday but the Queer Beer Festival that opened the Toronto Festival of Beer was apparently a lot of fun with smaller crowds. Ace of Base played and the Great Lakes booth had buff boys in short shorts serving up their beer which is a choice example of a company trying to fit in without being lame.

Or you could check out the Hart House or Session festivals.

This is perhaps one of my favorite things about Toronto. We have three excellent beer festivals happening yearly (four if you count Cask Days, also happening at Hart House on October 30th!), catering to different interests, with enough overlap to keep a guy like me interested.

We’re living in good times indeed; enjoy!

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